WASHINGTON — Still mending fences with right-wing Republicans for calling the Jan. 6 Capitol riot a “terrorist attack,” Sen. Ted Cruz expanded his outreach Tuesday by promoting a conspiracy theory that pins blame for the assault on FBI provocateurs.
“A lot of Americans are concerned that the federal government deliberately encouraged illegal and violent conduct on January 6,” Cruz told a top FBI official at a hearing on domestic extremism. “Did federal agents or those in service of federal agents actively encourage violent and criminal conduct on January 6?”
“Not to my knowledge, sir,” responded Jill Sanborn, executive assistant director of the FBI’s national security branch.
But by then, Cruz had used his platform at the Judiciary Committee hearing to insinuate that a man named Ray Epps — an Arizona rancher and former president of the Arizona Oath Keepers, the largest chapter of a militia group whose members took part in the Capitol attack — had incited violence on orders from unnamed federal officials.
Hours later, the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack issued a statement rejecting the “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. The Committee has interviewed Epps. Epps informed us that he was not employed by, working with, or acting at the direction of any law enforcement agency on Jan 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.”
No evidence has surfaced that links Epps to the federal government.
Cruz and others who promote the false flag theory have not explained why the FBI would have incited the riot. At the time, Donald Trump was still president. The mob wanted to keep him in power, which meant somehow trying to prevent Congress from ratifying state-certified electoral tallies.
Cruz led a group of 11 senators who tried unsuccessfully to do just that.
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.— January 6th Committee (@January6thCmte) January 11, 2022
Speculation about Epps emerged on the message board 4chan in June, based partly on the fact that he was dropped from the FBI’s list of most wanted suspects for Jan. 6 and has not yet faced charges.
“No one’s explained why a person videoed urging people to go to the Capitol, a person whose conduct was so suspect the crowd believed he was a fed, would magically disappear from the list of people the FBI was looking at,” Cruz said.
Contacted Tuesday at Rocking R Farms and the Knotty Barn, a wedding and event venue he owns in Queen Creek, Ariz., he referred inquiries to his lawyer.
Cruz’s comments align him with some of the most conspiracy-minded elements of the GOP.
Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon has suggested that Jan. 6 was a “massive false flag operation” — that is, an anti-Trump attack disguised as a pro-Trump attack — despite the fact that just before the melee that cost five lives, Trump had encouraged supporters to storm the Capitol and “fight like hell” to overturn the election.
Last week, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida dubbed it a “fedsurrection” rather than an insurrection.
Democrats see no mystery about the mob’s motives.
“The violent attack on January 6th was perpetrated in significant part by domestic violent extremists espousing white supremacists and anti-government ideology. ... That is fact,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., declared after Cruz spoke.
Hours after the riot, Cruz denounced it as a “despicable act of terrorism.” He has described the assault on the Capitol as a “terrorist attack” at least 17 times in the past year, including at a hearing last Wednesday, the day before the anniversary.
For that, Fox News host Tucker Carlson and others crucified him.
Scrambling to contain the fallout, Cruz went on Carlson’s show Thursday night. He insisted that he only meant to apply the term “terrorist” to the minority of rioters who physically assaulted police.
“I wasn’t saying the thousands of peaceful protesters supporting Donald Trump are somehow terrorists. I wasn’t saying the millions of patriots across the country supporting Trump are terrorists,” Cruz said.
Amanda Carpenter, a former Cruz communications director and vocal Trump critic, called the mea culpa an “abject humiliation” for the senator and an exercise in “pandering” — but worse, a sign that he has become radicalized.
“He wanted Carlson to know that there was no daylight between himself and the mob,” she wrote on The Bulwark, a conservative site.
Cruz’s revisionist stance, she asserted, amounts to saying, “Their thugs bad. Our thugs good.”
Cruz also used his turn at Tuesday’s hearing to equate Jan. 6 rioters to Black Lives Matter and antifa protesters, chastising Justice Department and FBI officials for treating Jan. 6 suspects more harshly.
While the senator has avoided an explicit embrace of the most extreme claims from Trump and his supporters regarding election fraud and the Jan. 6 attack, he has not been shy about posing questions that amplify such claims.
That was his approach ahead of Jan. 6, when he argued for nullifying Biden’s victories in several states to allow time for investigation into purported fraud — to put to rest lingering doubts, he said.
And it was his approach at Tuesday’s hearing.
“How many FBI agents or confidential informants actively participated in the events of January 6?” he asked Sanborn.
“Sir, I’m sure you can appreciate that I can’t go into the specifics of sources and methods,” she replied.
“Did any FBI agents or confidential informants commit crimes of violence on January 6?” he asked.
“I can’t answer that, sir,” she said.
“There are a lot of people who are understandably concerned about Mr. Epps,” Cruz said. “On the night of Jan. 5, 2021, Epps wandered around the crowd that had gathered and there’s video out there of him chanting `tomorrow, we need to get into the Capitol, into the Capitol.’ It was strange behavior, so strange that the crowd began chanting, `Fed, fed, fed, fed, fed, fed.’ Ms. Sanborn, was Ray Epps a fed?”
“Sir, I cannot answer that question,” she said.
Suspicions about Epps surfaced in mid-June on 4chan, an online message board favored by extremists.
“This Fed was caught on camera encouraging the crowd to raid the Capitol on the next day,” the anonymous message read, along with a video of Epps on Jan. 5 shouting, “OK, folks, spread the word! As soon as the president is done speaking, we go to the Capitol…. Who is this man?”
At a House hearing in October, Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., asked Attorney General Merrick Garland whether federal agents had incited violence on Jan. 6, and showed the video of Epps. The far-right cable network One America News portrayed the video as evidence of FBI culpability in the attack.