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How Tucker's "FedEpps" conspiracy theory led to Fox News's latest legal mess
Reckless smears have consequences.
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Last week, a former Oath Keeper named Ray Epps filed a defamation lawsuit against Fox News. And it was made possible by Tucker Carlson, whose reckless conspiracy-mongering about Epps’s alleged role in January 6 represented the sort of legal liability that probably made it easier for Rupert Murdoch to show him the door a few months ago.
Epps, a two-time Trump voter, flew to DC from his home in Arizona in January 2021 to protest the certification of Biden’s win. He attended the January 6 rally on the Ellipse and was at the front lines when the Capitol barricades were breached. Nonetheless, he found himself at the center of a conspiracy theory blasted out by Carlson, who alleged Epps was a federal agent dispatched to incite the crowd to violence and bring shame upon Donald Trump’s peace-loving voters.
MAGA’s desperation to shift blame for J6 led to a wild conspiracy theory with Epps at the center
The theory had its genesis in an encounter between Epps and far right media personality Timothy Gionet, better known as “Baked Alaska.”
In his complaint, Epps says that he left his hotel on the evening of January 5 after being told that a group of Trump supporters was “becoming confrontational with police and Black Lives Matter protestors.” He hoped to “calm the situation” because he was a former marine and “Marines are always in the front.” He says that Gionet was leading a small group in taunting police officers, and when Epps urged them to respect law enforcement, the crowd turned its anger toward him. From the complaint:
As Baked Alaska began to turn the crowd of a dozen or so Trump supporters against him, Epps sought to prove that he was on their side so that he could deescalate the situation — to find common ground with them. He said, “I’m probably gonna go to jail for this. Tomorrow, we need to go into the Capitol. Peacefully.” At that time, Epps believed that the Rotunda was open to the public, like it had been when he visited Washington, DC with his father a decade earlier. Nevertheless, Baked Alaska responded by chanting “Fed, fed, fed,” which a few others in the crowd joined.
You can watch footage of the events depicted in that excerpt in the below video, which is timestamped to start with Epps’s January 5 interaction with Gionet.
Gionet live-streamed the event to his followers, but that wasn’t the only time that Epps was caught on camera in his visit to DC. The next day, January 6, he attended the pre-riot rally, but “to his disappointment, he could not hear most of the speeches because he was positioned near someone spreading the gospel through an amplified sound system.” He then “began directing people towards the Capitol” where he says he “made his way to the barricades” and “sought to diffuse [sic] the situation” as the crowd grew more agitated.
Epps was caught on police body-worn cameras talking to other protestors in the crowd as the first barricade was breached. In his testimony and lawsuit, he says that he was trying to talk the mob down and only entered the building to try to deter rioters from harming police. To be fair, he also testified that he routinely brings tourniquets and breathing tubes with him on all trips, and that he left the Oath Keepers because its leader Stewart Rhodes was planning to infiltrate antifa and “try to turn them to our way of thinking.” So … make of that one what you will.
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Whatever the truth of the matter, Epps’s unmasked face was captured on multiple cameras, and he appeared in some of the first images the FBI posted online in the aftermath of the attack. In his complaint, Epps says that he immediately contacted the FBI and spoke to federal agents. His photo was later removed from the list of suspects sought by law enforcement, and he believed the matter to be at an end.
But at the same time, a counter narrative was taking shape in right-wing media. Perhaps seeking to deflect blame, the very Republican legislators who’d aggressively peddled the lie about a stolen election first tried to blame antifa for the violence.
"Some of the people who breached the Capitol today were not Trump supporters," Rep. Matt Gaetz said to jeers on the House floor just days after the attack. "They were masquerading as Trump supporters and, in fact, were members of the violent terrorist group antifa."
That conspiracy never managed to take hold, not only because it was nonsense, but also because it would have prevented groups like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys from taking credit for what they’d done. Ditto for the idea that antifa agitators had infiltrated the crowd and incited violence. But as it emerged that the FBI had multiple informants embedded in the militia groups which led the mob, and that Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio had himself been an informant, the right began to coalesce around a theory that the FBI itself had seeded the crowd with agitators in an attempt to spark a riot and discredit Trump and his supporters.
In that light, Gionet’s video of Epps along with the video of him at the barricade was quickly seized on as evidence that he was an agent provocateur sent by the feds to goad the crowd into breaking the law.
It should be said that Epps, who at one time chaired the Arizona branch of the Oath Keepers, was very clearly not a federal agent. He attended the rally with his own son; he testified to Congress under penalty of perjury that he had no contact with law enforcement prior to coming to DC; the feds posted his photo online; and (not for nothing) he’s put the issue at the center of a lawsuit.
But by summer of 2021, when the government failed to charge him, it became an article of faith in certain corners of the internet that Epps was a government plant. And then in October of 2021, Tucker Carlson pushed that lie out to the masses in a “documentary” called “Patriot Purge” that aired on Fox’s streaming service.
For more than a year, in upwards of a dozen segments, Carlson continued to push the “FedEpps” storyline. In January of 2022, he called Epps “the central figure” in the January 6 riot and claimed that he “stage-managed the insurrection.”
In July of last year, he hosted Darren Beattie, a former Duke instructor who got fired from the Trump White House for being too racist. Beattie landed at the wingnut website Revolver, where he published several articles about Epps, flogging the insane theory that the feds dispatched this one guy and sent him to frame the poor MAGA patriots for mounting a coup.
“He’s the smoking gun of the entire fed-surrection,” Beattie vamped.
“And they go crazy when you ask simple questions like, what was the role of federal law enforcement or the military in this day?” Carlson agreed. “And it’s been our experience that when they won’t answer a question and call you names for asking it, maybe there’s something there.” (Watch the segment below.)
Never mind that the militias descended on DC in tactical gear with a plan to attack the Capitol. Or that the crowd shouted “Hang Mike Pence!” as they rampaged the halls of Congress armed with bear mace, zip-tie handcuffs, and flagpoles brandished as weapons. Or that they only believed that the election had been stolen, thanks to months of lies pumped out by Fox itself.
On January 6, 2023, the two-year anniversary of the attack, Carlson again blasted Epps, citing his testimony to the January 6 Committee as evidence as a coverup:
Why was the committee and its members working so hard to help Ray Epps? Now, in his interview with the committee, Ray Epps said he didn’t work for law enforcement. Law enforcement in a very specifically worded answer clearly thought through ahead of time. The question is, did Ray Epps work or have any contact with any government agency? Did he talk about January 6 before it happened with any employee of the US government? We don’t know. We do know that two years after January 6, long after an awful lot of other people have gone to jail for walking around the Capitol building, Ray Epps is still a free man. He’s never been charged, much less imprisoned in solitary confinement like so many others. Why is that? Well, let’s just stop lying. At this point, it’s pretty obvious why that is. But, of course, they’re still lying about it.
And as goes Tucker Carlson, so goes the Republican Party. Senators Ted Cruz and Ron Johnson, as well as multiple GOP reps, including Thomas Massie, Matt Gaetz, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, fanned the flames of the false Epps story.
Here are Gaetz and Greene cosplaying as The Bloodhound Gang in the case of That One Guy Who Tricked Two Thousand Lunatics Into Trying To Overthrow The Government.
Jim Jordan even sponsored a resolution in the Judiciary Committee seeking to force the FBI to admit to running Epps as an informant.
Carlson’s smears wrecked Epps’s life, which is a big problem for Fox
The effect of this firehose of nonsense was entirely predictable: Epps was subject to relentless harassment. He and his wife were inundated with threats by mail, text, and phone, with people driving by their property brandishing weapons. They were eventually forced to flee the state and sell their business.
But still the attacks continued, more or less until Carlson was fired from Fox in April of 2023. On March 11, he told his audience:
A lot of this was clearly influenced by federal agents or informants. It was, ok? But I did not want to suggest someone was a federal agent or informant unless I knew for a fact because you really could get someone in trouble. Right? If you’re like, this was the guy, and like, we don’t know. I do know for, I mean it’s very clear, something very strange is going on with Ray Epps. We’ve named him repeatedly, we’ve invited him on the show repeatedly. I mean don’t lie to my face, the Ray Epps thing isn’t, isn’t organic, sorry.
And so last week, Epps sued Fox News for defamation and the tort of false light, which is similar to defamation, but involves public statements which convey a false impression of the plaintiff that is also highly embarrassing. Epps has tried to thread the needle here by claiming that he was a bona fide insurrectionist — not the bad, violent kind, but instead the good, patriotic variety! — and not a federal agent. Fox will no doubt say that it is not defamatory to say that someone works for law enforcement. The case has not yet been assigned a judge as of this writing.
Of course, this isn’t the first high profile defamation case filed against Fox for its false election claims. After two years of bruising discovery that saw the network’s internal communications entered into the public record, Fox tapped out on the eve of trial, settling Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation suit for $787 million. Epps’s claim bears some similarities to Dominion’s suit, not least that it was filed by Brian and Michael Farnan, two of Dominion’s lawyers.
For instance, Dominion cited texts between Fox CEO Suzanne Scott and Newscorp Chair Lachlan Murdoch as one piece of evidence that Fox crafted a false narrative to stop bleeding viewers to Newsmax and OAN, which had aggressively spewed Trump’s false election claims. A quote from the complaint demonstrates Epps’s similar strategy with respect to stories about himself:
Fox engaged in a pre-conceived story line, advancing its false claims against Epps for the callous and cynical purpose of creating a scapegoat to deflect responsibility from Fox’s own complicity [in] the January 6 violence by spreading false conspiracy claims that the election had been stolen. Fox thus had an economic motive to lie and make Epps a scapegoat, seeking to advance an inherently improbable story in order to aggrandize Fox with viewers who were disgruntled with Fox for not standing sufficiently loyal to President Trump.
Epps also cited an employment discrimination lawsuit filed by Carlson’s former producer Abby Grossberg, who recently settled her claim for $12 million. Grossberg alleged that Carlson demanded that she find someone to say that the Proud Boys were led astray by an FBI informant embedded in the crowd, and pushed back hard when a lawyer for the racist gang’s members said it wasn’t true.
Moreover, in February 2023, Speaker Kevin McCarthy released thousands of hours of footage from January 6 to Carlson exclusively. The complaint points to this, in addition to Epps’s House testimony, as evidence of the host’s actual knowledge that the claims he was making on air about Epps were false.
Epps claims that the FBI told him in May that it does intend to indict him after all for his role in the attack on Congress — his complaint claims “the relentless attacks by Fox and Mr. Carlson and the resulting political pressure likely resulted in the criminal charges” — and is demanding unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. And while getting criminally prosecuted is not a cognizable legal claim, the rest of Epps injuries pose a serious risk to Fox’s bottom line.
In other words, time for Rupert Murdoch to get out his checkbook. Again.
That’s it for today
We’ll be back with more Wednesday. Thanks for reading, and if you’re not already a Public Notice subscriber, please consider supporting this work by becoming one.