The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Another Jan. 6 conspiracy theory suffers a reality-inflicted blow

Ray Epps testified that he was not, as accused, a federal provocateur

A mob of Trump supporters storm and breach the U.S. Capitol in D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Measured in Fox News airtime, there is perhaps no Jan. 6 conspiracy theory more popular than the idea that federal agents helped spur the violence that overwhelmed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. And within that particular theory, no individual has received more attention than Ray Epps, an Arizona man who has been identified as the person encouraging a crowd supporting President Donald Trump on Jan. 5 to enter the Capitol the following day and who appeared near the scene of the first barrier breach.

To Tucker Carlson and his followers — including members of the House and Senate — that Epps was never arrested is a strong indicator that he was a federal agent who was at the scene specifically to gin up violence. Here’s how Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) pressed the case in a hearing Tuesday afternoon, asking questions of an FBI representative.

“Who is Ray Epps?” Cruz asked.

“I am aware of the individual,” FBI executive assistant director for the national security Jill Sanborn replied. “I don’t have the specific background of him.”

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“There are a lot of people who are understandably very concerned about Mr. Epps,” Cruz replied, echoing his I’m-the-voice-of-a-concerned-public argument that he used as rationalization for his effort to block the counting of electoral votes on Jan. 6 itself. Epps’s behavior was so strange, Cruz continued, that the crowd around him on Jan. 5 yelled, “Fed! Fed! Fed!”

“Ms. Sanborn,” he continued, “was Ray Epps a fed?”

Sanborn said she couldn’t answer the question — which is very much what you would expect. Federal law enforcement and intelligence officials don’t confirm or deny such questions because even a denial potentially reveals confidential information. After all, if Sanborn says Epps isn’t a federal agent, when she’s later asked about someone else, anything but a denial suggests confirmation. So she declined to answer, as would anyone else in her position. This is a well-understood concept, except for those who choose not to understand it.

Cruz kept going, asking whether Epps urged people to tear down barricades — the sort of question that’s asked to plant the idea that maybe this is what happened. Sanborn, of course, declined to answer.

“Mr. Epps has not been charged with anything,” Cruz later continued. “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 the people the FBI was looking at.” That last point is a reference to Epps appearing on a wanted list before being removed.

But of course, people have explained why Epps might not be arrested or even sought by federal investigators. Here, for example, is HuffPost’s Ryan Reilly, explaining why succinctly.

Reilly is tracking the grass-roots effort to identify those who entered the Capitol building, so he knows of what he speaks. There’s lots of footage of lots of people violating federal law by doing so; the available footage does not show Epps. In other words, there’s another likely reason that Epps wasn’t being sought by the FBI: He was already cleared.

As it turns out, he’d already been investigated by another body, too. A few hours after Cruz’s performance, the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack released a statement through a spokesperson. The committee, it turns out, had talked to Epps who — offering testimony that could subject him to criminal prosecution if he lies — denied being a federal agent.

“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,” it said in a statement provided to The Washington Post. “The Select Committee has interviewed Mr. Epps. 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.”

Epps does have a job, as the tabloid Daily Mail discovered when it tracked him down in Arizona. He hosts weddings at a ranch he owns in the desert.

There have been repeated “investigations” into Epps’s purported government links over the months, all of which start from the point of assuming that he is what the conspiracy theorists are looking for and then cobbling together evidence to support that view. This is known as confirmation bias. The suspicious things about Epps are suspicious largely because they are the things that have been pulled into the conspiracy theory. A group of people convinced without evidence that the 2020 election was stolen then deciding that some guy was a federal agent is not robust evidence for that being true.

Carlson deserves special mention here. He has regularly amplified claims about Epps, with Epps being mentioned on his show on Oct. 25, Nov. 1, Dec. 14, Dec. 28, Jan. 5 and Jan. 6. Epps played a central role in Carlson’s fringey “documentary” that attempted to blame federal agents for the Capitol riot, elevating claims by Darren Beattie, a far-right conservative media figure fired from the Trump administration for having attended a white nationalist conference. As Carlson’s former colleague Jon Ward wrote in his evisceration of Carlson’s documentary, a similarly accused individual identified by Beattie was later arrested. Beattie also at one point appeared on Carlson’s show to accuse other unnamed individuals of being federal agents; one was quickly revealed as an arrestee’s wife.

The point here isn’t that Epps was an agent provocateur. It was that, in their hunt for an agent provocateur — and, by extension, in their hunt to shift blame for the riot away from the pro-Trump right — Epps was good enough. Now that the argument that he’s evaded scrutiny has been undercut, we can expect one of two responses. Either that Epps was lying to the committee, perhaps with a wink, or that some other random person was the real federal agent.

Cruz asked that question specifically.

“Did federal agents or those in service of federal agents actively encourage violent and criminal conduct on January 6th?” he asked Sanborn.

“Not to my knowledge,” she replied.

A few hours later — and after that statement from the Jan. 6 committee — Cruz pressed ahead anyway.