Is Tucker Carlson Wrong To Describe the Capitol Riot As ‘Mostly Peaceful Chaos’?
During his Fox News show on Monday night, Tucker Carlson presented surveillance video from the U.S. Capitol on the day of the January 6 riot, which he obtained from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R–Calif.), as evidence that the conventional depiction of that event is misleading. He noted that Democratic politicians, journalists, and commentators have routinely described the breach of the Capitol as “a deadly insurrection.” His assessment: “Everything about that phrase is a lie. Very little about January 6th was organized or violent. Surveillance video from inside the Capitol shows mostly peaceful chaos.”
According to a New York Times article about the controversy over that show, it is Carlson who is lying. The headline calls his claims about the riot “false,” while the subhead describes him as “falsely portraying the attack on the Capitol as a largely peaceful event.” The lead repeats that charge, saying Carlson “falsely portrayed the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol as a largely peaceful gathering.” But if we take “peaceful” to mean “nonviolent,” the evidence, including the arrest numbers cited by the Times as well as the video record, supports that characterization.
Carlson did not pretend that none of the Donald Trump supporters who entered the Capitol that day were violent and/or destructive. He played familiar footage of rioters assaulting police officers, breaking windows, forcing an entrance open, and pushing past cops who tried to stop them. But he argued that such images did not accurately reflect how most of the crowd that invaded the Capitol behaved.
“Hundreds and hundreds of people, possibly thousands,” entered the Capitol over the course of two hours that day, Carlson said. “The crowd was enormous. A small percentage of them were hooligans. They committed vandalism. You’ve seen their pictures again and again. But the overwhelming majority weren’t. They were peaceful. They were orderly and meek. These were not insurrectionists. They were sightseers.”
That gloss is misleading in a few ways. Carlson mentioned vandalism but not violence against police officers, which indisputably occurred even if it was not typical. His characterization of the Capitol invaders as “orderly” is hard to reconcile with his description of the scene as “mostly peaceful chaos.” The adjective meek likewise seems inapt for people who entered the Capitol without permission as Congress was ratifying the results of the 2020 presidential election, precisely because they objected to that ceremony, which they erroneously saw as confirming an illegitimate result.
Even if they did not break anything, steal anything, or attack anyone, the protesters should have known they were not supposed to be in the building, and their unauthorized presence was itself a criminal offense, albeit a relatively minor one. Many of them did act more like curious “sightseers” than angry rioters, but they were still breaking the law and in some cases arguably intended to disrupt the electoral vote count, which is what in fact happened.
Still, it is accurate to say most of the protesters were not violent, a point confirmed by the numbers that the Times cites. Of the 1,000 or so people who have been arrested in connection with the Capitol invasion, it says, 326 “have been charged with assaulting, resisting, or impeding officers or employees.” That group includes “106 individuals who have been charged with using a deadly or dangerous weapon or causing serious bodily injury to an officer.” In other words, about two-thirds of the protesters who have been arrested were charged with nonviolent misdemeanors.
Consider Eduardo Nicolas Alvear Gonzalez, the dude in American flag pants who was famously recorded smoking pot in the Capitol Rotunda. Gonzalez originally was charged with four overlapping misdemeanors: 1) “entering or remaining in a restricted building or grounds,” 2) “disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds,” 3) “disorderly conduct in a Capitol building,” and 4) “parading, demonstrating, or picketing in a Capitol building.”
Gonzalez pleaded guilty to that last offense, which is punishable by a maximum fine of $5,000 and/or up to six months in jail under 40 USC 5104. He was sentenced to two years of probation, including 200 hours of community service, plus a $1,000 fine and $500 in restitution. Since both the charges and the outcome were typical of these cases, it is accurate to say the protesters who entered the Capitol were “mostly peaceful” in the sense that their offenses generally were limited to entering the building and walking around it without permission.
The government came down much harder on Jacob Chansley, better known as the “QAnon Shaman.” In addition to several misdemeanor charges similar to the ones that Gonzalez faced, Chansley was charged with participating in “civil disorder,” a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, and obstructing an official proceeding, a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. He pleaded guilty to the latter charge and received a 41-month prison sentence.
The bare-chested Chansley was conspicuous because of what he wore (a fur hat with bison horns and red, white, and blue face paint), what he carried (an American flag affixed to a spear), and what he did. He not only walked around the Capitol but entered the Senate chamber after it had been evacuated in response to the riot and mounted the platform in front of Vice President Mike Pence‘s chair. There he delivered a prayer in which he thanked the “heavenly father” for giving Capitol police officers “the inspiration needed…to allow us into the building.” He later told reporters, “The fact that we had a bunch of our traitors in office hunker down, put on their gas masks and retreat into their underground bunker, I consider that a win.”
Chansley, Carlson said, “became the face of January 6th, a dangerous conspiracy theorist dressed in outlandish costume who led the ‘violent insurrection’ to overthrow American democracy.” He emphasized that several officers tagged along with Chansley but “never stopped” him, at least insofar as the video shows.
In fact, Carlson said, “They helped him. They acted as his tour guides….Capitol police officers [took] him to multiple entrances and even [tried] to open locked doors for him. We counted at least nine officers who were within touching distance of unarmed [if you don’t count the spear] Jacob Chansley. Not one of them even tried to slow him down….If he was in fact committing such a grave crime, why didn’t the officers who were standing next to him place him under arrest?”
I can think of a few reasons. As Carlson concedes, Capitol police were unprepared for and overwhelmed by the “hundreds and hundreds of people, possibly thousands” who entered the building. The officers may reasonably have concluded that, once the vote count had been interrupted and members of Congress were out of harm’s way, it was best not to interfere with Chansley. Trying to arrest him then and there might have provoked violence from him or his fellow protesters, and he could always be arrested later, which is what actually happened. Declining to arrest Chansley while Trump supporters were swarming the Capitol, or even trying to placate him by acting as “tour guides” (assuming that is a fair characterization), does not amount to an admission that he was not committing “a grave crime.”
In addition to arguing that Chansley’s punishment was unduly harsh, Carlson disputes the description of the riot as “deadly.” He focuses on the discredited claim that Officer Brian Sicknick died as a result of injuries inflicted by Trump supporters, showing footage of a seemingly fine Sicknick walking around the Capitol after that clash.
Sicknick died the day after the riot. The next day, Jeffrey A. Rosen, then the acting U.S. attorney general, averred that Sicknick “succumbed last night to the injuries he suffered defending the U.S. Capitol”—a conclusion that was echoed by politicians and the press, as Carlson showed. But three months later, D.C. Chief Medical Examiner Francisco J. Diaz reported that an autopsy had found no evidence of external or internal injuries. Diaz also debunked the theory that Sicknick might have died from an allergic reaction to “chemical irritants” deployed by Trump supporters, saying that would have been immediately clear at the scene. He instead described Sicknick’s death as the “natural” result of two strokes he suffered on January 7, although he added that “all that transpired played a role in his condition.”
Two Trump supporters likewise died of natural causes (a stroke and a heart attack) the day of the riot. A third protester died of a drug overdose. Trump supporter Ashli Babbitt, who was fatally shot by police while joining other protesters in trying to break down the doors to the Senate chamber, is one person who indisputably died as a result of the riot. Strictly speaking, then, it is accurate to describe the riot as “deadly,” although not in the way that adjective is commonly interpreted.
Carlson also objects to the term insurrection, which is fair enough, since that word implies a level of planning and organization that the rioters generally did not display. By and large, these were people who acted on the spur of the moment, in the heat of their outrage at a supposedly stolen election. But Carlson went too far when he implied that it is inaccurate even to call the riot a riot. “These are not rioters,” he said. “These are people who wandered over from a political rally.”
They “wandered over,” of course, at the direction of a president who had stoked their outrage by reiterating his false claims of massive election fraud and urging them to “fight like hell” against “an egregious assault on our democracy” to save “our country” from an illegal usurper who was about to destroy it. While Trump said his followers should “peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard” at the Capitol, it was entirely predictable that some of them would go further than that.
Carlson had nothing to say about Trump’s role in the riot, noting only that his supporters invaded the Capitol “because they believe[d] the election was stolen from them.” Does Carlson believe that? Based on his public statements, it is hard to tell.
Carlson famously pushed back against Trump lawyer Sidney Powell‘s wild claims about an international conspiracy that supposedly had denied the president a second term. On November 19, 2020, he publicly noted that Powell had repeatedly declined to back those claims with the evidence that she insisted she had but was never able to produce.
Behind the scenes, we know from private communications that came to light as a result of Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit against Fox News, Carlson was even more dismissive. “The whole thing seems insane to me,” he wrote in a November 16 text exchange with fellow Fox News hosts Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity. “And Sidney Powell won’t release the evidence. Which I hate.” That same day, he told his producer that “Sidney Powell is lying.”
Carlson reiterated that conclusion two days later in a text exchange with Ingraham. “Sidney Powell is lying by the way,” he wrote. “I caught her. It’s insane.” Ingraham concurred: “Sidney is a complete nut. No one will work with her. Ditto with Rudy [Giuliani].” Carlson added: “It’s unbelievably offensive to me. Our viewers are good people and they believe it.”
Carlson did not think much of Trump either. “We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights,” Carlson told members of his staff two days before the Capitol riot. “I truly can’t wait.” After a producer replied, “I want nothing more,” Carlson added, “I hate him passionately.”
A few weeks later, Carlson nevertheless provided a forum to My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell, who was supposed to talk about “cancel culture” but seized the opportunity to regurgitate Powell’s baseless accusations against Dominion, which figured prominently in her (and Trump’s) conspiracy theory. Despite his previous skepticism, Carlson did not directly challenge those claims.
Lindell said “we have all the evidence” to show Dominion’s complicity in election fraud and complained that “they just say, ‘Oh, you’re wrong.'” Instead of asking Lindell to elaborate on that “evidence,” Carlson sympathized with his complaint. “They’re not making conspiracy theories go away by doing that,” Carlson said. “You…don’t make people kind of calm down and get reasonable and moderate by censoring them. You make them get crazier, of course. This is…ridiculous.”
That comment, Fox argues, implied skepticism by referring to “conspiracy theories.” Dominion argues that “a regular viewer of Carlson’s would likely have thought Carlson changed his mind on the subject, given how differently he treated Lindell than he had treated Powell.”
Carlson is still trying to play both sides of the street. “The protesters were angry,” he said on Monday’s show. “They believed that the election they had just voted in had been unfairly conducted, and they were right.”
Unfairly conducted in what way? Carlson did not say. “In retrospect,” he declared, “it is clear the 2020 election was a grave betrayal of American democracy. Given the facts that have since emerged about that election, no honest person can deny it.”
Carlson thus left himself enough wiggle room to deny that he was endorsing Trump’s fantasy, which involves systematic fraud, including phony ballots and tricky election software that switched Trump votes to Biden votes on a scale massive enough to change the outcome. Maybe Carlson was just talking about rude treatment of Republican poll watchers and controversial, pandemic-inspired changes to voting procedures. But that is probably not the impression he left with those “good people” who watch his show and still believe claims that Carlson privately denounced as “insane” and “unbelievably offensive.”
The fact that Carlson is still pandering to conspiracy theorists, however, does not mean he is wrong when he says Trump supporters were “mostly peaceful” on January 6, a claim that the Times portrays as self-evidently false. The reaction to that observation only reinforces Carlson’s argument that government officials are committed to exaggerating the extent of the violence.
Capitol Police Chief J. Thomas Manger complained that Carlson’s presentation “was filled with offensive and misleading conclusions about the Jan. 6 attack.” Manger said Carlson “conveniently cherry-picked from the calmer moments of our 41,000 hours of video” and failed to “provide context about the chaos and violence that happened before or during these less tense moments.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.) said Manger “correctly describes what most of us witnessed firsthand on January 6,” adding that “it was a mistake, in my view, for Fox News to depict this in a way that’s completely at variance with what our chief law enforcement official here at the Capitol thinks.”
Carlson’s argument, of course, is that politicians and journalists have “cherry-picked” from those “41,000 hours of video” to create the misleading impression that most of the protesters not only trespassed but also attacked people and vandalized the building. By presenting “the calmer moments,” he aimed to offer a corrective, which was conducive to retaining and attracting viewers but also made a valid point.
It is perfectly understandable that members of Congress who were forced to flee their workplace by an angry mob would be disinclined to distinguish between the violent and nonviolent members of that mob. But that distinction matters in assessing individual responsibility and imposing proportionate penalties. It is the difference between someone like Gonzalez, a deluded but mostly harmless stoner who took credit for helping to calm things down by sharing his stash with other demonstrators, and someone like Julian Khater, who received a six-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to assaulting Sicknick and other officers with pepper spray.
“By diving deep into the waters of conspiracy” and “cherry-picking from thousands of hours of security footage,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.) averred, “Carlson told the boldfaced lie that the Capitol attack, which we all saw with our own eyes, was somehow not an attack at all.” That does not seem like a fair summary, since Carlson acknowledged the violence while disputing how common it was and questioning the “deadly insurrection” label.
In any event, Schumer played right into Carlson’s hands by calling him “a threat to democracy” and demanding that Fox News “pull him off the air.” On last night’s show, Carlson noted that “you don’t often see the Senate majority leader openly call for censorship on the floor of the Senate as if that was totally normal and didn’t contradict the spirit and the letter of the First Amendment.” That authoritarian impulse, Carlson argued, showed that Schumer was desperate to prevent him from revealing the truth.
What is the truth? “They’re on the same side,” Carlson said, referring to Democratic critics like Schumer and Republican critics like McConnell. “It’s actually not about left and right. It’s not about Republican and Democrat. Here you have people with shared interests, the open borders people, the people like Mitch McConnell, who are living in splendor on Chinese money, the people who underneath it all have everything in common…all aligned against everyone else, and that would include almost all news organizations in this country as well.”
I have no idea what immigration policy has to do with any of this, except that it fits into a populist narrative that pits Carlson and “everyone else” against scheming elites who are bent on sticking it to the “good people” in his audience. Carlson needs foils like Schumer, and they need foils like him. Both are keen to stoke hatred of the other side, and neither can be relied on to tell the truth, except when it serves their interests.