Briefing

How Republicans are reacting to Tucker Carlson's 'off the rails' Jan. 6 stunt

The Fox News host's decision to broadcast cherry-picked footage of the Capitol riot seems to be backfiring

On Monday evening, Fox News host Tucker Carlson kicked off the first of a planned series of broadcasts featuring footage from the Jan. 6 Capitol riot given exclusively to him by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). Using clips cherry-picked from the tens of thousands of hours of tape provided by McCarthy, Carlson claimed the footage broadly "does not show an insurrection or a riot in progress," and that "the protesters were angry. They believed that the election they had just voted in had been unfairly conducted."

"And," he concluded, "they were right."

That Carlson would spend his airtime boosting the very same election conspiracy theories that helped fuel the violence of that day is not altogether surprising or unusual; Carlson has devoted plenty of episodes of his nightly program to amplifying former President Donald Trump's thoroughly debunked claims that nefarious electoral fraud cost him a second term in office. What made Monday night's broadcast unique, however, was the fact that it came just weeks after documents filed in Dominion Voting Systems' defamation lawsuit against Fox showed that privately Carlson and other network figures seemed well aware that the "stolen" election claims were bogus, even as they continued to disseminate them publicly on air. In this context, Carlson's decision to double down on the same rhetoric that's landed his employer in serious financial and reputational jeopardy is a noteworthy one — and one that may backfire on the network's star broadcaster. 

Democrats aren't having it

Speaking on the Senate floor on Tuesday, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called Carlson's broadcast "one of the most shameful hours we have ever seen on cable television," adding that Carlson knew "full well he was lying to his audience" about the rioters who threatened lawmakers and their staffs that day. 

Schumer later called on Rupert Murdoch to block Carlson from Tuesday evening's scheduled broadcast. 

Speaking with NBC News, however, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) pointed out the potential folly in Carlson's decision to continue pushing this narrative, noting that "electorally, it's not to their advantage to be on the side of insurrectionists. But hasn't stopped them before."

...and some Republicans aren't either

Echoing the risk of reputational (and perhaps electoral) liability raised by Schatz, GOP Rep. Dan Crenshaw (Texas) also criticized Carlson's segment, explaining, "I don't really have a problem with making it all public. But if your message is then to try and convince people that nothing bad happened, then it's just gonna make us look silly."

"It's definitely stupid to keep talking about this," he added. "So what is the purpose of continuing to bring it up unless you're trying to feed Democrat narratives even further?"

"The American people saw what happened on Jan. 6," Republican Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) told the press on Tuesday. "They've seen the people that got injured, they saw the damage to the building. You can't hide the truth by selectively picking a few minutes out of tapes and saying this is what went on. It's so absurd. It's nonsense." Romney, who has positioned his tenure in the Senate as a conservative foil to the ascendant MAGA wing of the party, added that he felt "really sad to see Tucker Carlson go off the rails like that."

North Carolina's GOP Sen. Thom Tillis was even less circumspect with his reaction to Carlson's broadcast, telling reporters on Tuesday he thought it was "bulls--t."

"To somehow put [the riot] in the same category as a permitted peaceful protest is just a lie," Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) told CNN's Manu Raju. Cramer lamented that McCarthy hadn't shared the footage with multiple outlets and journalists equally, instead choosing to give it to "one who is particularly good at conservative entertainment."

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) couched his criticism of Carlson in a broader partisan swipe against the previous work of the House Select Committee on the Jan. 6 attack, explaining that the congressional body "had a partisan view of things, and I'd like to know more about what happened that day and the day before. But I'm not interested in whitewashing the COVID lab theory, and I'm not interested in whitewashing Jan. 6."

Asked whether he objected to McCarthy giving the footage to Carlson to begin with, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) pivoted away from criticizing his colleague to instead highlight the "mistake" in depicting it "in a way that's completely at variance with what our chief law enforcement official at the Capitol thinks."

Neither are many law enforcement officials and their families

After Carlson's episode aired, Capitol Police chief Thomas Manger sent an internal memo to his officers blasting the broadcast as "conveniently cherry-picking from the calmer moments" of the tens of thousands of hours of footage, in service of "the narrative they want to push."

Calling Carlson's show "offensive" and full of "misleading conclusions," Manger also conspicuously seemed to contradict the pundit's claim that Capitol Police had reviewed all the footage which had been aired on Monday, writing to his colleagues that "the opinion program never reached out to the Department to provide accurate context." 

The family of deceased officer Brian Sicknick also lashed out at Carlson over a segment in which he downplayed the role the riot played in the officer's death the following day — a fatality ruled in a coroner's report to have been brought about in part by "all that transpired (on January 6)."

"Carlson's 'truth' is to pick and choose footage that supports his delusional views," they wrote in a statement, noting elsewhere that "Fox does this not for any sense of morality for they have none, but for the quest for every penny of advertising money they can get." 

Taken all together

As Politico's Jonathan Martin noted, all this comes as "Murdoch is now trying to dump" Trump, but is instead forced to grapple with the fact that his network "depends on/perpetuates radicalization. Including but not limited to: Elevating candidates who live in a primary bubble, can't appeal in general."

Indeed, the rarity of so many Republicans being willing to call out Carlson and Fox News itself suggests the host may have overplayed his hand by doubling down on the conspiracy-mongering he was shown to have derided in private. That GOP lawmakers feel they can criticize a network ostensibly powerful enough to make or break their careers is a sign that Fox's influence may be waning within conservative circles. As MSNBC's Steve Benen wrote, it's hard to see what return on investment Fox is getting from Carlson's decision. "To be sure, Jan. 6 denialists were delighted with Carlson's program last night," Benen said. "But for every other mainstream observer, the coverage wasn't investigative journalism; it was a theatrical production put on by an unreliable narrator."

"This deserves mockery because it is a lame and transparent effort on the part of the 20 percent to 25 percent of the population (and their Fox News cheerleaders) which endorses and supports the insurrection to repackage their degenerate values as a kind of evidentiary breakthrough," wrote Josh Marshall in an essay for Talking Points Memo.

"The insurrection was traitorous and disgusting," he continued. But "clumsily edited video of an insurrectionist putting back upright a flipped over chair is hilarious because it's so stupid. We should treat it as such."

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