Explaining the Missing Context of Tucker Carlson’s Jan. 6 Presentation
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On Jan. 6, 2021, about 140 police officers were assaulted during the Capitol riot, and 326 participants — more than 100 armed with weapons — have been charged. But Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson has used recently released video from that day to misleadingly minimize the violence at the riot and to distort the actions of the police.
On the evening of Jan. 6, 2021 — after a mob had overrun the U.S. Capitol, fueled by the misguided belief that the 2020 election had been “stolen” — Fox News host Tucker Carlson texted a colleague who was concerned about the lies that fed the violence.
“Our job is not to provide news coverage. Not even close. Our job is to explain what things mean,” Carlson wrote.
The text exchange was revealed in a recent filing for a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit brought against Fox News by Dominion Voting Systems, a voting machine company that was a frequent target of election misinformation amplified by Fox following the election.
Carlson’s view of his role is particularly relevant now because he is — more than two years later — using his show to sow doubt about the integrity of the election and minimize the significance of the Capitol riot.
Protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol as lawmakers were set to sign off on President Joe Biden’s electoral victory. Photo by Probal Rashid via Getty Images.
Carlson got exclusive access to the surveillance video at the Capitol from Jan. 6 after Rep. Kevin McCarthy became speaker of the House earlier this year. Now, Carlson’s interpretation of that footage is pinging across social media as conservative commentators and influencers rehash highlights from his show.
In reality, a total of about 140 police officers were assaulted as they defended the Capitol during the riot, which resulted in $2.9 million in damages and costs to the Capitol Police, according to the Department of Justice.
Roughly 1,000 participants in the riot have been arrested so far, according to the most recent update from the Department of Justice. About 326 of them have been charged with assaulting, resisting or impeding officers or employees. Of those, 106 have been charged with using a deadly or dangerous weapon or causing serious bodily injury to an officer.
“I was among the vastly outnumbered group of law enforcement officers protecting the Capitol and the people inside it,” Michael Fanone, an officer for the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia, told a congressional committee several months after the attack. “I was grabbed, beaten, tased — all while being called a traitor to my country. I was at risk of being stripped of and killed with my own firearm, as I heard chants of, ‘kill him with his own gun.’”
Carlson, however, presented the situation differently on his March 6 show, describing the “overwhelming majority” of demonstrators as “meek,” saying, “these were not insurrectionists, they were sightseers.”
He aired clips from the surveillance video that showed small groups of individuals wandering the halls of the Capitol.
“They believed that the election they had just voted in had been unfairly conducted. And they were right,” he said. “In retrospect, it is clear the 2020 election was a grave betrayal of American democracy. Given the facts that have since emerged about that election, no honest person can deny it.”
But President Joe Biden won with a total of 81 million votes to former President Donald Trump’s 74 million, in an election that federal, state and local officials called “the most secure in American history.” In electoral votes, which were being counted in the Capitol on Jan. 6, Biden won 306 to 232.
Claims of fraud on a scale large enough to change the outcome of the election — like dozens we’ve written about — have been debunked.
In Arizona, for example — a state that has been plagued by false claims of election fraud — the new Democratic attorney general, Kris Mayes, released documents in February related to investigations conducted by the Arizona Attorney General Office’s Special Investigations Section under her Republican predecessor. The investigators, who spent over 10,000 hours reviewing hundreds of allegations, found no evidence of “widespread fraud or conspiracy” during the 2020 election, and submitted only “a small number of cases” for prosecution, Mayes’ office said in a press release.
In fact, in a September 2022 summary of the election review, Reginald Grigsby, the investigations section’s chief special agent, wrote: “In each instance and in each matter, the aforementioned parties did not provide any evidence to support their allegations. The information that was provided was speculative in many instances and when investigated by our agents and support staff, was found to be inaccurate.”
As for elected officials who declared publicly that fraud contributed to Biden’s win in Arizona, Grigsby said those same officials “did not repeat or make such assertions when questioned by our agents,” when state laws prohibiting false reporting to law enforcement agencies were applicable.
While Carlson primarily used his March 6 show to perpetuate the idea that the outcome of the 2020 election was untrustworthy, he made several other claims about what happened on Jan. 6, 2021, that have also been widely repeated on social media. We’ll go through some of them below.
The Death of Officer Brian Sicknick
Carlson’s Claim: “Whatever happened to [U.S. Capitol Police Officer] Brian Sicknick was very obviously not the result of violence he suffered at the entrance to the Capitol.”
Facts: Officer Sicknick, who engaged with protesters outside the Capitol on Jan. 6 and was assaulted with pepper spray, died a day later. Carlson said previously unreleased video showed a “healthy and vigorous” Sicknick walking around in the Capitol after his engagement with protesters outside. The footage, Carlson said, “overturns the single most powerful and politically useful lie that Democrats have told us about Jan. 6,” that Sicknick was “murdered by Trump supporters.”
A day after the riot, Capitol Police issued a press release saying that Sicknick had “passed away due to injuries sustained while on-duty.” The statement said Sicknick was “injured while physically engaging with protesters” on Jan. 6 and he “returned to his division office and collapsed.”
It’s true, as Carlson noted, that the New York Times, citing unnamed law enforcement officials, initially — and incorrectly — reported that Sicknick had been struck with a fire extinguisher. A little more than a month later, the New York Times noted that “police sources and investigators are at odds over whether he [Sicknick] was hit” and that medical experts had said “he did not die of blunt force trauma, according to one law enforcement official.”
By then, Carlson said, “that lie had hardened into conventional wisdom” and had been repeated by numerous media outlets.
On April 19, 2021, District of Columbia Chief Medical Examiner Francisco J. Diaz concluded that Sicknick suffered two strokes nearly eight hours after being sprayed with a chemical irritant during the riot. Diaz told the Washington Post that Sicknick died of natural causes, that the autopsy found no evidence Sicknick “suffered an allergic reaction to chemical irritants” and that “there was no evidence of internal or external injuries.”
However, contrary to Carlson’s claim that Sicknick’s death was “very obviously not the result of violence he suffered at the entrance to the Capitol,” Diaz told the Washington Post “all that transpired played a role in his condition.”
That day, US. Capitol Police released a statement that read, “The USCP accepts the findings from the District of Columbia’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner that Officer Brian Sicknick died of natural causes. This does not change the fact Officer Sicknick died in the line of duty, courageously defending Congress and the Capitol.”
In January, a New Jersey man was sentenced to more than six years in prison for assaulting police officers, including Sicknick, with pepper spray. According to a Department of Justice press release, while police used a bike rack to hold back rioters, protester Julian Elie Khater sprayed Sicknick with pepper spray, and as a result, Sicknick “turned his head away and retreated from the police line.”
Khater also sprayed two other law enforcement officers as rioters pushed toward the Capitol, the release stated. A West Virginia man who provided the pepper spray to Khater served five months in jail and pleaded guilty to two counts of disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds.
In all, as we said, the Department of Justice said about 140 police officers were assaulted in the Capitol riot.
The day after Carlson aired his report on March 6, Capitol Police Chief Thomas Manger issued a response saying, “the most disturbing accusation from last night was that our late friend and colleague Brian Sicknick’s death had nothing to do with his heroic actions on January 6. 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.”
The Sicknick family also put out a statement saying that they were “outraged” by Carlson’s “unscrupulous” report. The statement continued: “On video, Officer Sicknick looks like he managed to shake off the chemical irritants and resume his duties. That he did, but his sense of duty and incredible work ethic were the driving force which sent him back in spite of his injuries and no doubt contributed to his succumbing to his injuries the following day.”
How Police Handled the ‘QAnon Shaman’
Claim: “The tapes show the Capitol Police never stopped Jacob Chansley. They helped him. They acted as his tour guides.”
Facts: This is false. Chansley, also known as the “QAnon Shaman,” who was sentenced to 41 months in prison for obstructing an official proceeding on Jan. 6, 2021, signed a plea agreement acknowledging that he entered the Capitol through a door broken by other rioters and that he ignored Capitol Police officers who asked him to exit the building multiple times.
On his show, Carlson played video of a shirtless Chansley — in face paint and wearing a horned headdress — walking through the halls of the Capitol, mostly being trailed by one or more Capitol Police officers.
“Capitol Police officers take him to multiple entrances and even try to open locked doors for him,” Carlson claimed in the segment. “We counted at least nine officers who were within touching distance of unarmed Jacob Chansely. Not one of them even tried to slow him down. Chansley understood that Capitol Police were his allies. Video shows him giving thanks for them in a prayer on the floor of the Senate.”
But Capitol Police Chief Thomas Manger disputed Carlson’s description of the events in a staff memo issued the day after Carlson’s show aired. Manger said officers tried to resolve the situation without violence.
“One false allegation is that our officers helped the rioters and acted as ‘tour guides.’ This is outrageous and false,” Manger wrote. “This Department stands by the officers in the video that was shown last night. I don’t have to remind you how outnumbered our officers were on January 6. Those officers did their best to use de-escalation tactics to try to talk rioters into getting each other to leave the building.”
One of the officers seen walking with Chansley, Capitol Police Officer Keith Robishaw, who has red hair and was wearing glasses and a light blue face mask, explained his thinking in the 2021 HBO documentary “Four Hours at the Capitol.”
In one of his first encounters with a group of rowdy protesters, including Chansley, who was armed with a spear affixed with an American flag, Robishaw said he knew he and his fellow officers had to try to get them to leave peacefully.
“We were standing on that line, and there was the six of us. Meeting violence with violence at this time would not be safe for me and my fellow officers,” Robishaw said about 36 minutes into the film. “The sheer number of them compared to us, I knew in my head there was no way that we could all get physical with them, so I took it upon myself to try and talk to them.”
“No attacking, no assault, remain calm,” Robishaw told the men.
Later, when Chansley had made his way to the Senate floor, Robishaw saw him and followed him inside, by himself, and tried to get Chansley and others already in the chamber to leave.
“I walk in behind him, and that’s when I realized I was alone now. I was by myself,” Robishaw told the documentarians. “I was like, ‘I can’t do anything.’ You know? I can only do is, you know, shout orders, and if they listen, great, if they don’t, I can’t force them. I’m all by myself.”
In video filmed by a New Yorker reporter, Robishaw is shown saying to the men: “Any chance I could get you guys to leave the Senate wing?” At one point, a protester says, “You should be stopping us.” Robishaw responds that he is outnumbered.
According to court documents, Chansley and others did not exit the chamber until additional law enforcement officers arrived to back up Robishaw.
Theory that Federal Agents Incited the Mob
Claim: “Federal agents encouraged the violence that day. … That obviously happened.”
Facts: There’s no evidence to support this long-running conspiracy theory. Carlson didn’t offer any new evidence to support it, either.
Instead, he referenced a conspiracy theory that we’ve already debunked, alleging that Ray Epps — a Jan. 6 protester who ran a wedding and event venue in Arizona at the time — was really an undercover federal agent who was responsible for inciting the riot.
Epps has since sold his home and business because of threats and harassment he’s faced after becoming the target of this conspiracy theory.
“And for what — lies?” Epps told the New York Times in a 2022 interview after he had moved. “All of this, it’s just been hell.”
As we’ve explained in detail before, Epps has admitted to participating in the protest — although he has said he did not enter the Capitol building — and has denied being an undercover agent. There’s no evidence to suggest otherwise.
Carlson claimed that he could prove Epps had “lied,” though. But his only revelation was that Epps may have stayed on the Capitol grounds for half an hour longer than he’d estimated when he was interviewed by the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol.
At 2:12 p.m. on Jan. 6, 2021, Epps had texted his 28-year-old nephew, “I was in the front with a few others. I also orchestrated it.”
Epps told the committee that he was heading back to his hotel room — and that he got lost on his way — when he sent the text. (Also worth explaining is that Epps told the committee that he regretted being boastful and using the word “orchestrate” — he’d meant that he had helped get others to march to the Capitol.)
After noting the text, Carlson then ran a clip that appeared to show Epps near the Capitol at 2:41 p.m.
“In fact, Ray Epps remained at the Capitol for at least another half an hour,” Carlson said.
“What was Epps doing there?” he asked. “We can’t say, but we do know that he lied to investigators.”
Showing that Epps was near the Capitol for half an hour longer than he’d estimated is not a smoking gun and doesn’t offer any support for the claim that Epps was an undercover federal agent.
Christopher Wray, director of the FBI, has directly addressed the claim about federal agents inciting the riot, saying at a congressional hearing in November, “To the extent that there’s a suggestion, for example, that the FBI’s confidential human sources or FBI employees in some way instigated or orchestrated January 6 — that’s categorically false.”
Hawley’s ‘Loping’ from Capitol
Claim: “The surveillance footage we reviewed showed that famous clip [of Sen. Josh Hawley running from protesters who had breached the Capitol] was a sham, edited deceptively by the Jan. 6 committee. The clip was propaganda, not evidence. The actual videotape shows that Hawley was one of many lawmakers being ushered out of the building by Capitol Hill police officers. And, in fact, Hawley was at the back of the pack. The coward tape was a lie.”
Facts: The video clip of Hawley running through the Capitol, which was publicly released during a Jan. 6 committee hearing on July 21, 2022, did, as Carlson said, become one of the iconic images of the hearings, given that just hours prior to fleeing the Capitol, Hawley was photographed raising a fist to show solidarity with the Jan. 6 protesters.
“To prove that Josh Hawley was a coward, the committee released video of him loping out of the building on the afternoon of Jan. 6 with a police escort,” Carlson said. “The tape became a staple of social media. Democrats laughed with derision.”
Carlson is right about the clip becoming a “staple of social media,” and it’s true that some of the attendees of the hearing erupted in laughter when the clip was played (as Carlson showed on his program). As Glenn Beck showed on his Blaze TV show (and the clip has been viewed widely on Facebook), the video also became fodder for late night TV hosts.
But it’s misleading to say, as Carlson did, that the video was “edited deceptively” and a “lie.” At the hearing, Rep. Elaine Luria never suggested Hawley was the only senator who fled the Capitol that afternoon. In fact, she made it clear many senators were forced to run “from the mob.”
Luria played the video after discussing how then-Vice President Mike Pence had to be evacuated from the Senate on the afternoon of Jan. 6, and how Sen. Tommy Tuberville, one of Trump’s staunchest supporters, told Trump in a phone call, “I’m going to have to hang up on you. I’ve got to leave.”
“Senator Josh Hawley also had to flee,” Luria said during the Jan. 6 committee hearing.
Luria noted that “earlier that afternoon” on Jan. 6, Hawley “walked across the east front of the Capitol” and “raised his fist in solidarity with the protesters already amassing at the security gates.”
Luria said that a Capitol Police officer who witnessed it told the committee that “Hawley’s gesture riled up the crowd, and it bothered her greatly because he was doing it in a safe space, protected by the officers and the barriers.”
Luria then played the video of Hawley running past a corridor as Capitol Police officers stood to the side. But it wasn’t the only video clip Luria played. She also played one that showed other senators and their staff running down some stairs, and she highlighted that Hawley was among them. In other words, Luria never suggested that Hawley was the only one running from the approaching rioters.
Then Luria said, “Think about what we’ve seen: Undeniable violence at the Capitol. The vice president being evacuated to safety by the Secret Service. Senators running through the hallways of the Senate to get away from the mob.”
Note that she said “senators,” plural.
Hawley endorsed Carlson’s overall depiction of the footage from Jan. 6 when reporters asked him about it shortly after the show aired. But not all Republicans approved of Carlson’s show.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, for example, held up Manger’s memo and said, “The chief of the Capitol Police, in my view, correctly describes what most of us witnessed firsthand on January 6.”
McConnell went on to say, “It was a mistake, in my view, for Fox News to depict this in a way that is completely at variance with what our chief law enforcement official here at the Capitol thinks.”