The House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol dealt a fact-based blow to efforts to rebrand the insurrection as a false flag orchestrated by the FBI.
The committee on Jan. 11 revealed that it had interviewed Ray Epps, an Arizona man accused by right-wing politicians and pundits of being an undercover law enforcement agent who set out to goad the pro-Trump rioters into violence. The committee said Epps confirmed he has no ties to the FBI or law enforcement.
The disclosure poked new holes in the already-tenuous FBI conspiracy theory pushed by Fox News host Tucker Carlson and embraced by other prominent voices, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and former President Donald Trump.
The situation with Epps wasn’t the first time the rioters themselves disputed false claims about the attack. Court documents show at least 10 defendants denied in social media posts and messages the bogus rumors that antifa was behind the siege.
But unlike a social media post, Epps’ denial carries the weight of an interview with congressional investigators.
In the days after the Epps news, the conspiracy theory about the FBI was undercut twice more. First, another man singled out by Carlson as a likely FBI agent said the host’s segments about him were false. Then, Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers militia group, was indicted and charged with seditious conspiracy. Until his indictment, the leader was listed in court documents as an unindicted co-conspirator, fueling unsupported allegations that prosecutors were hiding the names of FBI operatives or informants.
Here’s how the conspiracy theory crumbled under the committee’s news.
Stewart Rhodes’ indictment
The Jan. 6 counternarrative pinning blame for the attack on undercover FBI agents first took off thanks to Revolver News, a blog site run by former Trump speechwriter Darren Beattie.
On June 14, 2021, Revolver News published an article headlined, “Unindicted Co-Conspirators in 1/6 Cases Raise Disturbing Questions of Federal Foreknowledge.” One day later, Carlson elevated the article’s claims on his primetime TV show, bringing Beattie on as a guest and telling his viewers that the article proved “the FBI was organizing the riots of Jan. 6.”
There were always problems with the article’s central premise, which argued that because there were unnamed, unindicted co-conspirators described in some Jan. 6 charging documents who had not been arrested themselves, those people were likely FBI informants or agents who were being protected from identification and prosecution.
One of the unnamed individuals in those documents, identified as “Person One” and described as the leader of the Oath Keepers, was Rhodes. Now he’s been charged, further undermining the thesis at the heart of the Revolver News article.
Ray Epps and Rally Runner
The recent revelations about Epps and another rioter accused on Carlson’s show of being aligned with the FBI tore down other pillars of the FBI conspiracy theory, as well.
On Oct. 25, 2021, Revolver News published the first of many articles on its site alleging that Epps was working for the FBI as a “fed-protected provocateur.”
That night, Beattie returned to Carlson’s show. And in the months that followed, Epps’ name was mentioned during five other segments of his show, according to the Internet Archive.
The case that Epps was working for the FBI hinged on videos from Jan. 5 and Jan. 6, 2021, that show him encouraging people to enter the Capitol, including one clip in which the crowd responds with chants of “Fed! Fed! Fed!”
Also referenced as supposed evidence against Epps: The discovery that he had been listed on an early FBI “most wanted” list before later being removed, and the fact that he has not been arrested.
Carlson and attorney Joseph McBride mounted a similar argument in December 2021 about another man named Rally Runner. Despite being spotted near the Capitol wearing red face paint and a red Trump hat, Runner has also not been charged as of Jan. 14, 2022.
“He is clearly a law enforcement officer,” McBride said on Carlson’s show.
There’s no proof that either man is associated with the FBI or law enforcement, however. In one court filing, Justice Department prosecutors called McBride’s claims that there were FBI or other law enforcement agents present “baseless” and “entirely unsupported.”
Epps owns a wedding and event venue and was once the president of the Arizona chapter of the Oath Keepers. Runner is an amateur mascot known to fans of the St. Louis Cardinals for racing around Busch Stadium during the baseball team’s home games, HuffPost reported. He legally changed his name to Rally Runner, KMOV4 reported.
“We have no evidence of FBI involvement that would support the claim that either Epps or Runner were undercover agents, or that the whole attack was an FBI false flag,” said Roderick Cowan, executive director of the University of Chicago Project on Security & Threats, which maintains a database on the hundreds of people facing charges in the Capitol attack.
In videos shared with HuffPost reporter Ryan J. Reilly after the one-year anniversary of the attack, Runner said McBride pushed “bogus claims” about him and “leaked a false story which Fox and Tucker knowingly reported.”
In its Jan. 11 statement on Epps, the House committee investigating the Capitol attack said it was aware of “unsupported claims that Ray Epps was an FBI informant based on the fact that he was on the FBI Wanted list and then was removed from that list without being charged.”
“The Committee has interviewed Epps. Epps informed us that he was not employed by, working with, or acting at the direction of any law enforcement agency on Jan 5th or 6th or at any other time, & that he has never been an informant for the FBI or any other law enforcement agency.”
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, one of two Republicans on the committee, said on Twitter that Epps was removed from the FBI’s list because “apparently he broke no laws” and didn’t enter the Capitol.
“I’m pretty sure the FBI wouldn’t be dumb enough to put their own agent on a wanted list,” Kinzinger added.
Lisa Griffin, a Duke University law professor specializing in evidence theory, constitutional criminal procedure and federal criminal justice, said there could be many standard reasons why Epps and Runner haven’t been arrested, including that not all arrests can be expected to occur at once in a criminal investigation as large and sprawling as this one.
“Nor will every single potential suspect ultimately be charged,” Griffin said. “The nature and timing of charges could have something to do with cooperation from suspects, but could also arise from issues with the evidence or related ongoing investigations.”
FBI, Justice Department silence fans flames
Despite the lack of evidence supporting it, and the mountain of evidence against it, the FBI conspiracy theory has hardened into gospel in some right-wing circles.
On the one-year anniversary of the attack, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., hosted a press conference and called Jan. 6 a “fedsurrection” — a term Trump later parroted. Carlson brought Beattie back on his show to talk more about Epps.
FBI and Justice Department officials’ adhere to policies against publicly commenting on active investigations under questioning by lawmakers. Their lack of comment on the claims appear to have been a factor in the conspiracy theory’s allure and spread.
Attorney General Merrick Garland said he could not respond to questions about Epps during testimony in October 2021. Jill Sanborn, executive assistant director of the FBI’s national security branch, said the same when asked about Epps during testimony on Jan. 11, 2022.
Carlson and other proponents of the FBI conspiracy theory have framed the refusals to comment as reason to believe the theory is true.
But this type of restraint is “standard practice” for Justice Department officials when it comes to ongoing investigations, Griffin told PolitiFact. Internal rules require it so that the investigations can preserve their integrity, and to protect the rights of suspects who haven’t been charged.
When Sanborn was asked more generally if “federal agents or those in service of federal agents actively encourage(d) violent and criminal conduct on Jan. 6,” her answer was clear.
“Not to my knowledge, sir,” Sanborn said.
This article was originally published by PolitiFact, which is part of the Poynter Institute. It is republished here with permission. See the sources for these fact checks here and more of their fact checks here.