Another attempt to distance Trump from January 6 is crumbling

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It took about two hours for the attempt to blame anyone but Donald Trump for the riot in the Capitol to materialize.

The first alleged perpetrators were members of “Antifa”, a radical left-wing collective defined by its opposition to the extreme right. The Capitol was breached by rioters supporting Trump and focused on derailing the formalization of his 2020 election loss just after 2 p.m. on Jan. 6, 2021. Just before 4 p.m., Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) — who immediately after the rioting began asked White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to get Trump to calm the crowd — allegedly SMS Meadows with a new theory.

“Mark, we do not believe these attackers are our people,” she wrote. “We think they are Antifa. Dressed like Trump supporters.”

That theory survived and made its way into speeches as Republicans continued to object to the vote count and made its way onto Fox News prime-time programming. A report allegedly using facial recognition technology to identify Antifa members was debunked, and later analysis showed the crowd was what it appeared to be: angry supporters of Donald Trump.

But the uprising caused so much trauma, and so significantly lagged behind Trump’s arguments and encouragement, that the call to redirect blame remained intact. Someone must have been to blame along with people who supported Trump, along with people on the right. But who?

Finally, an answer emerged: it was prompted by the Deep State, which had been opposed to Trump all along. And not just “the deep state” in the abstract, but specifically as embodied in one man: Ray Epps.

Epps, a Trump supporter who was part of the Capitol crowd that day, became a shortcut for federal efforts to stoke the insurgency, which Fox News and Congress referenced. Federal investigators could not comment on the case, leaving the House Inquiry Committee as the only body who could help clear Epps’ name, which they were trying to do — only to be cast as a partisan cover-up effort. This week, however, the New York Times released new details of what happened that day and made it clear that Epps was not to blame for the riot.

That means another attempt to distance Trump from the uprising has failed.

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The theory about Epps was simple, as sloppily constructed theories often are. He was a Trump supporter who, like tens of thousands of others, had traveled to Washington after Trump began focusing on Jan. 6 as a pressure point. But when Trump supporters began searching for suspected federal agents in the mix that day, Epps stood out. For one, he had been filmed the night before saying that people should go to the Capitol on Jan. 5 — peacefully, he insisted, but the crowd around him worried about being trapped by federal authorities being lured, began chanting “Fed!” Then, just before the first bike rack in front of the Capitol was knocked over, Epps was seen talking quietly to one of the men who knocked him over.

It was then discovered that he had been removed from a page of photos listing people the FBI hoped to speak to, and the narrative was set: he was a federal agent tasked with inciting people to riot , and then inadvertently included among the suspects.

The first person to draw much attention to Epps was Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.). During a hearing at which Attorney General Merrick Garland testified, Massie said clips shown about Epps’ actions and asked if federal agents instigated the rioters. Garland declined to comment on the ongoing investigation, in line with standard practice.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) questioned Attorney General Merrick Garland on Oct. 21, 2021 about unsubstantiated claims of FBI involvement in the Capitol riots. (Video: C-Span)

One reason people in the crowd were looking for federal agents was because a right-wing website run by a former Trump administration official had done so make up a theory that individuals identified as “co-conspirators” in the indictment documents who were not themselves indicted are bound to be working for the government. This idea was eagerly promoted by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson — even as experts made it clear that it was unlikely, and even as one of the unindicted co-conspirators was revealed to be the wife of a Jan. 6 suspect. (She later appeared on Carlson’s show with her husband, and no one batted an eyelid.)

When Epps came into focus, same right website details the allegations against him, and Carlson resumed the charge.

When Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) came under fire from the right for calling the Jan. 6 rioters “terrorists,” he appeared hat in hand on Carlson’s show to make amends. During that appearance, Carlson demanded to know what Cruz knew about Epps, recalling Cruz’s admission that he didn’t know much. But when Carlson Cruz wanted to send a message, it was apparently heard. A few days later, at a Senate hearing, Cruz pressed Justice Department officials on Epps and received another one we can’t talk about that Answer. This quickly became a story about the federal government refusing to deny that Epps was in their employs. It also led to this unusual statement from the committee on Jan. 6, which stated Epps had already testified and had been cleared of involvement.

So what did Epps do? The times report explains his calm conversation with the man who knocked down the barrier, Ryan Samsel:

“Just two days after the attack, when Mr. Epps saw himself on a Jan. 6 list of suspects, he called an FBI tip hotline and told investigators he was trying to calm Mr. Samsel as they spoke , according to three people who heard a recording of the call. Mr Epps went on to say that he had explained to Mr Samsel that the police outside the building were just doing their job, people said.

(As a result, Epps was removed from the Person of Interest page. The FBI obtained the information they were looking for from him.)

According to the Times, Samsel confirmed this version of events to investigators long before Epps was even the focus of right-wing attention.

“He came up to me and said, ‘Dude’ — all his words were ‘Relax, the cops are doing their job,'” Samsel reportedly told investigators. He said he was encouraged to commit violence by someone: Joseph Biggs, a member of the right-wing group Proud Boys. Biggs has denied the reproach.

There was no direct evidence that a federal agent was responsible for instigating the day’s violence. Reclining, the idea resists credulity. The Capitol was breached not because of one person’s actions, but because police were overwhelmed by thousands of people heading out collectively. It seems doubtful to attribute this comprehensive effort to even a handful of people.

But again, the point is less to uncover the truth than to distract from or rationalize it. It was always about portraying Trump supporters (and thus Trump) as innocent or ignorant and Trump opponents as guilty.

So the natural question is who will be the focus of suspicion after Epps. Or really, whether those who assumed Epps without reason have the responsibility to update their assumptions at all. Why blame the President who spent months making unsubstantiated allegations of fraud and encouraging people to come to Washington when you can blame a guy from Arizona who spoke to a guy at the crime scene and credibly says he didn’t had to do with it?

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