A conspiracy theory about the insurrection illustrates the right-wing misinformation pipeline.
On June 15, about 3 million people watched Fox News as Tucker Carlson pushed a conspiracy theory about the January 6 insurrection being an inside job organized by the FBI. His case rested upon an interpretation of court documents that was almost immediately debunked.
But the fact Carlson’s theory was quickly shown to be wrong didn’t matter. In an illustration of how the right-wing misinformation pipeline works, instead of correcting the record, Republican members of Congress spent the following days amplifying Carlson’s baseless claims.
Carlson highlighted a case involving Thomas Caldwell, a veteran who was among a group of Oath Keepers charged with conspiracy in connection with the insurrection. He suggested Caldwell was entrapped by an unidentified “Person Two” referenced in the charging document.
“Person Two and Person Three were organizers of the riot,” Carlson said. “The government knows who they are. But the government has not charged them. Why is that? You know why — they were almost certainly working for the FBI.”
Tucker Carlson’s latest take on the Jan. 6th attack on the capitol is that it was actually an FBI false flag pic.twitter.com/s87r1eQYSU
— nikki mccann ramírez (@NikkiMcR) June 16, 2021
As a Carlson op-ed published by Fox News later in the week made clear, trutherism of this sort is aimed at showing that “the FBI might have helped organize the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.” It represents an attempt to recast the insurrection as an inside job of sorts spearheaded by the FBI instead of what it really was — an effort by Donald Trump supporters to intimidate Congress into overthrowing the election results.
The insurrection itself was caused by a similar sort of disinformation — big lies about massive fraud tainting Joe Biden’s victory over Trump. Instead of taking accountability for their roles in fomenting Trump supporters into a violent riot, many Republicans have opted to try to pass blame onto antifa or downplay the ransacking of the Capitol as mere tourism.
Now, Carlson and company have provided deniers of the Capitol attack with a new way to dodge accountability for the insurrection by constructing an alternate history where Trump supporters were entrapped by cunning deep state provocateurs.
Carlson’s conspiracy theory doesn’t make sense. And it doesn’t have to.
There’s just one problem — the idea that Caldwell was entrapped by the FBI can’t survive scrutiny.
As national security blogger Marcy Wheeler detailed, a comparative examination of court documents in which names are redacted — like the one Carlson cited — with ones in which the names are visible makes clear that “Person Two” is actually Caldwell’s wife, Sharon Caldwell.
“Later filings over release conditions confirm the selfies posted to Facebook were of Thomas’ wife, describe Thomas agreeing to be accompanied by his wife, Sharon at Mass, starting on Easter, expressing concern that his wife has to do all the chores on their 30-acre farm, which has led to the loss of farm income, and describing that he rarely travels anywhere without his wife, Sharon Caldwell, and she’s willing to go with him every time he does leave their property,” Wheeler writes.
So Carlson in effect accused Caldwell’s wife of entrapping him. The absurdity of this conspiracy theory is revealed by the fact that Sharon Caldwell worked for Thomas’s release from jail, which happened in March.
Carlson’s conspiracy theory doesn’t just rest on the Caldwell case, however. During his June 15 monologue, he went on to suggest that other unindicted co-conspirators mentioned in charging documents pertaining to the insurrection were potentially FBI agents.
“Strangely, some of the key people who participated on January 6 have not been charged,” Carlson said. “Look at the document. The government calls those people ‘unindicted co-conspirators.’ What does that mean? Well, it means that in potentially every single case, they were FBI operatives.”
That’s unlikely. Instead, Carlson’s interpretation rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of legal terminology. Ryan Goodman, former special counsel for the Department of Defense, explained to me that federal law enforcement wouldn’t refer to informants as “unindicted co-conspirators.
“It’s completely farfetched to imagine the Justice Department’s use of the term refers to anyone working with the FBI at the time,” Goodman said in a direct message. “Such individuals would not have the mental state required to commit the crime and, accordingly, could never be referenced as a co-conspirator. It is plausible that an unindicted co-conspirator is now cooperating with federal authorities after that fact, but certainly not on January 6 itself with respect to the conduct alleged in these [charging] documents.”
Carlson’s conspiracy theory percolated from fringe right-wing media to MAGA members of Congress
Carlson’s conspiracy theory is based on an article published on June 14 by the right-wing site Revolver News, which is edited by former Trump White House speechwriter Darren Beattie. As CNN’s Marshall Cohen detailed, the Revolver piece is “carefully hedged,” with claims “posed as questions.” Notably, Carlson’s monologue went further than the article it was based on. He unequivocally claimed “FBI operatives were organizing the attack on the Capitol on January 6,” even though the evidence doesn’t back that up.
But to the Trump supporters, whether the idea that the Capitol attack was an inside job has merit is beside the point. And after Carlson gave deniers of the facts a sheen of legitimacy — despite a complete lack of evidence to support it — Republican members of Congress like Florida’s Matt Gaetz and Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene promoted it on Twitter.
BREAKING: Congressman Matt Gaetz calls on FBI Director Christopher Wray to fully disclose the role and involvement of FBI operatives during the January 6th Capitol riot.
More details coming. pic.twitter.com/lviUHfhLyW
— Rep. Matt Gaetz (@RepMattGaetz) June 16, 2021
We need names and answers about the FBI operatives, who were involved in organizing and carrying out the Jan 6th Capitol riot.
First they had a “back up plan” to stop Trump in Russia Collusion witch hunt, now we are finding out they were deeply involved in Jan 6th.
Deep State. https://t.co/q8jKFQwVAJ
— Marjorie Taylor Greene (@mtgreenee) June 16, 2021
Another House Republican, Paul Gosar of Arizona, went even further and entered the Revolver News article into the congressional record, claiming falsely it contains information about “infiltration and incitement of the January 6 protest by federal officials.”
While Republicans embrace flimsy conspiracy theories in an effort to shift blame for the January 6 attack from fanatical Trump supporters to “deep state” institutions like the FBI, they’re simultaneously blocking efforts to form a bipartisan commission that would be tasked with investigating the insurrection. Greene, Gaetz, and Gosar all voted against it, and so did a critical mass of Senate Republicans.
But MAGA Republicans and their media echo chamber aren’t about to let facts get in the way. On June 16, Carlson responded to Twitter flagging a tweet he posted with a misinformation warning — it promoted January 6 trutherism — by suggesting it was evidence he was right all along.
“In an effort to shut us down Twitter just confirmed what we suggested was true,” Carlson said. “Thanks, Twitter. They are morons!”