WASHINGTON ― The Republicans who insinuated a man at the Capitol riot last year was a federal agent are not backing off even after one of their own colleagues told them they’re wrong.
Far-right Republicans such as Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), Rep. Matt Gaetz (Florida) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) have speculated that a Trump supporter seen on video that day could have been a federal agent or informant, implying that federal law enforcement tricked Trump supporters into ransacking the Capitol.
But on Tuesday, the special House committee investigating the riot put out a rare statement that the man, Ray Epps of Arizona, had cooperated with the committee and told them that he’s not a federal agent or informant.
“Mr. Epps informed us that he was not employed by, working with, or acting at the direction of any law enforcement agency on January 5th or 6th or at any other time, and that he has never been an informant for the FBI or any other law enforcement agency,” the committee said through a spokesman.
The Epps theory first grew legs on a website run by a former Trump White House speechwriter who left the position in 2018 after CNN reported that he attended a 2016 conference with white nationalists.
Instead of backing off the Epps story on Wednesday, Greene and Cruz stuck with it. Greene, who has voiced support for outlandish conspiracy theories in the past, simply cast doubt on the committee’s statement, asking if anyone had even seen Epps and questioning whether the committee’s interview actually happened.
“It’s not public,” she said. “They didn’t release it. There’s no transcript. There’s no video. There’s not even any proof that happened.”
The committee’s chair, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), said last month the panel had interviewed nearly 300 witnesses; it hasn’t posted any transcripts. The resolution establishing the committee requires it to investigate the attack and eventually issue a final report.
Cruz suggested there was something suspicious about the committee taking the time to debunk the conspiracy theory.
“It is thoroughly odd that the kangaroo court of the fake House commission is devoting more energy to defending this individual than almost anything else,” Cruz told HuffPost.
During a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Cruz had questioned Jill Sanborn, an assistant director at the FBI, about Epps. Sanborn simply said the FBI doesn’t answer questions about “sources and methods,” an answer that would probably not surprise anybody familiar with the FBI’s standard practices ― say, someone like Cruz who has a Harvard University law degree and served as an associate deputy attorney general in the Justice Department.
Cruz said Wednesday it was still a good question, despite whatever Epps told the Jan. 6 committee.
“The reason Ray Epps is salient to so many Americans is he’s on video actively and aggressively urging people to break the law,” Cruz said. “So much so that the mob around him begins chanting ‘fed, fed, fed.’ It is an obvious and reasonable question whether he was doing so on behalf of any government agency. Yesterday, the Biden Department of Justice refused to answer that question.”
In fact, the Justice Department did not refuse to answer the question about whether any of its agents or assets encouraged criminal conduct. Sanborn wouldn’t say whether the FBI had informants at the Capitol, or whether Epps was an informant. But when Cruz asked if federal agents or those in service of federal agents encouraged criminal conduct, Sanborn gave a different answer: “Not to my knowledge, sir.”
And despite Cruz’s reference to the “Biden Department of Justice,” it was, in fact, the Trump administration that was in power last January. There’s also a very reasonable explanation for why Epps hasn’t been charged: There’s no evidence he entered the Capitol, and no evidence he did any of the things outside of the Capitol that have triggered charges for other Jan. 6 participants, like assault law enforcement officers or destroy media equipment.
In the chaotic immediate aftermath of Jan. 6, Epps was added as No. 16 on a “Seeking Information” flyer put out by the FBI. The FBI did not attribute any specific actions to him, as it has in other cases when it assigns someone an abbreviation like AFO (assault on a federal officer) or AOM (assault on media).
Other individuals ― including an underage teen ― were originally put on the FBI’s website but subsequently removed. It would make sense for the FBI to remove Epps’ image from the FBI website if it were no longer “seeking information” on him, but had no plans to charge him.
Cruz and Greene are not members of Republican leadership in the Senate or House, but they’ve filled a leadership vacuum on the topic of the insurrection at the Capitol. Top Republicans stayed out of Washington on the first anniversary of the attack last week. In their stead, Gaetz and Greene held a press conference about Epps; Cruz picked up the topic this week.
Other Republicans seem to be fine with their message. Like Greene, Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), one of the lawmakers House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) tried to name to the Jan. 6 committee before Pelosi rejected the appointment, said the committee can’t be trusted.
“I’m not sure why anyone would take the word of this Jan. 6 committee on any matter, let alone this,” Banks told HuffPost.
Gaetz, Green and Cruz have suggested that if he weren’t an informant, Epps would be charged with a crime for what he said on the 5th and 6th. The night before the attack, Epps said that Trump supporters needed to “go into the Capitol” and was seen telling the crowd to “go to the Capitol” on Jan. 6.
It’s a questionable claim. Donald Trump himself, just before the attack, told the crowd that they were going to be “marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard,” later saying, “We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
Given the troubled history of the U.S. government targeting disfavored political groups because of the content of their speech, courts have established a high legal bar for bringing criminal charges against someone based on the allegation that their speech incited a riot.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Mich.), a member of the House Jan. 6 committee, tweeted Tuesday about how the Epps conspiracy theory had been debunked, noting that Epps hadn’t been charged because he hadn’t actually entered the Capitol and apparently “broke no laws.”
Greene said Kinzinger had essentially declared the innocence of everyone at the Capitol that day, including the 225 rioters charged with assaulting or interfering with officers.
“Ray Epps is on video telling people to go in the Capitol, organizing all these people to do this stuff,” Greene said. “If Ray Epps is not guilty, how can anyone be guilty?”