The conspiracy theory — that the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol was a false flag event orchestrated by the FBI — traveled the way so many conspiracy theories do in America: from a fringe far-right site run by a white nationalist to this country’s most-watched cable news show.
“Strangely, some of the key people who participated on Jan. 6 have not been charged,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson told millions of viewers on Tuesday. “Look at the documents. 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.”
Carlson was citing a report written by Darren Beattie for Revolver News. Beattie is perhaps best known for being forced out of the White House of former President Donald Trump in 2018 after CNN revealed he’d spoken at a white nationalist conference. Since then, Beattie has allied himself with open white nationalists and founded Revolver News to push his specific brand of far-right propaganda.
But none of this background was mentioned on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Tuesday when Carlson introduced Beattie as a guest on the program.
“It sounds like according to this — I have to say — remarkable piece you put up late last night — I read it in bed at midnight — that the FBI was organizing the riots of Jan. 6!” Carlson exclaimed.
“Well, yes, it certainly suggests the possibility,” Beattie responded, “and I’m hearing from people that this is the most important and darkest investigative piece they’ve seen in years.”
But Beattie’s “investigative piece” and the claims made on Carlson’s show Tuesday quickly fall apart under scrutiny, which exposes them for what they really are: the right-wing noise machine’s latest attempt to shift blame for the political violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, and to rebrand the rioters — a coalition of MAGA extremists attempting to violently overturn the results of a fair presidential election — as proud patriots who stood up to a tyrannical government.
By Wednesday morning, in a demonstration of Carlson’s influence over Republicans in Washington, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) announced he had sent an open letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray demanding to know “how many [of the unindicted Jan. 6 co-conspirators] worked as a confidential informant or as an undercover operative for the federal government.”
“I expect an answer from your office by August 1, 2021,” Gaetz wrote.
A Laughable Conspiracy Theory
During his show on Tuesday, Carlson pointed to two “unindicted co-conspirators” mentioned in the indictment of Thomas Caldwell, whom federal prosecutors allege conspired with members of the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group, to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Caldwell’s indictment mentions a “Person Two” with whom he shared a hotel room, and a “Person Three,” whom Caldwell allegedly identified as being part of a “quick reaction force,” which prosecutors say was a group of armed Trump supporters in a hotel across the river, on standby to aid the insurrection on Jan. 6 if need be.
“But wait, here’s the interesting thing,” Carlson said on his show. “Person Two and Person Three were organizers of the riot. 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,” Carlson continued. “So, FBI operatives were organizing the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, according to government documents.”
Carlson then used this leap in logic to insinuate that “nearly 20” unindicted co-conspirators mentioned in the indictments against the Oath Keepers could all be government agents or informants. (The accusation mirrors other MAGA conspiracy theories claiming that bureaucrats, forming a “deep state,” were secretly working to thwart Trump’s presidency.)
But Carlson’s claims are debunked with just the tiniest bit of basic fact-checking. It’s a wild, irresponsible jump to equate an unindicted co-conspirator with an FBI informant. After all, former President Donald Trump was “Individual-1” in the case against his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen, and that didn’t mean that Trump was a FBI informant against himself. The same goes for former President Richard Nixon, whom a grand jury also listed as an unindicted co-conspirator in connection with Watergate.
As The Washington Post noted, there are multiple reasons prosecutors might call someone an “unindicted co-conspirator” in court documents. Often, prosecutors don’t have enough evidence to charge that person with a crime and want to withhold their name so as not to unfairly damage their reputation. Sometimes, unidentified co-conspirators are individuals whom prosecutors have simply not yet identified. Other times, they’re people who strike deals with prosecutors, agreeing to cooperate with investigations in order to avoid being charged with crimes themselves.
One thing they are almost certainly not, however — as many legal experts have argued this week — are undercover operatives who are carrying out their duties on behalf of the government.
Yet “unindicted co-conspirator” inexplicably meant just one thing to Beattie and Carlson when it comes to Jan. 6: an undercover FBI agent or informant.
Had Carlson’s producers scratched the surface a bit on Caldwell’s case, they’d realize that it’s already clear who Person Two is: Caldwell’s wife, Sharon.
Sharon turned into Person Two in a subsequent indictment, but her name was unredacted in an early affidavit in the case. Carlson’s team didn’t even have to go digging through court records: This information is readily available on the Justice Department’s website.
“Sharon and I are setting up shop there,” Caldwell wrote in one message, referring to a hotel. “Driving in with my wife from Berryville VA but am spending night before at Comfort Inn Arlington/Ballston on Glebe Road,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
It’s also not hard to figure out why Caldwell’s wife hasn’t been charged yet.
While the indictment states that Person Two stormed past the barricades and climbed up the stairs to the balcony on the West side of the Capitol, so did hundreds if not thousands of others. At the moment, federal law enforcement officials have focused their limited resources on those who entered the Capitol building or engaged in combat with the Capitol Police and D.C. Metropolitan Police officers protecting the building. Unless federal prosecutors dig up more evidence of her involvement in her husband’s planning, they may not attempt to draw her into the more serious criminal conspiracy.
Caldwell was very proud of his wife’s actions, saying that she was “right with me!” “ready for it” and didn’t “mind the tear gas.”
Since her husband’s arrest, Sharon Caldwell — the woman Tucker Carlson casually suggested to his large audience might be an FBI informant — has continued living with her husband and spending time by his side around the clock.
If, as Carlson’s viewers now believe, Person Two is an FBI mole, she’s in deep: A defense filing last month stated that Caldwell, “because of physical limitations and health concerns, rarely travels without his wife, Sharon Caldwell.” The filing said that the Caldwells “rarely venture out of Clark County, Virginia ... except for legal and medical visits” and that “Mrs. Caldwell is willing to accompany the Defendant each and every time he leaves the property.”
The segment with Beattie was the second time Carlson devoted airtime to the Jan. 6 riot this week.
On Monday night, Carlson invited the husband of Ashli Babbitt, who was fatally shot by a police officer after she stormed the Capitol, onto the program.
“Somebody in D.C. knows, I think a lot of people know, but nobody is telling us. And the silence is deafening,” Aaron Babbitt told Carlson of the Capitol Police’s apparent unwillingness to identify the officer who killed his wife, adding that he never thought he’d lose his partner to “political violence.”
“How do you feel about seeing her characterized the way you have?” Carlson asked Babbit’s husband. “How do you feel about the total lack of interest in her death?”
“It sickens me to hear what people say about Ashli,” Aaron Babbit said. “There has never been a person Ashli ran across in her daily life that didn’t love her and wouldn’t remember her in some way, shape or form for the rest of her life,” he said. “But this is the game. This is the social media craziness that people just run with a theory and just take off with it. You know, it is up to us and the ones that love her and people like you for not giving up on it. So I appreciate that, Tucker.”
The interview did not really address Babbit’s extremism — she was a believer in the QAnon conspiracy movement — or the lies that brought her to the Capitol that fateful day, when a police officer shot her as she attempted to climb through a broken glass door that led to the Speaker’s Lobby inside of the Capitol, an American flag draped across her back. (The Justice Department investigated the shooting, clearing the officer of any criminal charges.)
Carlson’s segment seemed more interested in recasting Babbit as a patriot who was shot down while confronting a corrupt, tyrannical government. It obscured how Carlson, Fox News and the greater right-wing media ecosystem undoubtedly played a part in radicalizing people like Babbit, making them believe that an election had been stolen when it hadn’t been.
Carlson likely doesn’t care that his latest conspiracy theory about the FBI is so flimsy. He promoted it again on his show Wednesday, stating that “the events of January 6 ... were at least in part organized and carried out in secret by people connected to federal law enforcement,” before adding: “It’s hard to think of a bigger potential scandal than this one.”
What matters to Carlson, it seems, is to continually muddy the waters about what really happened on Jan. 6. He has long attempted to downplay the severity of that day, which resulted in at least five deaths and has since led to nearly 500 arrests. He once called it “a political protest” that “got out of hand,” and has denied that it was an insurrection at all.
Carlson has also repeatedly denied that white supremacists and other extremists, like the Proud Boys, played a significant role in the riots, even though there are mountains of evidence proving otherwise.
“The Fox host’s ‘false flag’ theory fits into a broad and largely successful effort by elements of the GOP and right-wing press to confuse the public and shatter the initial, fragile consensus that the events of January 6 had been bad and reflected poorly on then-President Donald Trump and his supporters,” Matt Gertz, a senior fellow at Media Matters, wrote of Carlson on Thursday.
Gertz argued that Carlson is a “founding father” of a “1/6 truth movement,” from whom many Republicans in Washington often take their cue.
Even on Jan. 6, when Carlson paid lip service to how bad political violence was, he was already laying the groundwork for eventually defending the rioters and casting Trump supporters as the real victims.
“What happened Wednesday will be used by the people taking power to justify stripping you of the rights you were born with as an American,” he warned. “Your right to speak without being censored, your right to assemble, to not be spied upon, to make a living, and to defend your family.”
He also essentially put the blame for the violence on Democratic leaders for not listening to the complaints of the rioters in the first place.
“You can be horrified by the violence, and we are,” Carlson said. “But if you don’t bother to pause and learn a single thing from your citizens storming your Capitol building, then you’re a fool, you lack wisdom and self-awareness, and you have no place running a country. We got to this sad, chaotic day for a reason.”