clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Tucker Carlson’s January 6 lies throw Republicans into disarray

Senate Republicans are condemning Carlson’s downplaying of the insurrection. House leaders, not so much.

Then-House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) address reporters outside the White House after their Oval Office meeting with President Joe Biden on May 12, 2021, in Washington, DC. 
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Earlier this week, Fox News host Tucker Carlson aired a segment misrepresenting and downplaying the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, prompting swift criticism from many Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Conversely, House Republicans — including Speaker Kevin McCarthy — have stopped short of offering the same condemnations, with some even touting the program. Carlson’s segment, which claimed to offer an alternate interpretation of the day’s events, relied, in part, on exclusive access to more than 40,000 hours of January 6 security footage that McCarthy agreed to share in a bid to win the support of far-right members during his embattled Speaker election.

The mixed reactions from congressional Republicans are the latest indication of how split the party is when it comes to how much members want to stand by former President Donald Trump, as well as how much they want to revisit January 6.

Since the insurrection, McCarthy has embraced Trump and attempts by far-right members of the House caucus to relitigate the riot, while McConnell has distanced himself from the former president and been critical of efforts to whitewash the violence. Essentially, each represents one faction of the party: those who want to continue questioning the 2020 election results — and the events of January 6, much like the former president — and those who don’t see doing so as helpful for Republicans.

“It’s all about how people view the ex-president and whether they want to view the world through his lens or their own lens,” says Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. Though Carlson has been privately dismissive of Trump, he’s aligned more closely with McCarthy’s camp while on air, a stance that was on display Monday.

“Very little about Jan. 6 was organized or violent. Surveillance video from inside the Capitol shows mostly peaceful chaos,” Carlson said, falsely, playing clips of Capitol police security footage that he argued depicted a calm scene. In reality, the insurrection was a violent breach that led to five deaths and the assaults of about 140 police officers. Carlson’s points echo arguments made by Trump voters and members of the Republican base, who’ve increasingly incorrectly suggested that the riot was more of a legitimate protest than a deadly incursion.

Since Carlson’s segment aired, Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger issued an internal memo denouncing it and noting that the Fox News host “cherry-picked” footage that portrayed the attack in a “misleading” way. McConnell cited Manger’s assessment in his response to Carlson’s segment as well.

“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 in the Capitol thinks,” McConnell said at a weekly news conference on Tuesday. McCarthy, however, has not offered a similar rebuke and instead told reporters on Tuesday that he had not seen the show.

Senate Republicans have spoken out. House leaders have stopped short.

Following the airing of the Carlson segment, several Senate Republicans decried it as an inaccurate depiction of the riot that took place that day.

“I think it’s a very dangerous thing to do to suggest that attacking the Capitol of the United States is in any way acceptable and is anything other than a serious crime against democracy and against our country,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), who was shown during congressional January 6 hearings as having narrowly avoided an encounter with an angry mob. “To somehow put [Jan. 6] in the same category as a permitted peaceful protest is just a lie,” added Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND).

House Republicans, meanwhile, have been more circumspect in their reaction or supportive of parts of Carlson’s framing. House Majority Leader Steve Scalise declined to condemn the report in a weekly press briefing, saying instead that “transparency is an important thing and so the public is going to be able to see a lot more information.”

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), a Trump-aligned member of House Republican leadership, posted a link to a story citing Carlson’s report that claimed officers were helping guide a rioter through the Capitol. “Democrats’ dishonest narrative is being demolished,” Stefanik argued. And others hedged slightly with their statements, with Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) telling Politico that January 6 was “not a peaceful protest. It was not an insurrection. It was a riot that should have never happened.”

This divide points to differences in members’ willingness to condemn January 6, and relatedly, the false claims Trump made about the election being stolen that contributed to it. Additionally, it speaks to uncertainty over whether the party hurts itself by reminding Americans of its ties to January 6’s insurrectionists, or helps itself since members of the MAGA wing have urged lawmakers to reexamine what happened.

It’s worth noting, too, that this debate isn’t necessarily a sign that the party’s definitively moving away from Trump. Recall that only a handful of Senate Republicans voted to impeach Trump after the insurrection, and McConnell has previously said he would back the former president if he was the party’s nominee.

“As for the divided response, no surprise,” says Chip Felkel, a Republican strategist and adviser for the Lincoln Project, about the GOP split. “McCarthy needs to feed the beast that stirs the pot, creates controversy — as it means fundraising and distraction. McConnell owes Fox nothing. And he certainly owes Trump even less.”

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.