Trump, conspiracies and the curious case of Ray Epps

Republicans argue the January 6th riots were ‘false flag’ operations by government agents

Virtually from the beginning some on the right in the US argued that those involved in the riots in Washington on January 6th last year were not supporters of Donald Trump, but rather were Antifa members, Black Lives Matter campaigners or other assorted left-wingers.

Subsequently this evolved into a theory that what happened was not an insurrection or an attempted coup but rather had been instigated or egged on by forces linked directly or indirectly to the federal government or within the “deep state” to undermine Trump.

Last Saturday at a rally in Arizona the former president himself appeared to support this idea.

"Exactly how many of those present at the Capitol complex on January 6th were FBI confidential informants, agents or otherwise, working directly or indirectly with an agency of the United States government? People want to hear this," he said.

Trump was alluding to the case of Ray Epps, a business owner from Arizona, who was at the Capitol on January 6th but who has not been charged with any offence.

In the US Senate earlier this month Ted Cruz from Texas suggested that Epps had been seen in a video on January 5th wandering around the crowd and urging people to enter the Capitol building the next day. Cruz maintained that another video on January 6th showed Epps whispering in the ear of another individual who, five seconds later, began to tear down a barricade at the Capitol.

Cruz said Epps’s behaviour was “so suspect the crowd believed he was a fed” and that he would subsequently “magically disappear” from an FBI list of people it wanted to interview.

In the video the man urges people to enter the Capitol peacefully.

Trump last Saturday in Arizona went further: “How about the one guy, ‘Go in, go in, get in there, everybody.’ Epps. ‘Get in there, go, go.’ Nothing happens to him. What happened with him? Nothing happened.”

Essentially the theory centres on Epps being at the Capitol on January 6th, in close proximity to others who were subsequently arrested but despite suspicious behaviour he himself was not detained. Therefore, the theory concludes, he must have been an FBI agent or asset.

The only problem is no evidence has been produced to substantiate this claim.

The theory got a major boost last October when Republican congressman Thomas Massie, at a hearing with the US attorney general Merrick Garland, played a video of a man in a red Trump hat on January 5th urging people to go into the Capitol the following day. Massie maintained that this individual had not been charged subsequently.

He asked Garland if agents or assets of the government had “agitated” people to go into the Capitol. The attorney general declined to comment on an ongoing investigation.

This further fuelled the views among some on the right that they were on to some link between the man with the hat in the video and the government.

In the Senate Cruz showed large photographs of a man in a camouflage jacket and red Trump hat taken on January 5th and 6th whom he specifically identified as Epps.

Cruz and others also maintain the FBI, initially after January 6th, released an image of Epps, wearing a red hat, and said he was among those about whom it wanted information – and for which it was offering cash rewards. However, they suggest by July the image of Epps had “magically disappeared” from the FBI notice.

Some on the right believe the FBI subsequently removed the photograph of the man in the hat as it belatedly realised he was one of its assets.

Cruz said a lot of Americans were concerned that the US government had deliberately encouraged illegal and violent conduct on January 6th.

FBI agent

The Washington Post reported this week that Epps’s lawyer has rejected any suggestion that his client was either an FBI agent or informer. He said Epps was interviewed by the FBI a couple of months after January 6th.

The committee of Congress investigating the riot also confirmed last week that it had 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, & that he has never been an informant for the FBI or any other law enforcement agency,” the committee said on Twitter.

Some national security experts have contended the FBI took down the picture of the man with the red hat after it had identified and interviewed him.

Adam Kinzinger, one of two Republicans on the committee, said Epps was removed from the FBI's list because he didn't enter the Capitol and "apparently he broke no laws".

The Epps case is a classic instance of a theory starting at the political fringes, being embraced and accentuated by right-wing media before being locked on to by Republican politicians and eventually by the former president himself.

Like on many other things there will be no meeting of minds between Trump supporters and critics on the truth behind the Epps case.