Status: 06.12.2023, 05:08 a.m.
Former President Donald Trump has relished the chance to use his trials to spread discredited theories about the 2020 election and the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Former President Donald Trump denies calling for the violent storming of the Capitol in 2021. He blames the police and the government.
WASHINGTON — Ever since he was indicted on charges of meddling in the 2020 election results, Donald Trump has enjoyed the opportunity to use the case in Washington as a venue to make his unfounded allegations of fraud.
Now he is using it to spread a new series of falsehoods: that the federal government staged or instigated the violence at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, in order to discredit Trump and his supporters.
Blurring the line between Trump's campaigns and his court hearings
In court filings last week, the former president revealed that he was asking the Justice Department for information about far-right claims that are frequently made in his speeches, on his social media, and by his conservative allies in Congress — further blurring the line between his campaign and his court hearings.
If the judge allows it, we want to show how we won the election.
Donald Trump, former U.S. president, during a speech in Iowa on Saturday
Trump's legal filings usually contain a political dimension because the core of his defense is portraying law enforcement as politicized, according to advisers. In his campaign speeches, he has frequently claimed that President Biden ordered Trump's arrest to damage his candidacy, and his lawyers have also claimed in court that he is fighting against "tyranny" and "oppression" by the Biden administration.
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Storming of the Capitol: Trump rhetorically uses conspiracy theories
Now, Trump is also hinting that the government is withholding information about individuals known as "Fence Cutter Bulwark" and "Scaffold Commander" — nicknames given by conspiracy theorists to individuals they claim are government agents who instigated the January 6 insurrection.
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Trump demanded "all the documents on" Ray Epps, a supporter of the former president who was falsely accused of being an undercover agent, and John Nichols, a liberal journalist from Wisconsin who right-wing media have claimed fomented violence at the Capitol on behalf of the "deep state."
He also asked about any information the government had about "Antifa," about pipe bombs found near the Capitol on Jan. 6, and about "informants, collaborators [and] undercover investigators ... involved in supporting, planning, or encouraging" the events of that day.
"What he and his lawyers have put forward is more of a PR strategy than a legal one"
These are all references common on right-wing social media, including Trump's "Truth Social" feed, and among his most conservative supporters in Congress.
But they are far beyond the view of even many Trump supporters on the Capitol attack and have been repeatedly rejected in federal courts by the judges overseeing hundreds of Jan. 6-related cases.
"There is nothing to suggest that any of these debunked theories had anything to do with causing Jan. 6," said Timothy Heaphy, a former prosecutor who led the investigation for the Jan. 6 House committee. "What he and his lawyers have put forward is more of a PR strategy than a legal one."
Trump wants to delay his trials until the 2024 presidential election
The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Finding gaps or unanswered questions in the prosecution's case is the job of the defense, and attorneys often make wide-ranging inquiries in hopes of finding something that could influence the jury.
Requesting tons of material can also help delay a case — a major goal for Trump, who wants to delay his trials until the 2024 presidential election.
However, the Jan. 6 cases are unique in that numerous lawyers have already gained access to tens of thousands of hours of video footage, including from Epps and other alleged government officials.
Claims do not match the video evaluation
"Among the hundreds of people who looked through it, none of us came up with the Antifa provocateurs or the federal agent provocateurs that we keep hearing about," said Greg Hunter, who has represented more than a dozen Jan. 6 participants, including one who was acquitted at trial.
"It's because they're not there. There are a lot of people looking for it, but no one has found it. The demands are among the five dozen or so that Trump claims the administration is ignoring them; the prosecution replied that it had handed over everything relevant to the trial.
"All of these inquiries — regarding the pipe bomb investigation, offers of immunity to the January 6 defendants, 'Antifa,' sources, and various named and unnamed perpetrators of the January 6 Pipe Bomb Investigation.
January — appear to focus on the actions of others in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol," the special prosecutor wrote late last month. "To the extent that we have such material, we have made it available to you."
Violent riots: Undercover investigations and law enforcement agencies are to blame
Trump's lawyers said in a court filing that unlike rioters who claim informants or undercover agents incited them to commit crimes, the former president "is not attempting to prove that he was prompted by the government to commit the conduct charged."
Instead, he wants to argue that the violence arose due to law enforcement's loss of control and "failed undercover investigations, not instructions from President Trump."
Trump calls for police officers to be indicted and protesters released
The appearance of false claims about January 6 in legal briefs is in line with Trump's campaign rhetoric. His lawyers, in a motion released Wednesday, called on the government to "identify all police officers who were present at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021."
The next day, Trump posted on social media saying that "the cops should be indicted and the protesters released." The attached video showed people battling the police to break into the Capitol.
The filings come at a time when a Republican-led House committee is beginning to release security footage from inside the building to the public.
Misinformation about law enforcement involvement in the riots
Far-right lawmakers quickly began using the material to spread misinformation about law enforcement involvement in the riots, including by claiming that a vape pen held by a protester was a police badge.
Several of the people Trump mentioned in his request for information from prosecutors rejected the former president's insinuations that they were part of a government conspiracy.
Trump is referring to statements made by former Capitol Police chief Steven Sund
Trump asked for all documents related to the testimony of former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, according to which he "believed that the officers knew about the insurrection on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 before it took place and covered it up."
That's a reference to an unaired excerpt from a Fox News interview posted on social media, in which Sund expresses frustration that he didn't have access to all the information that suggested a possible use of force, and that he wasn't able to send the National Guard to the Capitol for several hours.
"Everything seems to be a cover-up," Sund said in the clip, going on to say that some officers may have "kind of wanted something to happen."
In an interview, Sund clarified that given the magnitude of the failures in preparing for the attack on the Capitol and the response to it, he understands why some people are "going down the rabbit hole of these conspiracy theories." But, he stressed, "I'm not a conspiracy theorist."
Trump's lawyers also requested all documents on Ray Epps
Trump's lawyers also demanded "all documents relating to Ray Epps, 'scaffolding commander' John Nichols, or similar individuals who promoted or participated in illegal activities on January 6."
Epps has been repeatedly and baselessly accused of inciting violence at the Capitol on behalf of the U.S. government, a claim circulated by a former Trump speechwriter. The night before the insurrection, Epps told other Trump supporters that they might have to go to the Capitol "peacefully" the next day.
Videos of the riots show that while Epps was at the head of the mob and helped the crowd push towards the police, he also repeatedly tried to calm the people around him and prevent violence.
Epps' lawyer urges Trump to stop spreading conspiracy theories
Epps pleaded guilty to misconduct in September. He's suing Fox News for falsely calling him a government spy, claiming the slander forced him and his wife to leave their home and live in an RV.
"If Mr. Trump wants to know anything about Ray Epps, here it is: Ray Epps was a strong and vocal supporter of Mr. Trump and came to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 at Mr. Trump's urging," Epps' civil attorney Michael Teter said in a text.
"But when some of Mr. Trump's supporters turned violent and attacked law enforcement and the Capitol, Ray did what Mr. Trump didn't: He tried to de-escalate and restore peace and order. Maybe Mr. Trump will finally learn a lesson from Ray and take responsibility for his actions and stop peddling debunked, outdated conspiracy theories."
Trump's lawyers are also looking at a correspondent for Nation magazine
Nichols, whom Trump also interviewed, is a longtime correspondent for the Wisconsin-based liberal magazine Nation who, according to some conspiracy theorists, was the "scaffolding commander" who urged people to enter the Capitol from a platform erected for Biden's inauguration.
Nichols said he noticed some tweets about a year ago suggesting he was part of the Capitol mob, but the issue hasn't come up since. He was surprised to hear that the former president's lawyers had taken up the issue.
"I wasn't in the Capitol," he added. "I was in Madison." He followed the uproar on television and wrote updates for the nation's website, including a column titled "Impeach Trump Immediately." The photos of the "Scaffold Commander" look "like a younger me," he said, but "we're aging a little bit."
Judges Allow Defendants to Defend Themselves Against Government on Violent Charges
Trump's lawyers also asked prosecutors for information about "the person referred to as the 'fence-cutter bulwark,' who was videotaped removing fences before the crowd moved from the ellipse toward the Capitol."
Right-wing websites have claimed, without evidence, that this person is a federal agent who tricked Trump supporters into trespassing on the grounds of the Capitol. However, a man who identifies himself as the person in the video has stated in interviews that he was just an onlooker who thought the fence was a security risk.
The judges have allowed the people charged for their involvement in the Jan. 6 attack to defend themselves in court by claiming that the federal government staged or instigated the violence, but those arguments were not convincing.
"Citizens can make up their minds for political or other reasons"
California yoga instructor and former police chief Alan Hostetter thanked Judge Royce A. Lamberth for allowing the claim that the insurrection was part of a corrupt plot between Democrats and Republicans. Lamberth found Hostetter guilty on four counts; he will be sentenced on Thursday.
"Citizens can make up their minds for political or other reasons," the judge said. "The courts need to have evidence."
Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.
About the authors
Rachel Weiner reports on federal courts in Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Va.
Isaac Arnsdorf is a national political reporter for The Washington Post covering former President Donald Trump, the Make America Great Again political movement, and the Republican Party.
We are currently testing machine translations. This article has been automatically translated from English into German.
This article was first published in English on December 05, 2023 by the "Washingtonpost.com" - in the course of a cooperation, it is now also available in translation to the readers of IPPEN. MEDIA portals.