The story from right-wing media and politicians about what happened on Jan. 6 has shifted over the months. First, it was leftists in antifa who rioted inside the Capitol and assaulted police officers. Then it was just a peaceful protest. Next, it was a typical group of tourists making their way through the halls of the Capitol.
But now, former President Donald Trump’s supporters have finally figured out who’s behind the events of Jan. 6 — the FBI. Tucker Carlson claimed as much on his Fox News disinformation platform on June 15, specifically that the FBI deployed operatives to orchestrate the whole thing in a false flag operation. Before we dismiss this as just another lunatic conspiracy theory (which it is) or condemn it as yet another damaging right-wing attack on our nation’s law enforcement (which it also is), let’s understand that there’s more here than meets the eye. There may be some method to this madness of make-believe.
As explained in The Washington Post, Carlson “was elevating a story written for the website Revolver by a former Trump administration official (later fired for links to white nationalists) arguing that ‘unindicted co-conspirators’ referred to in Justice Department charging documents referred to government law enforcement agents.” The problem is that Carlson is either stupefyingly ignorant of how and when the term “unindicted co-conspirator” is used, or he’s deliberately deceiving his viewers.
Since his assertion was so quickly adopted by Carlson’s co-conspirators in the GOP, I’m surmising this isn’t ignorance of a legal phrase — it’s a disinformation strategy:
“This is scary stuff,” Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Texas, said of the sketchy claims made by Carlson. “This is third-world stuff. This is not only third-world stuff, but this is like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin kind of activity.”
Other right-wing House Republicans were similarly eager to elevate Carlson’s report. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., tweeted the segment shortly after it aired, just as he had quickly elevated false claims on Jan. 6 itself that the left was to blame for the violence. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., perhaps Gaetz’s closest ally in the House, amplified his tweet, writing that just as the deep state “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” — untrue and unfounded claims in their entirety.
To be clear: The legal parlance in question — “unindicted co-conspirators” — is not used to refer to FBI agents, or even government informants sent into the riot. Instead, in indictments the term usually refers to those suspected of being involved, but more evidence is needed, or those who have now decided to cooperate with the government as witnesses.
And the notion that prosecutors are trying to permanently hide nefarious government involvement by not naming these people simply doesn’t fly. As former New Jersey prosecutor Ted Romankow said of the “Bridgegate” scandal involving former Gov. Chris Christie: “In many, many cases the unindicted co-conspirators are revealed in the indictment and if not in the indictment certainly over a period of time during discovery. So it’s not unusual to reveal the names of unindicted co-conspirators. The defense is entitled to know that.”
In fact, the “co-conspirators” Carlson focuses on in the Jan. 6 indictments were sometimes readily identifiable. As the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake pointed out: “One, for example, was obviously a suspect’s wife, based on the available information. Marrying someone for a long-game sting operation would be quite a level of commitment.”
So why would far-right media and members of Congress push such a clearly off-the-wall conspiracy? Well, let’s look at another news story that emerged last week. On Friday, MSNBC reported that it was able to obtain, through the Freedom of Information Act, the report of an FBI interview of a suspected participant in the Jan. 6 violence. Notably, as reported by NBC Washington News4 investigative reporter Scott MacFarlane, the subject — Thomas Webster, a retired NYPD officer and former Marine — was asked whether he had any connection to any member of Congress or congressional staffer.” That simple question provides us the answer as to why the far-right has strategically shifted its Jan. 6 blame game.
As I noted last Friday night on "The 11th Hour" with Brian Williams, members of Congress may have become aware that the FBI is pursuing the root cause of the Jan. 6 riot — and that root may reach to Capitol Hill or those in Trump’s orbit. To the extent that certain members of Congress or aides to Trump may be criminally exposed for any possible role they played in aiding and abetting violence, they would have every reason to begin attacking the investigators: “Of course the FBI will blame us — the agency is simply trying to deflect attention away from its own role in the riot.” It’s a tactic right out of the Trump playbook.
There’s valid reason for GOP concern. The FBI doesn’t insert questions into its interviews just to kill time. There are generally two reasons why a question is asked during an interview. First, the question might reflect an intelligence collection gap — an unanswered question that’s been raised by allegations or reporting. In such instances, senior agents and intelligence analysts collaborate on questions that will help fill knowledge gaps that need to be addressed to successfully resolve a large-scale investigation. In the broad inquiry into the Jan. 6 violence, it’s logical to assume that certain standard questions were developed to be asked of all defendants or defendants who fall into certain categories.
The FBI doesn’t insert questions into its interviews just to kill time.
For example, since Thomas Webster is retired law enforcement, and a former Marine, it makes sense that he might be asked about any connections to Oath Keepers, since that group recruits from those ranks. Indeed, in the interview transcript obtained by MacFarlane, the FBI did ask Webster about the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys and Three Percenters. Which, by the way, is an additional insight into how doggedly the FBI is pursuing cases that might to lead to charges against those entire organizations.
And it would also make sense that a retired cop, possibly connected to one of those groups, would be asked about connections to Congress. Why? Because members of Congress and prominent GOP members have been known to affiliate with right-wing militias. That includes Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and Roger Stone’s links to Oath Keepers; the Proud Boys' affinity for Gaetz; and the Three Percenters’ links with the likes of Stone, Reps. Paul Gosar of Arizona and Lauren Boebert of Colorado.
Which brings us to the second reason a question might be inserted into an FBI interview: because specific intelligence indicates that person has particular light to shed. In other words, the FBI may be asking a question they’ve already answered.
For all these reasons, certain far-right players in the Jan. 6 blame game appear to have called an audible — a Hail Mary pass to defend against the formidable offense of the FBI. But while it’s often said that the best defense is a good offense, I don’t think this is going to convince many people who weren’t already trying to blame anyone but Trump and his supporters for the riot. As it is, though, this game is likely to go into overtime — and we’re not even at the half.