"What Happened On January 6 Is Not Good For Republicans, Full Stop"
Ryan Reilly, author of Sedition Hunters, on GOP efforts to rewrite the insurrection, and why Mike Johnson may have just stepped in it
I cited Ryan Reilly’s new book Sedition Hunters in Wednesday’s newsletter, because he has a unique vantage point on the effort by House Speaker Mike Johnson and other Republicans to rewrite the history of January 6, and help insurrectionists evade justice.
He thinks they have their work cut out for them.
(Disclosure: Ryan and I were coworkers at TPM from 2010-2012. Still, I recommend his book unreservedly, and not just in a “my friend wrote this book” sense. It stands apart from nearly all Trump-era political nonfiction by bringing colorful new characters and new kinds of information to light, rather than, say, confirming for the hundredth time that Trump is just as batshit behind the scenes as you’d imagine. It’s surprisingly funny, too—the right touch of comic relief for a topic this weighty.)
As a reminder, Johnson wants to publicize all of the unreleased Capitol security footage from January 6 (to help pro-Trump propagandists lie about the insurrection) but not before he blurs the faces of the rioters (because the raw footage would make it easier for these lawless, often violent Trump supporters to face justice). Reilly knows what’s on the tapes better than just about anyone in media, and why Johnson’s two objectives—deceiving people about the insurrection and absolving the insurrectionists—are in tension.
Johnson’s smart enough to know they’re in tension, and so one question that arises is: why go to the trouble? I don’t think he’s first and foremost interested in the fate of the rioters themselves. Rather, it’s a policy manifestation of the MAGA code, wherein January 6 can be anything BUT a violent insurrection orchestrated and encouraged by Donald Trump. It can be Antifa, or a false flag, or tourism, or a Patriotic Protest or any combination thereof. But not what it actually was. Call if Big Lie 2 Electric Boogaloo. The policy’s incoherent, because Trumpism is incoherent, until you view it through the prism of a personality cult.
But the footage isn’t actually exculpatory (or it wouldn’t have to be altered) and even altered, it won’t do much to help the rioters evade justice. What it could do is provide marginal Trump supporters a pretext to overlook January 6 in making judgments about Trump’s fitness for a second term. As Johnson himself put it in the same press conference, he wants to discourage Americans from accepting “some narrative” about the January 6 insurrection as “fact.”
The narrative he wants Americans to reject is the factual one. And he wants to facilitate that by flooding the media with every last second of footage from every camera on Capitol Hill, so Fox News and the online right can pluck moments of calm out of context and treat them as representative of the whole violent day, or frame individual participants as deep state provocateurs. That has made serious reporters with panoramic knowledge of the insurrection indispensable—real time lie detectors who can play championship-level Whac-A-Mole with GOP revisionism.
Unfortunately I couldn’t find a reporter like that, so I sent my questions to Reilly instead. Our full Q&A is below.
BRIAN BEUTLER: Why do you think Mike Johnson decided to blur the faces of the Capitol rioters?
RYAN REILLY: I think we should believe what he said (before his spokesman walked it back): He doesn't want Jan. 6 participants "to be charged by the DOJ."
Honestly, from the sleuths' perspective, it is not an insurmountable challenge. As I write in the book, there are about 1,000 chargeable Capitol rioters who have been identified but not yet arrested. The Capitol CCTV footage is certainly valuable, but some of the best stuff has come out already either through the Jan. 6 committee or because the Justice Department released it in connection with a court case. The Capitol cameras aren't the highest of quality, and the footage that has been the most effective in terms of identifying suspects through facial recognition is the rioters' own footage, professionally shot video, and body-worn camera footage. The Capitol CCTV footage is certainly useful for placing events on a timeline and for figuring out which bodies/suspects entered the building, but if Speaker Johnson thinks he's preventing many people from being IDed by blurring footage, he's kidding himself. At best he's throwing sand in the gears and introducing a bit of an additional challenge for the sleuths, but they're already identified hundreds of people with what's out there already.
BB: A number of the rioters who’ve been arrested, charged, and convicted were people who’d sworn oaths to support the Constitution. As far as you know, has section three of the 14th Amendment factored into any of their pleas or sentences?
RR: There are lots of people with military and law enforcement connections, but they've typically departed those roles separately from their criminal charges, so that hasn't been a big issue so far. But there are individuals who pleaded guilty and are now running for office, including Derrick Evans from West Virginia. (He yelled, in the third person, "Derrick Evans is in the Capitol!" as he stormed the Capitol, like Steve Holt from Arrested Development.)
BB: Trump loyalists began spreading disinformation about the attack as it was ongoing, but for a while at least most Republicans on Capitol Hill were pretty forthright about what had happened. Have we seen a lot of slippage, of Republicans who were initially honest about January 6 but now spread lies or conspiracy theories about it?
RR: I think there has been a decent amount of slippage. At first it was really only the fringe members who were feeding the "fedsurrection" and Antifa narratives, like MTG [Marjorie Taylor Greene] and Matt Gaetz. But these conspiracies have gained a lot of traction, and unfortunately a lot of people who know better are willing to feed them.
BB: What do members of Congress, like Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), say when you ask them followup questions about their conspiracy theories?
RR: Dodge! When I followed up with Mike Lee's spokesman pointing out how clownish the conspiracy promoted was, the spokesperson responded by promoting another easily debunkable conspiracy theory. Nobody wants to take the L.
BB: What is the ultimate purpose of the propaganda?
RR: The reality of what happened on Jan. 6 is not good for Republicans, full stop. If you take a step back for a moment, it's sort of crazy that the GOP would want to continue highlighting Jan. 6 by releasing CCTV footage. You'd expect Republicans to downplay what happened on Jan. 6 and try to move on from the Capitol attack as much as possible. But the fact is that many of the same people who believed crazy conspiracies about the 2020 election now believe crazy conspiracies about Jan. 6, and reason and logic do very little to pull them back from the brink.
BB: Do Trump supporters need to have some stray footage to point to so they can claim everything was peaceful, or everything was Antifa? Why is that an easier sell than to say the insurrection was justified because the election was stolen? Is there some strategic value in the incoherence?
RR: It's hard to follow the arguments because they get so mixed up, but the major themes are that Trump supporters were peaceful and the violence was caused by Antifa and/or the feds. One thing I'm amazed by is that there are a lot of conservatives who believe that federal bureaucrats are that capable, to be able to pull off this massive false-flag event and leave absolutely no trace. Didn't realize conservatives thought the federal bureaucracy was so effective and full of super geniuses, but here we are.
BB: How can regular people who happen upon things like Mike Lee’s conspiratorial tweets or Tucker Carlson’s propaganda, sort fact from fiction?
RR: What happened on Jan. 6 isn't that complicated. A bunch of people thought the election was being stolen, and they stormed the Capitol because that's what people do when they think the election was stolen. For a variety of reasons, law enforcement wasn't prepared. That's it! So if you start from that premise, it's a lot easier not to get tricked by somebody who promises they have all the answers and that the real story is right around the corner. It's not.
BB: Is there more Democrats could do, beyond the January 6 Committee, to blunt GOP efforts to muddy the waters about what happened on January 6?