Sixteen members of Congress have spread, or at least entertained, a conspiracy theory that the January 6th insurrection was an “inside job” led by the FBI, according to an analysis by CREW. While the theory started on the media fringes of the far right, it has now made its way into the congressional Republican mainstream.
Representatives Clay Higgins, Troy Nehls, Thomas Massie, Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Gosar, Andy Biggs, Eli Crane, Madison Cawthorn, Louie Gohmert and Jim Jordan and Senators Ron Johnson, J.D. Vance, Tom Cotton, Mike Lee and Ted Cruz have all spread or entertained the conspiracy theory. Of the 16 who have amplified the false belief, two are no longer in office.
The theory originated from right-wing reports that claimed some members of the crowd were undercover FBI agents who instigated the violence on January 6th. Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show and docuseries elevated the conspiracy theory, focusing especially on a rioter named Ray Epps. Over 18 months, Carlson mentioned Epps nearly 20 times on his show, accusing him of “stage-manag[ing]” the insurrection and calling attention to the fact that Epps had not been charged with crimes by the Department of Justice.
It didn’t take long for Trump supporters in Congress to seize on the theory, which conveniently deflected blame for the attack from Trump himself on to “the deep state.”
Representatives Gaetz, Greene and Massie took it up most aggressively, pushing the belief on official and unofficial channels. Massie questioned Attorney General Garland about whether FBI agents agitated for violence on January 6th in October 2021. That same month, Gaetz hosted the author of a Revolver News report connecting Epps to the “fedsurrection” theory on his podcast for a lengthy conversation about the theory.
After the Revolver report and around the one year anniversary of the attack on the Capitol, the conspiracy theory gained widespread traction. Then-Senate candidate J.D. Vance commented on Twitter on December 18, 2021 that, “If the January 6 committee was anything more than a sham it would look into the role of Ray Epps.” On December 30, Representative Troy Nehls retweeted a video Massie posted about Epps asking, “Why is Ray Epps free?”
On January 6, 2022, Gaetz and Greene held a press conference on the theory, saying that January 6th was not an insurrection, “but it very well may have been a fedsurrection.” Then-Representative Madison Cawthorn tweeted that same day, “Who is Ray Epps?” On January 9, 2022, Trump himself posted about the fedsurrection theory for the first time. The next day, Senator Ron Johnson asked on Sean Hannity’s show, “What about Epps? Did he work for the FBI?”
On January 11, 2022, Senator Tom Cotton questioned a Department of Justice official about Ray Epps and whether FBI plainclothes officers entered the Capitol. At the same hearing, Senator Ted Cruz told an FBI official: “A lot of Americans are concerned that the federal government deliberately encouraged illegal and violent conduct on Jan. 6.”
In response, the January 6th Select Committee announced that it had interviewed Epps and that he was never an FBI informant or member of law enforcement. Epps told the Committee that Gaetz, Greene and Massie were driving the baseless narrative, and that it was tearing his life apart. That didn’t stop Cruz from sending a fundraising email promoting the theory later that month, nor did it stop Representative Jim Jordan from questioning Epps’s testimony to the committee on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show.
Focus on the theory never abated, despite Epps’s denial that he ever worked for the FBI, and repeated debunking from outlets like the New York Times and Politifact. For example, in September 2022, Representatives Paul Gosar and Louie Gohmert introduced a bill demanding documents from the FBI on Epps and in July 2023, Representative Andy Biggs questioned Wray about the number of FBI agents present on January 6th.
The conspiracy theory around Epps was based in part around the fact that he was never charged by the DOJ. That changed in September 2023, when the DOJ charged him with disorderly conduct, to which Epps pleaded guilty. That did nothing to squash the theory.
Massie aggressively questioned Attorney General Merrick Garland about Epps’s misdemeanor charge on September 20, and commented that “the American public isn’t buying it.” The next day, Representative Eli Crane said in an interview with the Gateway Pundit that Epps was “getting preferential treatment because he was actually, I believe he’s working with our government.” Crane then recounted the details of the Epps conspiracy. In November, Representative Clay Higgins questioned FBI Director Christopher Wray about “ghost buses” of FBI informants who were pretending to be Trump supporters on January 6th. During an interview later that month, Higgins claimed there were “over 200 agents embedded in the crowd” and “inside the Capitol dressed as Trump supporters.”
Speaker Mike Johnson’s recent decision to release the tapes from January 6th contributed to a new focus on the fedsurrection theory.
After the first tapes were released on November 17, Senator Mike Lee adopted the narrative by quote tweeting January 6th defendant and congressional candidate Derrick Evans’s suggestion that fellow insurrectionist Kevin Lyons was a federal agent. “Is this person flashing a badge? If so, this would prove there were undercover federal agents disguised as MAGA,” Evans wrote. Sen. Lee responded, “I can’t wait to ask FBI Director Christopher Wray about this at our next oversight hearing.” In Lyons’s hand is a vape—not a badge.
Despite evidence to the contrary, the fedsurrection theory has continued to spread, and members of Congress are not alone in boosting it: Donald Trump Jr., Kari Lake, Elon Musk and Vivek Ramaswamy have all pushed the fedsurrection narrative this year. Much like the Big Lie that Trump won the 2020 election, which led directly to the insurrection, the rejection of basic facts about what happened on January 6th risks destabilizing American democracy to help Donald Trump become president again. The risk is especially severe when those basic facts are questioned within Congress.