Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) pushed a far-right conspiracy theory about the attack on the Capitol during a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday in the latest alarming demonstration of the Republican Party’s embrace of Jan. 6 trutherism.
“Ms. Sanborn, who is Ray Epps?” Cruz asked Jill Sanborn, executive assistant director of the FBI’s national security branch, during a Judiciary Committee hearing about the Capitol attack.
“I’m aware of the individual, sir,” Sanborn responded. “I don’t have the specific background to him.”
Cruz then launched into a recitation of a conspiracy theory that’s been the obsession of disreputable right-wing media outlets for months: that a man named Ray Epps, secretly working for the FBI, purposefully encouraged supporters of former President Donald Trump to attack the Capitol so that they could then be arrested en masse.
There is no evidence for this conspiracy theory. Hours after Cruz promoted it in the Senate, the House select committee investigating Jan. 6 issued a statement announcing that its members had already interviewed Epps in November and that he denied being an FBI agent or informant.
That will likely do little to dissuade Cruz, or many other conservatives in Washington. Over the last year the “MAGAverse” has committed itself to a deeply conspiratorial, revisionist history of the attack on the Capitol, variously blaming “antifa” and the “deep state” for orchestrating the event as a ruse to arrest Trump supporters.
Mild criticism of the attack is also often frowned upon. Last week, on the eve of the anniversary of Jan. 6, Cruz referred to the Capitol riot as a “terrorist attack” on the floor of the Senate. The remark sparked a backlash among Trump supporters, leading to Fox News host Tucker Carlson denouncing Cruz during a primetime segment. Cruz appeared on Carlson’s show the next day to beg forgiveness, calling his phrasing “sloppy” and “frankly dumb.” Carlson didn’t accept Cruz’s apology.
Cruz’s invocation of Epps during the judiciary committee hearing on Tuesday felt like a demonstration of his submission to Carlson and MAGA. An act of penance.
“On the night of Jan. 5, 2021,” Cruz said during the committee hearing, “Epps wandered around the crowd that had gathered, and there’s video of him chanting, ’Tomorrow we need to get into the Capitol, into the Capitol … ’” Cruz said. “This was strange behavior, so strange that the crowd began chanting, ‘Fed! Fed! Fed! Fed!’”
“Ms. Sanborn,” Cruz said, “was Ray Epps a fed?”
A slightly exasperated Sanborn, who had already told Cruz that the FBI can’t divulge sources and methods during a public hearing, replied, “Sir, I cannot answer that question.”
Epps is a Trump supporter and Marine veteran from Arizona with ties to a far-right militia group. He traveled to Washington, D.C., in early January 2021 to attend the “Stop the Steal” demonstration that turned into the attempted insurrection. There is a video from the night before, at a related rally, showing him encouraging Trump supporters to go into the Capitol on Jan. 6 — something he suggested they do “peacefully.”
Footage from Jan. 6 itself shows Epps outside the Capitol, at one point trying to de-escalate tensions between rioters and the police. There is no footage of him inside the Capitol — a crime that has landed hundreds of pro-Trump rioters in jail.
Cruz, like his fellow conspiracy theorists, seized on the fact that Epps briefly appeared on the FBI’s wanted list, before disappearing from that list, as evidence of his association with the FBI.
There is no evidence for this assertion either.
“The Select Committee is 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,” read the statement Tuesday afternoon from the House select committee.
“The Select Committee has interviewed Mr. Epps,” the statement continued. “He 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.”
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), one of only two Republicans on the committee, also posted a long thread on Twitter denouncing the Ray Epps conspiracy theory.
“Let’s say Ray was an agent (HE IS NOT), the premise is that one agent can gin up a crowd to insurrection,” Kinzinger wrote. “That isn’t saying much about the intelligence of your voters is it Ted? The rioters had formal education, owned businesses etc…, they knew.”
The GOP’s “narrative on Jan 6,” Kinzinger continued, “has been that it’s first antifa, or patriots who love their country, maybe crisis actors, def false flag operatives, or now FBI agents. Take your pick. Truth is they were rioters incited by lies. And RAY is no fed. Just another misled man.”
The Epps conspiracy theory traveled through a familiar disinformation pipeline before reaching the Senate floor courtesy of Cruz on Tuesday. According to The New York Times, it originated in the racist cesspools of the internet, in this case 4chan, before being picked up by disreputable right-wing “news” websites, in this case Revolver News, and then being spread far and wide by the right’s propagandist-in-chief, Fox News’ Carlson.