Since the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, some of former president Donald Trump’s supporters have suggested it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
Initially, the argument was that maybe this was the work of provocateurs like antifa trying to give Trump supporters a bad name. That died down as scores of Trump supporters were arrested in connection with the violence — with some bristling at the idea that their actions would be blamed on antifa — and as GOP leaders cautioned their colleagues against the theory. Then the argument was that the storming of the Capitol wasn’t really that bad: that it wasn’t the “insurrection” that some alleged. This also runs afoul of the actual evidence.
On Tuesday, as his colleagues were trying to get to the bottom of the problems with the response to the Capitol riot, one senator united both of these theories: Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).
Johnson recently spearheaded the effort to argue that the event wasn’t actually an armed insurrection. As he began his questioning Tuesday, he assured that what happened was indeed a tragedy. But then he spent most of his time planting seeds of doubt that the violence wasn’t actually the work of Trump supporters.
The seeds, though, rely upon very speculative evidence and a very suspect gardener.
Johnson’s argument revolved around the account of one man: J. Michael Waller. Waller wrote a piece last month that later ran in the Federalist in which he strongly suggested provocateurs were actually responsible for what happened.
It’s worth noting that Waller is a senior analyst at the Center for Security Policy, which is a hard-line right-wing think tank founded by former Reagan administration official Frank Gaffney. If those names ring a bell, it’s because Gaffney and the Center for Security policy had been ostracized, even by mainstream Republicans, before finding new life with the rise of Trump. In 2009, Gaffney wrote a piece about then-President Barack Obama citing supposed "mounting evidence that the president not only identifies with Muslims, but actually may still be one himself.”
This is the source of the information Johnson thought worth raising — quoting Waller at length — in a Senate hearing.
But even beyond the source, what Johnson cited was highly speculative. Among the things Waller argued for his theory:
- People “wearing Trump or MAGA hats backward and who did not fit in with the rest of the crowd in terms of their actions and demeanor, whom I presumed to be antifa or other leftist agitators.”
- Saying “the mood of the crowd was positive and festive.”
- Emphasizing that, actually, the Trump crowd was pro-police. “Many wore pro-police shirts or carried pro-police ‘Back the Blue’ flags.”
- Citing the families and physical characteristics of those gathered: “ … Some were indignant and contemptuous of Congress, but not one appeared angry or incited to riot. Many of the marchers were families with small children; many were elderly, overweight, or just plain tired or frail — traits not typically attributed to the riot-prone.”
Waller’s piece is rife with leading conclusions, most notably:
- A very few didn’t share the jovial, friendly, earnest demeanor of the great majority. Some obviously didn’t fit in.
- Among them were younger twentysomethings wearing new Trump or MAGA hats, often with the visor in the back, showing no enthusiasm and either looking at the ground, glowering, or holding out their phones with outstretched arms to make videos of as many faces as possible in the crowd.
- Some appeared awkward, the way someone’s body language inadvertently shows the world that he feel like he doesn’t fit in. A few seemed to be nursing a deep, churning rage.
If these people were provocateurs, in other words, they didn’t appear to try that hard to fit into the crowd for some reason. Waller draws numerous conclusions for which there is no real evidence in the arrest records of those who stormed the Capitol.
Waller has also in recent weeks floated the baseless idea that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) purposely allowed Capitol Police to be overrun.
Waller’s piece also relied upon the debunked idea that the preplanning of the attack points the finger elsewhere, saying it “bore the markings of an organized operation planned well in advance of the Jan. 6 joint session of Congress.” As has been discussed ad nauseam, preplanning doesn’t mean the riot wasn’t incited. Democrats have argued this incitement far predated Trump’s Jan. 6 speech to supporters who later stormed the Capitol, given Trump had long predicted a stolen election and regularly cited the prospect of violence by his supporters.
None of this nuance made its way into Johnson’s presentation.
“The last five pages is titled ‘Provocateurs Turn Unsuspecting Marchers into an Invading Mob.’ ” Johnson said toward the end. “So I’d really recommend everybody in the committee read this account. And I’ve asked that it be entered into the record.”