Two Republican senators attacked top Justice Department and FBI officials Tuesday about whether a mysterious protester last January 6th was actually a U.S. government informant who incited rioting at the Capitol as part of a conspiracy-laden false flag operation.
Within hours, though, the special House Committee investigating the Capitol insurrection debunked the conspiracy theory, disclosing that it had interviewed the Arizona man, Ray Epps, and that he had denied taking part in any such government operation.
Epps has become central to a viral — and unfounded — conspiracy theory in recent months after widely circulated video of him exhorting pro-Trump crowds the evening of Jan. 5 to enter the Capitol the next day. At some point, some protesters began chanting, “Fed, fed, fed,” apparently suspicious that Epps was there trying to incite rallygoers on behalf of the FBI.
Social media influencers have accused Epps of being part of a secret government plot to stage the January 6th insurrection and then blame it on supporters of then-President Donald Trump.
USA TODAY was unable to reach Epps for comment.
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More recently, the conspiracy entered the political mainstream, as prominent media figures like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson seized on the Epps video as proof that federal law enforcement agencies are hiding their activities before and during the Capitol assault. Epps has for the most part refused to publicly comment.
On Tuesday, Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton amplified the conspiracy theory by demanding answers from two top federal law enforcement officials testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
They wanted to know, for instance, why Epps was on an FBI Capital Riot Most Wanted page just days after January 6, but quietly removed from it several months later. And they demanded to know why Epps was never arrested or charged with any offense after being caught on video urging others to act.
“Mr. Olsen, who is Ray Epps and why was he removed from the FBI’s most wanted list?” Cotton, R-Ark., asked Matthew Olsen, the assistant attorney general for national security, in one of several confrontations over Epps during the two-hour hearing.
“I simply don’t have any information at all, Senator, about that individual,” Olsen replied.
Cruz was even more sharply critical of Olsen and Jill Sanborn, who heads the FBI’s national security branch. The Texas senator homed in repeatedly on whether the FBI deployed any undercover agents or informants that day who might have encouraged or even participated in the violence.
“Ms. Sanborn, a lot of Americans are concerned that the federal government deliberately encouraged illegal violent conduct on Jan. 6,” Cruz asked Sanborn, who was testifying via remote video hookup.
“How many FBI agents or confidential informants actively participated in the events of January 6th?” Cruz continued.
“Sir, I’m sure you can appreciate that I can’t go into the specifics of sources and methods,” Sanborn replied.
As an aide displayed large posters of Epps taken from the videos, Cruz asked several more questions. Then, his voice rising, he asked: “There are a lot of people who are understandably very concerned about Mister Epps. … Miss Sanborn, was Ray Epps a fed?”
See the names:Who has been subpoenaed so far by the Jan. 6 committee?
After failing to get any specifics, Cruz and Cotton gave way to other senators. “Well, I guess we’re going to have to seek our answers elsewhere,” Cotton said. “But this has not been a stellar performance today.”
After the hearing, as conspiracy theories about Epps trended on social media, the House committee investigating January 6th posted a statement on Twitter that appeared to shoot down that line of questioning by the Republican senators.
“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,” the statement read.
“The Committee has interviewed Epps,” it added. “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.”
One of two Republicans on the House committee, Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., also took to Twitter to chastise Cruz for championing the theory.
“One more @tedcruz conspiracy down,” Kinzinger tweeted. “Ray Epps has cooperated and is nothing but a Jan 6 protest attendee, in his own words. Sorry crazies, it ain’t true.”