Senate Republicans blasted Fox News on Tuesday for airing a show that twisted details of the January 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol into a conspiracy-fueled narrative, breaking ranks with House GOP colleagues who cheered on the show.
Appearing at his weekly news conference, McConnell denounced the leadership of the conservative cable network for airing the entertainer’s vision of the assault on the Capitol, holding up a letter from U.S. Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger that accused Carlson’s show of being “filled with offensive and misleading conclusions.”
“It was a mistake, in my view, for Fox News to depict this in a way that’s completely at variance with what our chief law enforcement official here in the Capitol thinks,” McConnell told reporters.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), once a vocal supporter of former president Donald Trump who has consistently denounced the attack, was blunt in his assessment of Carlson’s narrative: “To somehow put [Jan. 6] in the same category as a permitted peaceful protest is just a lie.”
The sharp criticism from his own party left House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on the defensive following his decision last month to grant Carlson exclusive access to 41,000 hours of mostly never-before-seen video from Capitol Police security cameras that day. The speaker gave that access after Carlson, who has aired conspiracy theories related to Jan. 6 on cable’s highest-rated prime time show, publicly stated it as a condition of support during McCarthy’s marathon effort to win enough votes in early January to claim the speaker’s gavel.
When asked Tuesday if he had any regrets about allowing Carlson’s access to the footage, after Monday night’s depiction of Jan. 6, McCarthy said: “No.”
“I said from the very beginning: transparency,” he continued. “Each person [can] come up with their own conclusion.” He claimed he did not watch Carlson’s show and didn’t answer questions related to the depiction.
McCarthy has previously said he would release the video to other media outlets and that Carlson’s access was part of a media strategy to grant an “exclusive” that is simply normal practice for lawmakers.
Senate Republicans on Tuesday avoided directly criticizing McCarthy’s decision to give Carlson the access, but they said that the undeniable result was both offensive and bad politics.
“I can’t forecast what Speaker McCarthy was thinking about but if you’re going to give footage, give it to all the networks, not just one,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who voted to convict Trump in the 2021 impeachment trial that stemmed from Jan. 6. “I think it’s a very dangerous thing to do to suggest that attacking the Capitol of the United States is in any way acceptable and is anything other than a serious crime against democracy and against our country.”
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) agreed that a wide distribution of the video would have been better and echoed his colleagues, saying: “I was there on Jan. 6. I saw what happened. It clearly was violent. It was an insurrection.”
In his letter to fellow officers, Manger cited two specific accusations made on Carlson show, which aired its first segments based on the videos Monday and planned to air additional footage Tuesday.
“The most disturbing accusation from last night was that our late friend and colleague Brian D. Sicknick’s death had nothing to do with his heroic actions on Jan. 6,” Manger wrote. “The Department maintains, as anyone with common sense would, that had Officer Sicknick not fought valiantly for hours on the day he was violently assaulted, Officer Sicknick would not have died the next day.”
On Monday, Carlson showed video of Sicknick returning to the fray on Jan. 6 after being sprayed with a chemical irritant, noting he was walking around, wearing a helmet, and suggesting the attack on the Capitol had no connection to his death the next day.
After the riot ended, Sicknick suffered a stroke and died. His family refused to shake hands with McConnell or McCarthy at a December ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda in which police who defended the Capitol during the attack were awarded the congressional Gold Medal.
“I’m just tired of them standing there and saying how wonderful the Capitol Police is and then they turn around and go down to Mar-a-Lago and kiss his ring and come back,” Sicknick’s mother, Gladys Sicknick, told reporters after the event in December, referring to McCarthy’s trip to make amends with Trump a couple weeks after the insurrection.
Manger also wrote that Carlson’s claim that Capitol Police served as “tour guides” for Jacob Chansley, the horn-wearing “QAnon Shaman,” was “outrageous and false.”
Video that Carlson aired showed Chansley being accompanied by several police officers as they walked through the halls of the Capitol on Jan. 6, a perceived peaceful moment that has previously been detailed in a 2021 HBO documentary “Four Hours at the Capitol.” Officers explained that they were overwhelmed by the size of the crowd and used peaceful tactics at times to avoid more violent clashes.
“I was there Jan. 6. It was not peaceful, it was an abomination,” Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), who did not watch the Carlson show, told reporters Tuesday. “And there’s no way to pretty it up.”
Some Republicans have privately criticized the decision to give Carlson exclusive access to the footage because it brings up an issue that divides the GOP between ironclad supporters of Trump and those who want to move on from the twice-impeached former president. The November midterm elections proved a disappointment for Republicans, as several congressional candidates most aligned with Trump, and who embrace his false view of the 2020 election, lost their races.
An irritated Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio) during a Washington Post Live event Tuesday embodied that frustration, saying: “What would help the partisan tenor is if you actually interviewed us on why you invited us on your show, which is to talk about my job, and my job is chairman of the Intelligence Committee and the issues affecting national security and intelligence community.”
But some Republicans in the House cheered Carlson’s version of events. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) appeared on the show Monday night, telling the host: “You’ve exposed so many lies tonight with these tapes.”
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), a member of McCarthy’s leadership team, tweeted Tuesday: “The Democrats’ dishonest narrative is being demolished. The January 6th Committee was nothing more than a scam, with the sole purpose of smearing President Trump and his supporters,” with a link to an article about Carlson’s coverage of Chansley. And the official House Republican Twitter account promoted video from the show, using red alarm emoji and all caps, saying “MUST WATCH.”
The renewed Jan. 6 battle comes as Fox has dealt with its own embarrassing internal drama from a lawsuit that has shown top executives and news personalities, including Carlson, knew that Trump lost the election but debated whether to tell their viewers the truth. In documents related to the lawsuit released Tuesday night, Carlson said in a text message to his producer that he had “no doubt there was fraud” involved in the 2020 election, but pro-Trump lawyers Lin Wood and Sidney Powell had “so discredited their own case and the rest of us to some extent, that it’s infuriating.”
Even Carlson’s staunchest supporters in the Senate did not specifically back his version of that fateful day. Instead, they accused the House’s Jan. 6 committee of cherry-picking videos to portray the day as more violent than it was, while suggesting that the security footage should not have gone exclusively to Carlson.
“I’d like to see all the video public,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who went on Carlson’s show early last year to apologize for describing that day as a “terrorist” attack. “I don’t doubt from the video that players on multiple sides can take portions of video and tell the story they want to tell. I think we ought to have a fair assessment of what happened.”
On Tuesday, Cruz threaded a needle in how he viewed the Capitol attack. “There were some people who engaged in acts of violence — and if you engaged in acts of violence, you should be prosecuted and go to jail — and there were many other people who engaged in peaceful protest,” he said.
McConnell said Tuesday the emphasis should fall on the violent actors that day, egged on by Trump.
“Clearly, the chief of the Capitol Police, in my view, correctly describes what most of us witnessed firsthand on Jan. 6,” he said.
Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed to this report.