House Democrats are shaping a strategy to push back against the public broadcast of Jan. 6 surveillance footage recently provided by Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who is promising to air clips on his popular prime-time program in the coming weeks.
The process is in its early stages, and “nothing formal” has been finalized, according to a Democratic source familiar with the deliberations.
But Democrats of all stripes say they have no faith that Carlson, who has promoted conspiracy theories surrounding the Capitol rampage of Jan. 6, 2021, will use the exclusive footage to present an impartial account of the events of that day. And House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said this week that he’s in discussions with fellow Democrats about a plan to counter, if necessary, the narrative that emerges from Carlson’s segments.
Two lawmakers in particular — Reps. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), who headed the House select committee that investigated the Capitol riot in the last Congress, and Joe Morelle (N.Y.), senior Democrat on the House Administration Committee — will play a central role in the response, Jeffries said.
“We all should have a formal game plan as it relates to this very serious and sober issue of the security and the well-being of people who work on the Capitol complex,” Jeffries said.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, who led the committee that investigated the Capitol riot, will play a key role in the Democrats response to Tucker Carlson’s access to Jan. 6 footage. (Greg Nash)
What form the strategy takes is yet to be clear.
Thompson was among the first Democrats to respond last week after Axios broke the news that McCarthy had granted Carlson access to more than 40,000 hours of previously unreleased surveillance footage from the Jan. 6 attack, warning of “potential security risks” if the footage is used “irresponsibly.” And Democratic leaders say Thompson and the other remaining members of the Jan. 6 select committee — whose investigation spanned countless hours over 18 months — are best situated to respond to Carlson’s eventual broadcasts for the simple reason that they’re the most familiar with the details of the riot.
“J-6 members will be in a good position to respond once they see what Tucker Carlson produces,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (Calif.), vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus.
The response could feature formal statements, press conferences, social media blasts and references to the Jan. 6 committee’s depositions and other findings that might serve as a form of counterweight against Carlson’s potential claims. Other media outlets will also be able to fact-check Carlson, Lieu noted, once the footage is released more broadly, as McCarthy has promised.
“The facts are the facts,” Thompson said. “I don’t see anything, from my vantage point, that could really discredit the work of our committee.”
Carlson had initially boasted of having “unfettered access” to the Jan. 6 footage, but McCarthy and other Republicans stepped in this week to clarify that, while Fox producers are welcome to view the full video library, no footage will be released for broadcast without being screened to ensure it won’t compromise the security of the Capitol complex.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson has promised to air clips of Jan. 6 surveillance footage on his show in the coming weeks. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Thompson, however, said it’s too early to praise those steps until GOP leaders compose formal guidelines governing the security protocols, to include screenings by the Capitol Police and password protected access to the footage.
“If they don’t have anything in writing … then I say it’s a bad idea,” Thompson said. “If it mirrors the process we had in place, no problem at all.”
Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.), chairman of the House Administration Subcommittee on Oversight, said his panel is working to draft those protocols, though the timeline of their release remains uncertain.
Meanwhile, Democrats on the Administration Committee are protesting the move to grant Carlson any access to the Jan. 6 footage.
The full committee issued a document on Tuesday outlining its oversight goals for the current term — a bipartisan plan that included a lengthy “minority views” section in which Democrats broke sharply from the Republican majority in detailing their distrust in Carlson’s commitment to objectivity based on his history of covering Jan. 6. Among his contentious claims, Carlson has downplayed the violence at the Capitol that day and promoted the idea that the riot was a “false flag” operation orchestrated by the political enemies of former President Trump.
“Mr. Carlson has a lengthy record of lying and spreading disinformation about the January 6, 2021, attack on his television show in an apparent attempt to rewrite history,” the Democrats wrote. “Any attempts by defenders of these actions to create a false equivalence with the work of the [Jan. 6 select committee] should be dismissed.”
Rep. Barry Loudermilk is leading an effort to make sure any Jan. 6 footage that could be released won’t compromise the security of the Capitol complex. (Greg Nash)
A spokesperson for Fox News did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment.
McCarthy, in the immediate wake of the Capitol attack, had supported the idea of a bipartisan investigation into its cause, but reversed course after Trump voiced his opposition. As House minority leader, McCarthy declined to participate in the select committee’s investigation, calling it a partisan witch hunt against the former president. He is now defending his decision to lend Carlson first access to the unreleased surveillance footage by suggesting it will provide a kind of counterpoint to the narrative steered solely by the Trump critics on the select committee.
“I know CNN would get knowledge of subpoenas before people were given subpoenas. I know CNN was given tapes that the Jan. 6 [committee] would pick and choose, so I know they’ve had a lot of exclusives around that,” McCarthy told reporters Tuesday.
“I want to make sure we don’t play politics like that.”
The Speaker’s decision came as he’s scrambling to secure support from Republicans wary of his voting record and concerned that he won’t represent conservative priorities in the coming policy fights with President Biden, particularly when it comes to federal spending. Carlson has been among those right-wing critics, and observers in both parties say McCarthy chose Carlson to get the first shot at the Jan. 6 footage to curry favor with the wildly popular pundit and his millions of loyal followers.
“Kevin McCarthy seems to be somebody who is burdened neither by shame nor principle,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). “And he’s damaging the institution — and damaging the country — all at the altar of his personal ambitions.”
Beyond political considerations, critics say there may also be personal factors driving McCarthy’s decision. The Jan. 6 select committee had, in a public hearing, aired video from within McCarthy’s office during the siege, showing his staffers racing to flee the pro-Trump mob — a humiliating episode for the Republican leader, who, after blaming Trump for the rampage, quickly shifted gears to downplay the violence and bash Democrats for investigating it.
McCarthy, in recent days, has characterized that footage as its own security threat.
“[It’s] concerning to me that [the committee] put out — and CNN would play it — the exit from my office,” he said. “Never did they talk to me or the people on it.”
Complicating the Republicans’ defense of Carlson have been a series of new revelations surrounding Fox News’s coverage of the 2020 elections, which have emerged in recent days as part of a defamation lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems against the network. The disclosures have revealed that Carlson was furious after Fox correctly called Arizona for Biden, suggesting the network should have withheld the truth from its viewers for the sake of ratings.
“Fox already admits that Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity and other hosts on their national prime-time network are not journalists. They’re entertainment hosts,” Lieu said. “So Speaker McCarthy actually didn’t give the tapes to a journalist, he gave them to an entertainment host. And we’ll see what they produce.”
–Mychael Schnell contributed to this report.