Fox News host Tucker Carlson whipped up a firestorm Tuesday on Capitol Hill, sparking bipartisan backlash and igniting tensions with Capitol Police by downplaying the Jan. 6 Capitol riot on his prime-time program as “mostly peaceful chaos.”
His show divided Republicans, with a number of GOP senators ripping his portrayal of the incursion at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Capitol Police Chief J. Thomas Manger, who rarely offers opinions on political issues, said the Monday night show was filled with “offensive and misleading conclusions about the Jan. 6 attack.”
“The program conveniently cherry-picked from the calmer moments of our 41,000 hours of video. The commentary fails to provide context about the chaos and violence that happened before or during these less tense moments,” Manger wrote in a memo to lawmakers.
“Those of you who contributed to the effort to allow this country’s legislative process to continue know firsthand what actually happened.”
The segment was the first of two installments planned for this week relying on security footage granted to Carlson by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). Carlson was expected to air more clips from the footage during his show on Tuesday evening.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) issued a scathing rebuke of Carlson and Fox on Tuesday, holding up a copy of the memo and saying he wanted to associate himself “with the opinion of the chief of the Capitol police about what happened on Jan. 6.”
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) holds up a letter from U.S. Capitol Police Chief Thomas Manger during a media availability following the weekly policy luncheon on Tuesday, March 7, 2023. McConnell supports Manger’s view against the released video footage to Fox News’ Tucker Carlson of the Jan.6 attack on the Capitol. (Greg Nash)
“It was a mistake, in my view, [for] Fox News to depict this in a way completely at variance with what our chief law enforcement official in the Capitol” described, McConnell said.
It’s an unusual position for the host of one of Fox’s most-watched programs, who, while often a magnet for the ire of the left, seldom gets such direct criticism from those on the right.
Carlson, who has previously criticized McCarthy on his show, suggested at the start of the year that the new House Speaker release all Jan. 6 security footage in order to win support from detractors threatening to block his path to the gavel. McCarthy later gave Carlson exclusive first access to the footage, but has denied that release came as a result of negotiations for the Speakership.
Though McCarthy and other Republicans said last week that footage released for broadcast would be subject to a Capitol Police security review, and Carlson said as much on his show, Capitol Police said it saw just one of the several clips that Carlson aired on Monday: An interior door that Carlson said was blurred as a result of security concerns.
“We repeatedly requested that any clips be shown to us first for a security review,” Capitol Police told The Hill on Monday. “So far we have only been given the ability to preview a single clip out of the multiple clips that aired.”
A senior GOP aide with knowledge of the process of releasing the footage said the Capitol Police provided a list of what would be considered security sensitive, and only one clip that Carlson wanted to air met that standard, which Capitol Police then cleared.
The same camera angle was released without any blur on the door during the 2021 impeachment of former President Trump.
“We worked with the Capitol Police to identify any security-sensitive footage and made sure it wasn’t released,” McCarthy spokesman Mark Bednar said in a statement.
A representative for Fox News declined to comment on Tuesday.
A number of lawmakers offered pointed and direct criticism of Carlson’s first use of the footage.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), meanwhile, told multiple news outlets said that Carlson’s show on the Jan. 6 footage was “bullshit.”
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) told CNN: “To somehow put that in the same category as a permitted peaceful protest is just a lie.”
Sen. Kevin Cramer is among the Republicans that have criticized Tucker Carlson airing Jan. 6 footage. (Greg Nash)
Carlson at the same time won plaudits from other Republicans who have similarly criticized and downplayed the attack.
“When will judges begin applying justice equally? Doesn’t look like “thousands of armed insurrectionists” to me,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said in a tweet after thanking McCarthy and Carlson for showing the footage.
“I've seen enough. Release all J6 political prisoners now,” Rep. Mike Collins (R-Ga.) said in a tweet as Carlson’s show aired.
Trump also weighed in on the footage, praising Carlson and McCarthy over its publication and calling the tapes the Fox host played for his audience “irrefutable.”
Carlson aired the footage after being granted access to the trove of security tapes by McCarthy, prompting outrage from Democrats and pundits who raised concerns that the tapes could threaten Capitol security procedures and amplify conspiracy theories.
Former President Trump speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md. (Greg Nash)
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on the Senate floor on Tuesday called Carlson’s show “one of the most shameful hours we’ve seen on cable television,” saying he was “furious” with both Carlson and McCarthy. He called on Fox News and its owner Rupert Murdoch to tell Carlson to not run more footage on Tuesday evening.
“Speaker McCarthy has played a treacherous, treacherous game in catering to the far right,” Schumer said.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who was one of the members on the Jan. 6 committee, is among those who have raised security concerns over the release of the footage, noting it could be used to map the Capitol and the evacuation path of lawmakers.
He called Carlson’s show and conspiracies about Jan. 6 pushed through his documentary a “central part of the GOP agenda and playbook as they try to get Donald Trump elected to the White House again.”
“They didn't even apparently honor their agreement with the Capitol Police to provide the clips in advance. So there can be some attempt to contextualize whatever silly potshots they're taking,” he told The Hill.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (Annabelle Gordon)
“The absurd part is they act like their fragmented and disoriented potshots from Capitol security footage are the only documentary record of what happened. There are thousands and thousands of hours that have already been published – not just security footage – but also [by] media that were present and insurrectionists themselves. The whole world was watching and everyone knows exactly what happened. They are involved in a fraudulent enterprise here,” he added.
Among the unfounded theories Carlson floated in his Monday program were suggestions that federal agents helped incite the violence, though he stopped short of providing evidence to prove it. He also cast doubt on the circumstances surrounding the death of Capitol police officer Brian Sicknick.
It was something Manger deemed “the most disturbing accusation from last night” in asserting his death “had nothing to do with heroic actions on Jan. 6.”
“The department maintains, as anyone with common sense would, that had Officer Sicknick not fought valiantly for hours on the day he was violently assaulted, Officer Sicknick would not have died the next day,” the chief said.
The top-rated host last year produced and published a multi-part documentary series dubbed “Patriot Purge,” which purported to tell an alternative story of the attack and features at least one subject who suggests the event may have been a “false flag” operation.
The publication of the tapes also comes as Carlson specifically and Fox more generally are taking intense heat from critics over revelations the company’s top executives and talent embraced and discussed Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election on air but privately cast doubt on them.
“They believed the election they had just voted in had been unfairly conducted,” Carlson said Monday of the people who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. “They were right. In retrospect, it is clear the 2020 election was a grave betrayal of American democracy, given the facts that have since emerged about that election,” he said. “No honest person can deny it. Yet the beneficiaries of that election continue to lie about what is now obvious.”
Manger dismissed those conclusions in his Tuesday letter.
“TV commentary will not record the truth of our history books,” he wrote in his letter. “The Justice system will. Truth and justice are on our side.”
Alexander Bolton contributed.