A man from Arizona entered the focus of a partisan fight over how the Capitol Hill riot should be remembered
A participant of the pro-Trump rally that escalated into the breach of the Capitol Building last year was pinpointed as a possible federal agent provocateur, but critics call the claim a ?conspiracy theory?.
How did Ray Epps make headlines?
Epps was part of the large crowd of supporters of then-President Donald Trump, who convened to Washington, DC ahead of the congressional certification of Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 election. He was filmed in four separate instances on January 5 and 6, which many people on the right find highly suspicious.His behavior at the time, and certain facts about his life, make him a good candidate for being a federal informant and possibly even a key actor in a presumed plot to incite violence on Capitol Hill to the benefit of the Democratic Party, critics alleged.
What exactly did he do in January?
According to footage, on January 5, Epps talked with other members of the scheduled protest, calling on them to "go into the Capitol" the next day. "Peacefully," he stressed on one occasion, which prompted others to start chanting "Fed! Fed!" in response.
On January 6, he was filmed directing demonstrators to go towards the Capitol after the speech Trump delivered at the rally. Later, he was filmed in front of a police barricade moments before protesters broke it down. In the video, Epps can be seen saying something to another person who was wearing a red MAGA hat, but didn't take part in the attack on the barricade.
There is no evidence that he personally went inside the building after the breach.
When was that discovered?
In the early days of the investigation, the footage was part of a trove of publicly available information on the riot. Epps was identified by local press in Arizona, his home state, shortly after the dramatic events and was interviewed about his role.
He told the Arizona Republic newspaper that he didn't do anything wrong in Washington and that by instructing people to go into the Capitol, he meant going "in the doors like everyone else." He denounced the actions of his fellow protesters.
The FBI likewise pinpointed Epps as a person of interest early on and put him on the Capitol Violence most-wanted list, asking members of the public to provide information about him. Later, his image was removed from the web page.
Why do people find Epps suspicious?
Some say he may have been one of the FBI's informants within rightwing militias, and got away with his incitement because of it. Epps is a 60-year-old former Marine who lives in Queen Creek, Arizona. He has a ranch and an event venue business there, according to public records.
In the early 2010s, he was president of the state chapter of the non-partisan militia Oath Keepers. He is also reportedly closely associated with the founder and national leader of the organization, Stewart Rhodes. Neither man was charged with any crimes related to January 6, even though other protesters linked to the group have faced some of the most serious allegations among the hundreds of people indicted as part of the Capitol riot investigation.
There are plenty of vocal supporters of the narrative in the conservative camp, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Representative Thomas Massie, and Senator Ted Cruz, to name a few.
What does the government say?
In October, Massie asked Attorney General Merrick Garland about Epps and wider claims that government-linked agitators may have played a role in inciting the January 6 riot. Garland responded that the Department of Justice does not comment on ongoing investigations.
This week, Executive Assistant Director of the FBI Jill Sanborn told a Senate committee that she was aware of Epps, but wouldn't offer any details about him. After the hearing, the Democrat-dominated House committee investigating the riot stated on Twitter that Epps was interviewed by members and assured them he was not associated with any law enforcement agency.
Is there an innocent explanation?
FBI investigators could have removed Epps from their wanted list after deciding that no additional information about him was forthcoming. His non-indictment may be explained by lack of evidence of wrongdoing that could secure a conviction.
The majority of people charged over January 6 were busted on crimes like entering a restricted area and disorderly conduct inside the Capitol building, or for various acts of disturbance and violence during confrontations with police that followed the breach.
There is no direct evidence that Epps was in any way connected to the FBI. Left-leaning outlets ridiculed claims to the contrary as a conspiracy theory and "the next big lie" from the Trump world to deflect the blame for the storming of Congress.
Some of this dismissive attitude may be due to the fact that Democrats and many media outlets critical of Trump have been heavily invested in treating January 6 as a major attack on the country which almost ended American democracy. Marking the anniversary of the event earlier this month, Vice President Kamala Harris compared it to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II and the September 11 terrorist attacks of 2001.