Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2022 got off to a rough start.

His long-standing description of the rioters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as “terrorists” suddenly piqued the irritation of Fox News’s Tucker Carlson as the anniversary of the attack approached. Carlson blasted Cruz (R-Tex.) for that choice of words, prompting Cruz to appear on Carlson’s show, hat in hand.

It was an appearance that generated a lot of attention, largely negative. But it also included one exchange that, in retrospect, is informative.

“Who is Ray Epps, by the way, since you are a senator?” Carlson asked him toward the end of his interview on Jan. 6. “He and this other guy are clearly encouraging the crowd to commit crimes. Neither one has been arrested or charged. What is that, do you think?”

Carlson was referring to a conspiracy theory that he has been at the forefront of promoting, that the appearance of a man named Ray Epps in videos taken on Jan. 5 and Jan. 6 of last year suggest that he was an instigator of the Capitol riot — and, for unfounded reasons, an agent of the federal government. Carlson and his allies have been trying to blame the violence on government provocateurs and they’ve settled on Epps as just such a culprit.

Cruz’s response to Carlson was vague and he quickly pivoted back to his defense of his prior comments, the reason he was on the show.

“I think that is a very good question. I don’t know who Ray Epps is,” Cruz said, though he acknowledged having seen video recorded on Jan. 5 in which Epps is telling a crowd that they should enter the Capitol the following day. The crowd responds by chanting “Fed!” at Epps, something that Cruz told Carlson has the “obvious implication” of Epps’s being a federal agent. Cruz lamented that “the attorney general and the Department of Justice won’t answer the question” about Epps — and then flipped back to the “terrorist” discussion.

On Tuesday, Cruz got a chance to ask that question. During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing centered on domestic terrorism, Cruz, adopting the demanded level of dudgeon, posed a series of questions to FBI executive assistant director for national security Jill Sanborn. The senator pushed Sanborn for answers he knew (or should have known) she wouldn’t provide, focused on Epps in particular. FBI and other government officials generally decline to answer direct factual questions, in part because doing so implies that they’ll answer questions in the future that might be more problematic to confirm or deny. If Sanborn denies Epps worked for the FBI — which the lack of evidence to the contrary suggests is the case — then a future refusal to deny that Joe Smith worked for the Bureau would be seen as confirmation that Smith did. So they just refuse to answer questions about what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with. As a senator should know.

But Cruz wasn’t seeking answers, he was seeking attention — and it worked. He got an invite back to Fox News on Tuesday night, where host Sean Hannity attaboyed him for a few minutes. Hannity amplified the she wouldn’t even deny that the FBI encouraged violence!! line that was the general response to Cruz’s line of inquiry. (For example.)

“Under Joe Biden, we have seen an incredibly partisan Department of Justice,” Cruz said, apparently not seeing the irony either in how former president Donald Trump considered the department or that the Jan. 6 attack occurred when Trump was president. He then touted his Epps questions: “I asked the FBI, is Mr. Epps an agent of the FBI, is an informant of the FBI? And she stonewalled, refused to answer,” Cruz told Hannity, adding that “the Biden administration needs to fess up: Is this a politicized law enforcement operation that is targeting the enemies of the president, and did they actively encourage and solicit illegal conduct?”

Cruz did ask Sanborn if “federal agents or those in service of federal agents actively encourage[d] violent and criminal conduct on January 6th,” eliciting an actual answer: not to her knowledge. But this response is generally excluded from the focus on the purported implications of Sanborn’s other non-denials.

One thing Hannity didn’t ask about was the statement released by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack shortly after Cruz’s questions. In it, the committee acknowledged it had interviewed Epps (which, even if not conducted under oath, carries the potential for federal charges in the event a witness lies) and that he said he had not worked for any law enforcement agency nor been an informant for one.

This seems like important context for Cruz’s appearance! But Hannity didn’t broach it.

Tucker Carlson did. Cruz’s pushing Carlson’s preferred line of questioning didn’t land him an interview slot on Carlson’s more-watched program, but Carlson did show clips of Cruz’s questioning, granting the senator his all-important approval.

Then he spent some time doing exactly what conspiracy theorists do when their conspiracy theories are undercut: He rationalized and undermined the new information.

The committee released a statement “claiming” it had interviewed Epps, he said, and saying that “anyone who still has questions about his behavior on January 5th or 6th is a dangerous conspiracy theorist” — which, of course, is not at all what the statement said. But this is how Carlson works.

So Carlson had some questions. Like: “When exactly and under what circumstances did the committee talk to Ray Epps? Supposedly, this interview was conducted in secret last November. If that is true — we don’t know that it is, but let’s say it is — then why did the committee wait months to tell us today in a tweet?” he asked. Sure, maybe the committee made this up. If your root assumption is that everyone that’s not actively hosting a Fox News show is suspect, then you just assume a congressional committee will invent an interview with someone. We’re through the looking glass, etc. etc.

Then Carlson took a different tack: that the committee was coming to Epps’s defense was itself suspicious.

“Video from Jan. 6 shows him at the forefront, right in front of the Capitol, appearing to usher others inside. So he wasn’t just someone who was there, he was maybe the central figure there,” Carlson said. “And yet Democrats, for reasons that aren’t at all clear, suddenly seem highly protective of Ray Epps.”

Well, perhaps because Epps is being accused of being part of a government plot to incite the Jan. 6 violence based on no credible evidence? Perhaps because pushing back on the conspiracy theory necessarily means explaining the lack of evidence for the claims Carlson is making? Note the ridiculous assertion that Epps was the “central figure” on Jan. 6, as though the day’s violence wasn’t obviously a function of thousands of angry people overwhelming an insufficient police presence. No, it was this one guy who Carlson and his friends say was a fed.

Conspiracy theories are streams and reality simply rocks or dams to be moved around or overtopped. The narrative around Epps has already changed in line with Carlson’s rhetoric on a show: Aha, the committee only said he wasn’t law enforcement! Never mind that Carlson’s argument has always been that the FBI drove this alleged incitement, this is something new to grasp onto, to prove how wise you are in your skepticism.

There’s a clear parallel here between Cruz’s response to Trump’s fraud claims before the Jan. 6 attack and his response to Carlson’s goading last week. In each case the senator wants to both leverage the anger and frustration of an agitated base while acting within the confines of the things a senator does. So on Jan. 6, it was an approach of delaying the count so that people’s concerns could be acknowledged and, on Tuesday, telling Sanborn that “there are a lot of people who are understandably very concerned about Mr. Epps” as he asked questions that he could have guessed would go unanswered.

Let’s be very clear that there is no reason to grant federal law enforcement officials the benefit of the doubt. There are absolutely outstanding questions about the Jan. 6 attack that, hopefully, the committee will endeavor to answer in good faith. But this question, about Ray Epps, is manufactured in whole cloth from an effort to recast the events of that day as the fault of someone other than the obviously culpable parties: Trump supporters and the president who encouraged them. Carlson is benefiting from creating an alternate reality that leverages the skepticism Trump stoked around the government, enjoying outsize attention as a result. And Cruz wants a piece of that attention.

Before this week, Cruz never tweeted about Ray Epps, according to a search of the site. But Carlson pointed him in the right direction: Take up Carlson’s cause and reap the rewards. It worked.