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The FBI didn’t orchestrate Jan. 6, but poll shows the false belief has staying power

Smoke fills the walkway outside the Senate Chamber as rioters are confronted by U.S. Capitol Police officers inside the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP) Smoke fills the walkway outside the Senate Chamber as rioters are confronted by U.S. Capitol Police officers inside the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP)

Smoke fills the walkway outside the Senate Chamber as rioters are confronted by U.S. Capitol Police officers inside the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP)

Madison Czopek
By Madison Czopek January 5, 2024

If Your Time is short

  • A new poll found that 25% of U.S. adults think the FBI “organized and encouraged” the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, despite there being no credible evidence to support that idea.

  • Numerous federal investigations of the Capitol attack, and the court filings against hundreds of defendants, show the Jan. 6, 2021, attack was perpetrated by people who believed false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. 

  • The unsubstantiated claims about the FBI persist, in part, because people with influence keep repeating it.

Three years of investigations and hundreds of arrests have not surfaced evidence that the FBI orchestrated the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

But ahead of the insurrection’s third anniversary, one poll of more than 1,000 respondents found that 25% of U.S. adults said it was "probably" or "definitely" true that "FBI operatives organized and encouraged" the 2021 Capitol attack. 

The Justice Department has charged more than 1,200 people in connection with the day’s events. PolitiFact and other news organizations have repeatedly rebutted the unsubstantiated theory that federal agents instigated the violence, finding no evidence to support the claim. 

Numerous federal investigations into the day’s events, and court filings against hundreds of defendants show the attack was carried out by people who believed or perpetuated false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. 

The FBI told PolitiFact, "Any suggestion that the violence at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 was orchestrated by the FBI is categorically false."

How did this theory emerge? 

The FBI narrative emerged in June 2021, when right-leaning website Revolver News published an article encouraging that "all discussion" of Jan. 6, 2021, focus on determining "exactly how many federal undercover agents or confidential informants were present at the Capitol." 

It theorized that the "unindicted co-conspirators" mentioned in some indictments could have been confidential FBI informants or undercover operatives. The article also questioned whether FBI informants might have been "active instigators" in the attack. 

When we looked into these claims, experts told PolitiFact that under almost any circumstances, undercover federal operatives or informants cannot be described in government filings as co-conspirators. Part of criminal conspiracy involves the agreement to commit a crime, and that’s not what undercover operatives do. 

Still, the narrative that the FBI orchestrated the events of Jan. 6, 2021, quickly spread, amplified by influential voices in the political right, including former Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Republican politicians such as Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Matt Gaetz of Florida.

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington. (AP)

What was the FBI’s role on Jan. 6, 2021?

Politicians and government reports criticized the FBI for failing to provide warnings about potential violence ahead of Jan. 6, 2021. But officials maintain that the FBI did not instigate the violence.

In June, Steven D’Antuono, the former assistant director-in-charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, told the House Judiciary Committee that the agency had maybe "a handful" of confidential human sources present in the crowd on Jan. 6, 2021. And when asked about the theory that the FBI had directed those sources and orchestrated a false flag attack on Jan. 6, 2021, D’Antuono said, "that is furthest from the truth."

In his opinion, he said, there was "no nefarious or maliciousness" to having confidential sources in the crowd. That’s what such sources are for "all the time," he said. 

"None of this was orchestrated by the FBI, nor myself," D’Antuono said.

As recently as November, FBI Director Christopher Wray also dismissed the allegations.

"If you are asking whether the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6 was part of some operation orchestrated by FBI sources or agents, the answer is an emphatic no," Wray told lawmakers during a Nov. 15, 2023, House Committee on Homeland Security hearing.

U.S. Capitol Police officers with guns drawn as rioters try to break into the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. (AP)

Specific allegations that certain people involved in the attack were affiliated with the FBI have proved false.

An Arizona man named Ray Epps was falsely accused of being an undercover FBI agent or informant, even though he was there to protest. Epps told the House committee investigating the Capitol attack that was untrue. "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 wrote in a Jan. 11, 2022, statement.

Prosecutors on Jan. 2 filed a memo in federal court seeking a six-month prison sentence against Epps following his guilty plea on a misdemeanor charge of disorderly or disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds. They say he sought "to inspire and gather a crowd to storm the Capitol to protest the certification of the election." Epps, they wrote, "has never been a government employee or agent, other than his four years of service in the Marines from 1979-1983."

In November 2023, some people — including Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah — promoted the theory that Capitol footage showed a man in a "Make America Great Again" hat flashing a badge, signifying he was an undercover federal agent. NBC News identified that man as Kevin Lyons, a Trump supporter who was convicted and is serving four years in federal prison for his actions on Jan. 6, 2021. The alleged badge was likely a vape, NBC News reported.

"I was stupid. I don’t know what came over me," Lyons said during his sentencing. "I apologize to you, the country and my family."

Who is pushing this theory?

The unsubstantiated tale persists, in part, because people with influence keep repeating it. 

"Over the past few years, we have seen various conspiracies take hold — including Jan. 6 — because some of our politicians have pushed this lie, then some media outlets have amplified these lies, and then social media further amplifies, creating a vicious feedback cycle," said Hany Farid, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Information.

Pundits, elected officials and political candidates aligned with Trump have made these claims, downplaying the role that the Trump supporters played in the violence that unfolded on the Capitol that day. 

  • In November 2021, Carlson promoted the unsubstantiated theory in his "Patriot Purge" series for Fox Nation, claiming that federal agents incited people on Jan. 6 and "intentionally entrapped" American citizens. We rated that False.

  • In June 2022, a Texas businessman and congressional candidate ran a television ad that questioned if FBI agents were "used as political agitators." We rated that False, too.

  • During a House Committee hearing in November 2023, Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., claimed that an undercover bus "filled with FBI informants dressed as Trump supporters, deployed onto our Capitol on January 6th." We rated that False.

Dustin Carnahan, a Michigan State University communications professor who studies political misinformation, told The Associated Press ahead of the first anniversary of the Capitol attack that conspiracy theories become dangerous when they lead people to distrust democracy or to excuse or embrace violence.

"If we’re no longer operating from the same foundation of facts, then it’s going to be a lot harder to have conversations as a country," Carnahan said at the time, forewarning that it could fuel more political division.

Today, Carnahan reflected on the FBI narrative’s staying power and said it is often difficult for supporters of a group — in this case, Trump supporters — to accept that some members might be capable of criminal actions they do not condone. 

"Since we’re motivated to view the groups we belong to in a favorable way, accepting that these bad actors were Trump supporters presents an inconsistency," Carnahan said. "In response, some group members will go to great lengths to seek alternative explanations for the actions of Jan. 6 in order to protect their view of the group and their connection to it."

RELATED: All of our fact-checks about Jan. 6

PolitiFact Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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Our Sources

Email interview with Hany Farid, professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Information, Jan. 5, 2023

Email interview with Dustin Carnahan, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Michigan State University, Jan. 5, 2024

Statement from FBI spokesperson, Jan. 5, 2024

The Hill, 83 percent in new poll concerned about political violence, Dec. 13, 2023

Time, Startling New Poll Finds Political Violence Gaining a Mainstream Foothold, Oct. 25, 2023

PolitiFact, Why a Republican's claim about ‘ghost buses’ of FBI informants on Jan. 6 is dubious, Nov. 21, 2023

PolitiFact, How new Jan. 6 revelations on Ray Epps, others undercut Tucker Carlson’s FBI conspiracy theory, Jan. 18, 2022

PolitiFact, Ray Epps didn’t tell Congress he orchestrated the Jan. 6, 2021, attack. Here’s what he did say, Jan. 6, 2023

PolitiFact, Tucker Carlson’s conspiracy theory about FBI and Jan. 6 continues to be wrong, Nov. 4, 2021

PolitiFact, Tucker Carlson film falsely claims Jan. 6 is ‘pretext to strip millions’ of ‘constitutional rights,’ Nov. 2, 2021

PolitiFact, GOP Texas House candidate repeats false claim that FBI agents instigated Jan. 6 attack on US Capitol, Feb. 7, 2022

PolitiFact, Misinformation and the Jan. 6 insurrection: When ‘patriot warriors’ were fed lies, June 30, 2021

PolitiFact, Why the new false flag conspiracy theory that FBI orchestrated Capitol attack is wrong, June 18, 2021

NBC News, Sen. Mike Lee promotes a debunked conspiracy theory about a Jan. 6 rioter, Nov. 20, 2023

NBC News, Jan. 6 rioters the far right claimed were antifa keep getting unmasked as Trump supporters, Dec. 22, 2023

Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, Final report, Dec. 22, 2022

U.S. Senate committee on homeland security and governmental affairs majority staff report, Planned in Plain sight a review of the intelligence failures in advance of January 6th, 2021, June 2023

PolitiFact, The 2021 Lie of the Year: Lies about the Jan. 6 Capitol attack and its significance, Dec. 15, 2021

PBS News Weekend, Conspiracy theories paint fraudulent reality of Jan. 6 riot, Jan. 1, 2022

The Washington Post, A quarter of Americans believe FBI instigated Jan. 6, Post-UMD poll finds, Jan. 4, 2024

The Washington Post, Republican loyalty to Trump, rioters climbs in 3 years after Jan. 6 attack, Jan. 2, 2024

The Washington Post, Dec. 14-18, 2023, Washington Post-University of Maryland poll, Jan. 2, 2024

Revolver News, Unindicted Co-Conspirators in 1/6 Cases Raise Disturbing Questions of Federal Foreknowledge, June 14, 2021

United States Attorney’s Office, 35 Months Since the Jan. 6 Attack on the Capitol, accessed Jan. 5, 2024

PolitiFact, Tucker Carlson’s ‘Patriot Purge’ film on Jan. 6 is full of falsehoods, conspiracy theories, Nov. 5, 2021

Post on X from the January 6th Committee, Jan. 11, 2022

NBC News, 'Idiot' Jan. 6 rioter who stole John Lewis photo from Nancy Pelosi's office gets 4 years, July 14, 2023

Salon, ‘Blatant disinformation’: Mike Lee gets slapped down for pushing Jan. 6 conspiracy theory, Nov. 20, 2023

The Associated Press, FACT FOCUS: Federal agents didn’t orchestrate Jan. 6, Jan. 11, 2022

Sen. Mike Lee’s post on X, Nov. 18, 2023

The Associated Press, Conspiracy theories paint fraudulent reality of Jan. 6 riot, Jan. 1, 2022

Roll Call, Senate report dings FBI, DHS for not heeding warnings about Jan. 6, June 27, 2023

Fox News, Tucker Carlson: Government agents may have helped organize the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, June 16, 2021

The Washington Post, DOJ declined to prosecute Ray Epps. Now it wants him sent to prison, Jan. 3, 2024

Court Listener, United States of America v. James Ray Epps Sr. Case No. 1:23-cr-321 (JEB) Government’s sentencing memorandum, Jan. 2, 2024

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The FBI didn’t orchestrate Jan. 6, but poll shows the false belief has staying power