On Tuesday, former Marine, former wedding venue operator, and current hermit Ray Epps was indicted for his actions during the Jan. 6 riot. This single charge should lay to rest an elaborate conspiracy theory that originated with online supporters of Donald Trump and spread across right-wing media. It should … if conspiracy theories were affected by facts.
Epps, a 61-year-old former president of the Arizona branch of the Oath Keepers militia and adamant supporter of Trump, flew from Arizona to Washington, D.C., in response to Trump’s call for a ‘wild’ time. Videos of Epps on Jan. 5 show him shouting for Trump supporters to take the Capitol. On Jan. 6, he marched toward Congress, urging others to do the same.
When the FBI created a website where it posted photos of individuals being sought for their involvement in the insurgency, Epps’ face was one of the first to appear. But when Epps’ photo was taken down and no charges immediately followed, claims emerged that Epps was secretly a government agent who had infiltrated Trump supporters to entice them into breaking the law. Those claims spread from QAnon to right-wing media and may have reached a peak when Sen. Ted Cruz and then-host Tucker Carlson parroted the claim on Fox News.
Carlson’s embrace of the theory, which he repeated on multiple occasions, was enough to generate waves of harassment against Epps from his fellow Trump supporters. He and his wife were forced to sell their wedding-venue business in Arizona and live “in hiding” at a trailer somewhere in Utah. In an interview with People, Epps’ attorney said the couple “received a number of credible and serious death threats, which become worse each time someone on Fox or Tucker Carlson talk about Ray.”
Epps became such a fixture of the right-wing conspiracy landscape that Republican politicians weren’t just mentioning him on Carlson’s show. They were yelling about him in a House hearing with FBI Director Christopher Wray.
“I want to turn my attention now to this fella, this character, Mr. Ray Epps,” said Texas Republican Rep. Troy Nehls. “We’ve all heard of him. We’ve heard of Mr. Ray Epps. He was number 16 on your FBI most-wanted list. He was encouraging people the night prior and the day to go into the Capitol. And Mr. Ray Epps can be seen at the first breach of Capitol grounds at approximately 12:50 p.m.”
Epps was never on the FBI’s most-wanted list. When it comes to the FBI’s Jan. 6 website, Epps’ photo was removed because he reached out and turned himself in after seeing that the FBI was looking for him. Following that first contact, Epps was told he would likely face charges.
But when Wray refused to say that Epps would be arrested, Nehls responded angrily. “It appears to me you are protecting this guy! I strongly recommend you get your house back in order!”
In July, Epps filed a lawsuit against Fox News and Carlson accusing them of defamation. The lawsuit was filed in the same Delaware court where Fox News ended a lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems by reaching a last-minute agreement to pay a $787.5 million settlement. Not long after that settlement, Fox News fired Carlson. But that move didn’t come in time to avoid another $12 million that Fox paid in June to settle a hostile workplace lawsuit by a former employee on Carlson’s show.
Carlson is truly the gift that keeps on giving.
In August, Fox News moved to dismiss Epps’ lawsuit, with a claim that Carlson painting Epps at the center of a fantastical conspiracy theory was “exactly what the First Amendment protects.” According to the Fox News motion, Carlson’s statements were “protected opinions, not assertions of fact.” That motion has not yet been decided. Fox News attorneys asked for a hearing on the motion in a court appearance on Monday afternoon.
While it’s safe to say that statements of fact were hard to find on Carlson’s show—and remain so on the programs of other Fox News pundits—it’s hard to see how viewers were supposed to get that just-an-opinion vibe from Carlson bringing up Epps in nearly 20 different episodes, in which he told his audience there was “no rational explanation” for the failure to charge Epps other than him being a federal agent.
In the indictment filed on Monday, Epps faces a single charge of engaging in “disorderly and disruptive conduct” in a restricted area with “intent to impede and disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business.” He is not known to have entered the Capitol, and no evidence has emerged that he assaulted the police or of any act of vandalism. He was one of several people photographed holding a very large Trump sign which was thrust toward the police line, but he hasn’t been charged with an offense connected to that action. One other man who was charged for being one of those holding the sign was found guilty on nine other counts, but acquitted for his part in holding the sign.
The method in which Epps was charged suggested he had already reached an agreement for a plea. NBC News has reported that Epps will enter his plea over a Zoom call on Wednesday afternoon.
The charges against Epps make him one of just a handful of people to be charged in relation to the insurgency who did not enter the Capitol or engage violently with the police. His wait for this charge is far from exceptional. Over 200 defendants have been charged in the past year, with 42 sentenced since July. There are still many more cases to come. The FBI seems to have simply prioritized those who entered the Capitol, assaulted the police, and engaged in violent conspiracies.
But don’t expect any of that to make it safe for Epps to leave his trailer. Conspiracy theories can always adapt to ignore facts. And don’t be surprised if Republicans in Congress continue to use Epps in their tirades. Unlike Fox News, the speech and debate clause of the Constitution is always there so they can defame and endanger anyone—as the founders intended.
Epps’ actions on Jan. 5 and 6, his ardent support for Trump, and most of all his involvement with the Oath Keepers show that he is anything but a model citizen. And maybe it’s only fitting that the MAGA crowd should turn on one of their own. But in the end, the conspiracy against Epps isn’t about Epps, or even the FBI. It’s about what’s most important to Trump supporters: avoiding any responsibility for their own actions.
Kerry talks with Drew Linzer, director of the online polling company Civiqs. Drew tells us what the polls say about voters’ feelings toward President Joe Biden and Donald Trump, and what the results would be if the two men were to, say … run against each other for president in 2024. Oh yeah, Drew polled to find out who thinks Donald Trump is guilty of the crimes he’s been indicted for, and whether or not he should see the inside of a jail cell.