A legion of conservative activists, media personalities and elected officials are seeking to rewrite the story of what happened at the Capitol on Jan. 6, hoping to undermine the clear picture of the attack that has emerged from video and photo evidence, law enforcement officials, journalistic accounts and the testimonials of the rioters themselves: that a pro-Trump mob, mobilized by the former president’s false claims of a stolen election, stormed the seat of American government to keep Trump in power through violent means.
Six weeks after the attack, some are taking advantage of fading memories and unanswered questions to portray the riot in a different, more benign light. The effort comes as federal authorities begin prosecuting scores of alleged marauders, congressional committees seek to plug obvious security failures, and lawmakers consider establishing an outside commission to examine the matter.
On his top-rated Fox News Channel program last week, commentator Tucker Carlson told his audience that the attack did not constitute an “armed insurrection” and accused Democrats of a “relentless and coordinated” campaign to misrepresent the riot.
The next day, during the first public appearance of top Capitol security officials in charge during the riot at a Tuesday hearing, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) spent much of his allotted time reading a firsthand account from Jan. 6 suggesting the violence was perpetrated by a small cadre — including left-wing extremists — who were out of character in an otherwise jovial crowd.
Later in the week, scores of Republican lawmakers criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democrats for maintaining a razor-wire perimeter for blocks around the Capitol, saying it was more about sending a political message than security, even as the acting chief of the Capitol Police described ongoing threats to lawmakers.
“I don’t think there’s any question that Democrats never want to let an opportunity go to waste to try to attack conservatives, and so they want to try to besmirch, smear, demean all conservatives in the name of a handful of people who did the wrong thing on Jan. 6,” said Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.).
The campaign to minimize or deny the events of Jan. 6 has been weeks in the making, with the efforts to muddy the waters about what happened and who participated taking shape on pro-Trump television networks while rioters were still on the grounds of the Capitol.
On the afternoon of Jan. 6, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, who said he spent $450,000 on rallies contesting the results of the election, appeared on Newsmax and made a baseless claim that would set the tone for other early efforts by conservatives in media to deflect blame for the violence.
“There were probably some undercover antifa people that dressed as Trump people,” Lindell said, a claim that went unchallenged, if not supported, by host Chris Salcedo. Later in the day, Newsmax’s star host, Greg Kelly, offered a conspiracy theory, asking hypothetically, “Did someone want this to happen?”
By the evening of Jan. 6, the most influential voices on the Fox News Channel also seemed to latch onto the theory that outside agitators could have been responsible for the violence, with unfounded reports blaming antifa and leftist radicals exploding on social media networks.
“I have never seen Trump rally attendees wearing helmets, black helmets, brown helmets, black backpacks — the uniforms you saw in some of these crowd shots,” host Laura Ingraham said.
Those narratives — blaming leftists and excusing Trump — quickly gained traction among Republicans generally. A January poll conducted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life found that half of Republicans agreed with the assessment that antifa was “mostly responsible” for the Capitol attack, while only 15 percent blamed Trump for inciting the invasion. Another January survey, conducted by The Washington Post and ABC News, found that 56 percent of Republicans held Trump blameless for the riot.
In fact, only one of the roughly 300 rioters charged by federal authorities is alleged in public court documents to have ties to radical left-wing groups. Instead, many are said to have close links to right-wing extremist organizations such as the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, and many more said they believed they were following Trump’s orders when they stormed the Capitol.
Charlie Sykes, a former radio host who founded the Bulwark, an anti-Trump conservative website, said the right-wing media ecosystem is building elaborate alternative narratives around scant data points.
“They will always find a way to adapt reality to the narrative, even when it requires some pretty massive leaps of logic and fact,” he said. “The further you get away from Jan. 6, the more it gets possible to say, ‘Well, it wasn’t that bad,’ or, ‘It wasn’t an armed insurrection.’ . . . It feels like this massive gaslighting that assumes that we have really short memories, and, in some cases, that is true.”
Democrats have responded to the campaign by blasting attempts to minimize the insurrection, urging vigilance against future violence from the political right and calling for more investigations of the attacks — including Trump’s role. Negotiations continue on Capitol Hill over creating an outside commission, but a proposal from Pelosi that would stack the body with Democratic appointees has encountered strong GOP opposition.
The day after Johnson aired the account that placed “agents-provocateurs” and “fake Trump protesters” on the scene before the riot, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the suggestion “mindless garbage” and part of a “campaign of misinformation, deception and conspiracy that helped fuel the attack on January 6th in the first place.”
Several lines of pointed questioning have emerged among Republicans who are eager to deflect attention from Trump’s central role in stoking the fundamental motive for the riot — the false claim that the November election was stolen from him.
Among the most pervasive has been an effort to question whether Pelosi was responsible for the violence by failing to properly prepare the Capitol campus. The push has been fueled in part by a claim from former Capitol Police chief Steven A. Sund that one of his bosses, House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul D. Irving, told him he had to run a request for National Guard assistance “up the chain of command” before approving it.
On Feb. 15, four senior House Republicans sent a letter pressing Pelosi for answers, and the concern was quickly echoed on conservative media channels. On Sean Hannity’s prime time show that night, Fox News contributor and former congressman Jason Chaffetz said that Pelosi “is running out of excuses.” Two days later, Fox News host Maria Bartiromo speculated that Democrats sidestepped witnesses at Trump’s second impeachment trial because “somebody was going to ask Nancy Pelosi what she knew and when.”
Efforts to pin the blame on Pelosi were “one of the very few and clear pieces of misinformation about Jan. 6 that cut across the entire right-wing media echo chamber,” said Angelo Carusone, president of the left-leaning media watchdog Media Matters for America. “They were all singing from the same page.”
At the hearing Tuesday, senators including Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who backed Trump’s challenges to state electoral vote counts, pressed Irving on whether Pelosi or her staff obstructed calls for aid in any way. Irving repeatedly denied it, but calls for more answers have persisted.
Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said in a statement that Republicans are “trying to deflect responsibility for the Capitol attack from Donald Trump” and that Pelosi is “focused on getting to the bottom of all issues facing the Capitol Complex and the events that led up to the insurrection.”
Even that terminology has been contested, with many Republicans challenging whether the mob — which, according to law enforcement officials and video evidence, included people equipped with zip-tie handcuffs, bear spray and tactical gear — truly intended to subvert democracy.
Many others have questioned whether the rioters could fairly be described as “armed,” despite court filings that describe multiple instances of dangerous weapons being wielded on the Capitol grounds. At least two people are facing federal firearms charges, and authorities reported seizing firearms and explosives from multiple arrestees.
The doubters include Johnson, who told conservative talk shows in his home state this past month that he rejected the “armed insurrection” label. The PolitiFact fact-checking operation termed that “ridiculous revisionist history,” but several other Republican lawmakers last week expressed doubts about calling it an “armed insurrection”
“If it was armed, it would have been a bloodbath,” said Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), who said the term has been embraced by Democrats to create the impression that “there’s a bunch of people running around in the woods with Army fatigues on the weekends, and they’re going to take over the country, and that’s just nonsense.”
A larger group of Republicans have grown suspicious of the ongoing fortifications of the Capitol, which include a razor-wire perimeter manned by a National Guard garrison. Nearly a dozen GOP lawmakers interviewed last week said they did not believe the precautions were warranted, and many said they believed it was part of a political effort to exaggerate the threat from right-wing extremists. Some have taken to calling the fortified Capitol campus “Fort Pelosi.”
“It’s not because anybody’s out there threatening to overthrow the country,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). “It’s because it fits their narrative.”
Another strain of rhetoric has emerged seeking to defend the motivations of the rioters — particularly from Carlson, who has spent time on several recent episodes of his show attacking the notion that the riot was motivated by racism, despite prosecutors alleging significant ties to white nationalist organizations among many of those charged.
“The rally wasn’t about race at all. And neither was the riot. It was about the election. The people at the Capitol really believed the presidential election was unfair. And they had reason to believe that,” Carlson said Thursday, before adding: “Nothing is an excuse for rioting.”
Speaking Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, T.W. Shannon, a former speaker of the Oklahoma House, told an overwhelmingly pro-Trump crowd that “the reason people stormed the Capitol is that they felt hopeless, because of a rigged election.”
But few Republicans have sought to reshape the story of Jan. 6 quite as fervently as Johnson, who is mulling whether to seek a third Senate term representing Wisconsin next year.
J. Michael Waller, a senior analyst at the right-wing Center for Security Policy who published the account Johnson read at Tuesday’s hearing, called Johnson a “contrarian” but said he accurately summarized his piece, which was first published by the Federalist.
Waller stood by his observation that the crowd was largely jovial and said he never meant to insinuate that there were no extremists in the crowd, only that they came from the left and the right. He criticized those who were “grabbing one small piece and falsely saying this is a discredited conspiracy theory.”
“If my story is debunked by the facts, that’s fine with me,” he said. “I’m just saying what I saw.”
Johnson has also questioned other facts surrounding the riot. He sent a letter to congressional colleagues that included an inquiry about the cause of death of Brian D. Sicknick, the 42-year-old Capitol Police officer who died Jan. 6 and was given a hero’s farewell, including lying in honor in the Rotunda.
Conservative activists have seized on changing accounts about Sicknick’s death to suggest that the precise circumstances have been hidden to further the Democratic political agenda. Authorities have not disclosed an official cause of death, but news emerged Friday that investigators have uncovered video appearing to show someone spraying a chemical irritant at Sicknick and other law enforcement personnel.
Johnson defended his approach to the riot, saying he viewed his role as raising questions for the various investigations to answer.
“I’m not afraid of information,” he said. “Some people seem to be afraid of the truth. I’m not. I’m just trying to get the whole truth.”
Karoun Demirjian, Scott Clement, Spencer Hsu, David Weigel and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.