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Does Tucker Carlson's Jan. 6 documentary hold up under scrutiny?

·Chief National Correspondent
·19-min read
In this article:
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  • Tucker Carlson
    Tucker Carlson
    American political commentator
  • Donald Trump
    Donald Trump
    45th President of the United States

For the last several months, Tucker Carlson has been arguing that the effort to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s election victory, which culminated in the Jan. 6 insurrection, was “a setup,” a trap set for ordinary patriots by shadowy forces in the government.

Carlson, the most popular primetime host on cable news, claims that the Biden administration is using the insurrection as a pretext to persecute, imprison and otherwise mistreat Americans who disagree with Democrats.

That’s the central argument of Carlson’s three-part “Patriot Purge” series on Fox Nation, the cable giant’s streaming service. Carlson even says that the assault on the U.S. Capitol was probably concocted inside the federal government in order to justify a war on conservatives.

Tucker Carlson's 'Patriot Purge'. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; screengrabs: FOX NATION via YouTube (2), photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Tucker Carlson. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; screengrabs: FOX NATION via YouTube (2), photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Carlson concludes the series with a chilling line to his followers: “They’re pushing you toward violence. ... But don’t fall for it.”

The gravity of Carlson’s charges and the size of his platform and influence justify a detailed examination of his claims, and of the evidence he provides in support of them.

That examination shows Carlson makes alarming claims that are built on flimsy or inaccurate evidence, or does not consider information that contradicts his narrative. Ultimately, he uses legitimate concerns — about FBI abuses of power in the past, about the ability of the government to conduct digital surveillance, and about treatment of prisoners — to weave a story about Jan. 6 that ends up making claims that aren’t supported by facts.

This reporter worked for Tucker Carlson at the Daily Caller from November 2009 to March 2011. Carlson declined to be quoted on the record.

The death of Brian Sicknick

Part 1 of the special introduces the idea of a “second war on terror” that “permanent Washington” has launched “on its own citizens.”

“How much of what we were told about that day was a lie?” he says. He draws a parallel to the ways that the U.S. government, after the 9/11 attacks, falsely insisted that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in order to justify an invasion.

The first item Carlson takes on is the death of Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick. Sicknick was at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and collapsed around 10 p.m. that night. He died the next evening, Jan. 7.

A placard is displayed with an image of Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick on it as people wait for an urn with his cremated remains to be carried into the U.S. Capitol to lie in honor in the Capitol rotunda.
The Capitol rotunda, where Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick was to lie in honor, in February 2021. (Brendan Smialowski/Pool/AP)

Police originally told reporters that Sicknick had been hit in the head with a fire extinguisher by a supporter of then-President Donald Trump. It turned out this was wrong. Press outlets corrected the record. Sicknick was sprayed in the face with a chemical irritant that was determined to be pepper spray, but in April of last year a medical examiner determined he suffered two strokes and died of natural causes.

Carlson leaves out most of this context. But his focus on Sicknick is the first piece of his argument that Jan. 6 has not been accurately portrayed by the government and media.

Four Trump supporters who took part in the assault died, two by heart attack, one by a drug overdose, and one — Ashli Babbitt — when she was shot by a police officer while trying to enter a window into a room where there were members of Congress. Carlson correctly says no police were killed that day, but he then goes on to suggest that the violence that did occur was not the fault of Trump supporters. He argues that Democrats, left-wing agitators, the media and government agents are to blame for the violence that ensued.

It has been widely and exhaustively documented that Trump supporters waged a violent assault on law enforcement officers. There are numerous video compilations that lay out the full scope of the day, including footage that shows rioters attacking police with bats, poles and sticks, chemical spray, hockey sticks, metal bike racks, batons, bottles, wooden boards, fire extinguishers, Tasers and flagpoles.

Around 140 police officers were injured that day. Four police officers who defended the Capitol that day have since died by suicide. According to Capitol Police, some 10,000 pro-Trump rioters reached the Capitol grounds, and more than 800 were able to enter the building.

The four police officers who responded to the January 6 Capitol riot and later died by suicide.
Clockwise from top left: Officers Gunther Hashida, Kyle DeFreytag, Jeffrey Smith and Howard Liebengood. They responded to the Capitol riot and later died by suicide. (Mountcastle Turch Funeral Home, Bensing-Thomas Funeral Home, Facebook, Money and King Funeral Home)

Shifting the blame

Carlson says left-wing agitators in the crowd stirred people up, and that the media and Democrats had done their best to downplay or justify the riots that engulfed many cities in the summer of 2020, effectively condoning political violence and by extension convincing Trump supporters it was acceptable.

Carlson’s evidence for left-wing agitation stems from one person named John Earle Sullivan, who was present at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Sullivan had participated in Black Lives Matter protests and rallies over the summer of 2020, claiming to be a leader in the movement and giving speeches at some events.

But a closer look at Sullivan’s past reveals a former speed skater who was alienated from other Black Lives Matter activists in Utah, where he is from. Sullivan was believed to be by other racial justice activists “at best seeking attention and at worst an infiltrator” of their movement. Even one of Carlson’s main sources, the writer and former Trump aide Darren Beattie, has acknowledged this reality about Sullivan.

John Earle Sullivan.
John Earle Sullivan at the Washington Monument on Jan. 28, 2021. (Jaydenxtime/WikiCommons)

Carlson also quotes a man he says is an expert on “political warfare” — a writer named J. Michael Waller — who claims that there was a “coordinated effort” by “agents provocateur” in the crowd but provides no evidence.

The fact pattern that has emerged from the roughly 650 people federally charged in the riot is that most of those who were violent were caught up in the moment, but there were a few dozen individuals who had planned and prepared for violence. The Washington Post has analyzed court records and found about 30 people charged with felony conspiracy charges, many of whom were members or associates of far-right militant groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys.

Elijah Schaffer from the Blaze, a conservative media company founded by Glenn Beck, tells Carlson in the documentary that the crowd became violent only after police discharged nonlethal munitions, which is contradicted by video evidence.

Noting that some in the press downplayed violent attacks on bystanders and police, looting, and property destruction during the summer 2020 protests following George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer, Carlson then comes to the conclusion that “the media and Democratic Party leaders created the environment that made the Jan. 6 violence all but inevitable.”

However, numerous rioters have said they joined in the assault because they thought Trump wanted them to, not because of violence the previous summer.

Donald Trump stands behind a protective transparent barrier while onstage at a rally.
Then-President Donald Trump at a rally on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Carlson also notes that the federal government does have a questionable history when it comes to entrapping American citizens. In doing so, he cites the work of journalist Trevor Aaronson, who in 2013 published a book called “The Terror Factory.”

Aaronson, a contributing writer at the Intercept, documented numerous cases in which undercover FBI agents or informants induced individuals to go along with plots they might otherwise not have taken part in. Carlson says the presence of “unindicted co-conspirators” in charging documents against some Trump supporters who attacked the Capitol suggests that these unnamed individuals might be federal agents.

However, “the FBI and the Justice Department do not describe undercover agents and informants as ‘unindicted co-conspirators,’” Aaronson wrote last summer. “Agents are identified in such records as ‘undercover employees,’ and informants as ‘cooperating witnesses’ or ‘confidential human sources.’ An ‘unindicted co-conspirator’ is someone who takes part in the crime.”

The strange case of Ray Epps

Carlson’s special does focus a few times on one figure in particular, who Carlson does not name, though he has since begun to talk about him on his nightly show on Fox News. It is a man named Ray Epps, who Beattie — a former White House speechwriter for Trump who was fired for speaking at a conference with white nationalist ties — has written extensively about at his website, Revolver News.

Epps is a military veteran who was listed in years past as a leader in the Oath Keepers. Beattie has documented the ways in which Epps is on video the night before Jan. 6 and in the hours leading up to the assault exhorting people to go to the Capitol and into the building. Epps is also seen at the site of the first violent confrontation between Trump supporters and police, urging one young man to wait and telling him, “We need more people.”

Ray Epps, wearing a Trump hat, stands with his hand on another person’s shoulder.
Ray Epps. (FBI)

Given this apparent involvement by Epps, Beattie has raised the question of why he has not been arrested or charged with any crimes, even as hundreds of others have been. Carlson’s special ends, in fact, with footage of Epps being surrounded by people on Jan. 5 who reject his call to go to the Capitol and call him a federal agent.

The FBI has acknowledged having at least one “informant” among the right-wing militants in the crowd on Jan. 6, who entered the Capitol building after it was breached. There is no photographic evidence of Epps inside the Capitol. Epps did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News.

Beattie’s theory is that Epps was an FBI informant or undercover agent who provoked and encouraged Trump supporters to commit violent acts against police that they wouldn’t have otherwise. Beattie had also speculated the same about another insurrectionist, Ronald Loehrke. But Loehrke was arrested on Dec. 3 and charged with multiple crimes.

If Epps was an informant, that would raise uncomfortable questions for the government. The Justice Department declined to comment when asked. But Epps also could be cooperating with authorities and avoiding prosecution that way. And it strains credulity to believe that the majority of people who assaulted the Capitol did so because of one man yelling in a crowd, versus the explicit instructions to march to the Capitol from Trump, the sitting president they had gathered to support.

The ‘purge’

Carlson then delves deeper into his claims that Americans are being targeted because of their political beliefs. He begins by focusing on another government power that journalists and watchdogs have been raising concerns about for years: electronic surveillance.

“All of the Orwellian methods deployed by the surveillance state in the war on terror are now being used to track down and purge American war veterans, law enforcement officers and any journalist who asks the wrong question,” Carlson said.

Carlson builds his argument around four people who all attended the Jan. 6 rally but say they did not storm the Capitol and claim they were nonetheless persecuted simply for being there. Paul and Marilyn Hueper are an Alaska couple who say their home was raided by the FBI. Mark Ibrahim is a former DEA agent who — according to Carlson — lost his job after attending the Trump rally on Jan. 6. And Emily Grace Rainey is a former Army captain who implies she was punished by the military for attending the Jan. 6 rally. All four were interviewed by Carlson for the special.

A crowd of Trump supporters, some holding flags and banners, gathers outside the Capitol building.
Trump supporters gather outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“I went and I saw my commander in chief at my nation’s Capitol, took 100 of my friends, and they ostensibly ruined my career, had I wanted to stay,” Rainey says in the special. “They revoked my clearance, they denied me a commission in the reserves, and then they put a gag order on me.”

By Carlson’s own telling, the Huepers’ home was raided because of mistaken identity. “They had the wrong person,” he says. Marilyn looked similar to another woman who the FBI thought may have been involved in stealing a computer from the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

As for Ibrahim and Rainey, neither of them was pushed out or fired because of their presence at the Capitol that day, according to government documents and news reports. Both of them had already given notice to the DEA and to the Army, respectively, that they intended to leave their jobs well before Jan. 6.

Ibrahim has been indicted because he allegedly carried his government-issued firearm with him onto the Capitol grounds after Trump supporters assaulted and broke through police lines, and flashed both his gun and his federal law enforcement badge numerous times that day, as captured in photos, and then lied about doing so to federal agents.

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Related:

So while at the end of the second episode, Carlson claims that the U.S. government is “hunting down American citizens” and “purging them from society,” his evidence consists of a case of mistaken identity and two others who gave notice to leave their jobs before Jan. 6.

The prison

In Episode 3, Carlson ratchets up the rhetoric and imagery even further, claiming the government has grossly mistreated Jan. 6 defendants.

“Because of Jan. 6 we must now use law enforcement and military force to arrest, imprison and otherwise crush anyone who leads opposition to Joe Biden’s government,” Carlson claims. As he talks, photos are flashed onscreen of the horrific abuse and degradation of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. Army personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison, which came to light in 2004. Carlson shows a lawyer named Joseph McBride, who says that “the left is hunting the right” and that the government is “sticking them in the gulag.”

“Those same ungloved hands that tortured and killed suspected foreign terrorists have been unshackled on behalf of a political party here at home. Suddenly, the United States of America has political prisoners,” Carlson says.

A frame from Tucker Carlson’s Patriot Purge shows a man being tortured.
A frame from Tucker Carlson’s “Patriot Purge” depicting torture. (Fox Nation via YouTube)

Carlson then discusses a defendant named Richard Barnett, who was arrested after he was photographed sitting with his feet up on Pelosi’s desk. McBride, Barnett’s lawyer, claims Barnett was “pushed” into the Capitol by people around him and so is not guilty of unlawful entry.

McBride says Barnett was “being held absent due process in a federal prison for an undetermined period of time.” But Barnett is not currently imprisoned, having been ordered released in April 2021 as he awaits trial, by a federal judge who ruled that he was not at risk to flee the country, endanger the public or obstruct the case before his trial date. Barnett had been held for four months based on a ruling in January by a different federal judge.

Barnett and others of the 40 or so Jan. 6 defendants at the Central Detention Facility in Washington, D.C., have complained about prison conditions and treatment by guards and staff, including an inability to get medical treatment. And they have some evidence to back up their claims.

In mid-October, a federal judge held jail officials in contempt of court for delaying medical treatment of a Jan. 6 defendant who had cancer and needed surgery for a broken wrist. The judge called the conduct of the jail’s leadership “incompetent” and “inexcusable.” The U.S. Marshals Service opened an investigation into conditions at the jail, and found that there were sewage and water leaks affecting inmates, and that guards sometimes withheld meals for “punitive reasons.”

Richard Barnett sits with his foot atop House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk during the Capitol assault.
Richard Barnett inside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office during the Capitol assault on Jan. 6, 2021. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

But criminal justice advocates have said that these issues at the jail are long-standing ones that they have complained about for years with little success, which are not tied to Jan. 6 defendants or their political beliefs. They have argued that it is only now, when these defendants have complained of issues, that they are being addressed.

Perhaps the most serious accusation of abuse has come from a lawyer for defendant Ryan Samsel, who allegedly was one of the first Trump supporters to injure a police officer on Jan. 6. Samsel’s attorney has accused prison guards of “viciously and savagely” beating her client, leading to a broken jaw and nose and possible loss of sight in one eye.

An investigation by the D.C. Department of Corrections “found there was not any violent interaction between the inmate and any correctional officer.”

The Justice Department is also investigating the claims by Samsel’s lawyer, and Yahoo News has asked the FBI whether it has reached any findings. The FBI has not responded.

Carlson has said of Jan. 6 that “if someone broke the law, punish that person.” But he has complained that Jan. 6 defendants are being treated more harshly than those who were arrested during the summer of 2020 for rioting or violent crimes during protests over the murder of George Floyd.

Nationwide, there were some 13,600 arrests related to protests made in just one week after Floyd’s killing, and there have been 1,429 criminal cases involving defendants from that time, according to records compiled by the Prosecution Project. By contrast, there have been 792 criminal defendants so far related to the Jan. 6 insurrection. A large percentage of charges related to the Floyd protests have been dropped, according to RealClearInvestigations.

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The rioters got within two doors of Vice President Mike Pence’s office. See how in this 3D explainer from Yahoo Immersive.

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As for the complaints of pretrial detention without bail, the Speedy Trial Act requires that a defendant stand trial within 70 days of their indictment. Delays beyond that are the product of a few things: COVID-19-related delays, requests by prosecutors or defense attorneys for more time, and a backlog of cases in D.C. federal court.

There are around 40 Jan. 6 defendants who have not been released on bail in D.C. jail, and another dozen or so elsewhere, according to Scott MacFarlane of CBS News. That’s a relatively small percentage of the several hundred individuals awaiting trial, Barbara McQuade, the former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, told Yahoo News. Each one must be determined by a judge to be either a threat to the public or a flight risk.

The death of Ashli Babbitt

Finally, Carlson argues that Ashli Babbitt’s shooting at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was a wrongful death. “Are anonymous federal agents now allowed to kill unarmed women who protest the regime? That’s OK now?” Carlson says.

Babbitt is a central character throughout Carlson’s three-part series. Gruesome footage of her death is shown multiple times. The third episode begins with her, and the final half of that last episode is focused on her alone.

Carlson voices opinions about Babbitt’s death without examining the evidence against his argument. “[She] presented no imminent threat to anyone,” he says, ignoring the fact that she was part of a violent mob that had assaulted police and invaded the Capitol.

In fact, Babbitt was in a group of rioters who were banging on doors and breaking glass windows that led to a room where they could see members of Congress only a few dozen feet away. The doors were barricaded by police. Babbitt was shot as she climbed through the broken window into this room.

Ashli Babbitt.
Ashli Babbitt. (Maryland MVA/courtesy of the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office via AP)

Carlson does not give any airtime to consider the point of view of the Capitol Police officer who shot and killed Babbitt, Lt. Michael Byrd. Byrd, a 28-year veteran of the police force, came forward last summer and talked publicly about his decision after the Justice Department and the Capitol Police concluded an investigation into the incident and cleared him of wrongdoing.

“I tried to wait as long as I could,” Byrd said of the one shot he fired at Babbitt. “I hoped and prayed no one tried to enter through those doors. But their failure to comply required me to take the appropriate action to save the lives of members of Congress and myself and my fellow officers.

“If they get through that door, they’re into the House chamber and upon the members of Congress,” Byrd told NBC News.

Rep. Markwayne Mullin, a conservative Republican congressman from Oklahoma, was an eyewitness and backed up Byrd’s account. “He didn’t have a choice at that time,” Mullin said. “The mob was going to come through the door. There was a lot of members and staff that were in danger at the time.”

But Babbitt, a 35-year-old California resident and a 14-year Air Force veteran who had become a follower of the QAnon conspiracy theory, has been turned into a martyr by many on the right. Trump also has repeatedly invoked her name and memory, as part of his quest to rewrite the events of that day and portray the instigators of the Jan. 6 riot as that day’s real victims.

A protester holds a sign about Ashli Babbitt at a rally: Rest in peace, Ashli Babbitt.
A protester at a rally on July 25 in New York City. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

Carlson ends his special by telling his audience, over harsh military music, that “they’re pushing you toward violence and they’re doing it on purpose. But don’t fall for it.”

He ends with this: “Tell the truth. Build the country. Love your family and each other. Be the light. That’s how it gets better.”

But despite Carlson’s exhortation to “tell the truth,” his three-part special is plagued by half-truths and inaccuracies. And he uses sensationalistic and sometimes horrific video footage — some of it from the war on terror, some of it dramatized — that will likely terrify anyone who watches his special and believes they are being targeted by the government.

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