J Michael Waller / The Federalist / March 1, 2021 – “Facts are stubborn things,” John Adams famously said as the lawyer defending the British soldiers involved in the 1770 Boston Massacre, “and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
More than 250 years later, The Federalist provided an eyewitness account of events outside the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol. From the Washington Post to Whoopi Goldberg, members of the chattering class tried to alter the state of facts and evidence they didn’t like.
As the Post headlined the day before the Feb. 23 hearing, “at stake” was “the story of the Capitol riot, and who is responsible.” The hearing, the Post reported, could devolve into “a battleground for competing narratives over what prompted the riot and who was responsible for it.”
Federal prosecutors confirm the violence was planned
The prevailing narrative was that the violence was the spontaneous action of hordes of Donald Trump supporters incited into insurrection by the then-president’s rambling speech. That narrative collapsed weeks later.
Federal prosecutors issued indictments alleging that the Capitol raid was, indeed, a conspiracy planned in advance. FBI investigators agreed. Prosecutors say that elements of the criminal conspiracy began as early as November 3, 2020.
At the Senate hearing, current and former top U.S. Capitol security officials gave similar assessments, saying that “wide-ranging intelligence failures” prevented detection of what became a “military-style, coordinated assault.” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who co-chaired the hearing, concluded, “This was a planned insurrection.”
The Federalist article said that from the beginning, on Jan. 14. I was the eyewitness who wrote it.
Johnson enters the article into the Senate record
Sen. Ron Johnson read extensively from the article, summarizing it in parts, during the hearing. The Wisconsin Republican asked that the full text be entered into the official record. The Federalist article was accepted without objection from senators of either party. The eyewitness account was now officially evidence for the Senate investigation.
Johnson was one of the first senators to suspect that the riot had been planned. In The Federalist article, I identified four groups that appeared to have planned for violence well in advance.
Video of the hearing shows Johnson saying, “He [Waller] describes four different types of people: plainclothes militants, agents provocateurs, fake Trump protesters, and then disciplined, uniformed column of attackers. I think that these are the people that probably planned this.”
Johnson accurately related what I wrote in The Federalist article. That was a faithful summary of my exact description of the four organized groups of operatives I witnessed before the violence began in the Capitol:
- Plainclothes militants. Militant, aggressive men in Donald Trump and MAGA gear at a front police line at the base of the temporary presidential inaugural platform;
- Agents-provocateurs. Scattered groups of men exhorting the marchers to gather closely and tightly toward the center of the outside of the Capitol building and prevent them from leaving;
- Fake Trump protesters. A few young men wearing Trump or MAGA hats backwards and who did not fit in with the rest of the crowd in terms of their actions and demeanor, whom I presumed to be Antifa or other leftist agitators; and
- Disciplined, uniformed column of attackers. A column of organized, disciplined men, wearing similar but not identical camouflage uniforms and black gear, some with helmets and GoPro cameras or wearing subdued Punisher skull patches.
The fact too terrible to be told
Three of those descriptions would not have been controversial. But one of them was too inconvenient for some people to bear: the fact that, during the march along Constitution Avenue from the White House to the Capitol, I saw furtive, small groups of left-wingers wearing Trump-supporting attire.
“I presumed these fake Trump protesters were Antifa or something similar. However, that entire afternoon I saw none of them act aggressively or cause any problems. At least, not from my vantage point,” I wrote. I didn’t know then that a notorious leftist from Utah had been at the vanguard of the fatal attempt to smash down the door to the House chamber and ran through the Capitol screaming that it should be burned down.
That didn’t matter to a lot of the journalists covering Johnson’s comments. To them, the fact that I had seen “fake Trump protesters” before the riot was a fact that had to be discredited and destroyed, before it could even be evaluated.
New narrative: It’s a ‘ridiculous conspiracy theory’
And so began a new narrative to recover the old: That Johnson and others were pushing a fake story to exculpate right-wing extremists and blame it all on left-wingers. That false narrative became international “news.”
Then came the gush of headlines, with reporting of equal caliber, exaggerating and distorting what I wrote and what Johnson accurately said, and accusing the senator of spreading a false, ridiculous, extreme, baseless conspiracy theory:
- CNN: “Ron Johnson just dropped a ridiculous conspiracy theory at the Senate Capitol attack hearing,” by CNN Editor-at-Large Chris Cillizza;
- New York Daily News: “Sen. Ron Johnson airs conspiracy theory about ‘fake Trump supporters’ in Senate hearing on Capitol riot,” by Dave Goldiner;
- Washington Post: “Ron Johnson’s extreme effort to distance Trump supporters from the Capitol Riot,” by Aaron Blake (who tried to discredit me by deploying a 12-year-old quote from the former head of my place of employment);
- Huffington Post: “Senator Ron Johnson Defends Capitol Rioters During Hearing,” by Matt Fuller;
- Daily Beast: “Johnson Pushes Deranged ‘Fake Trump Supporters’ Theory During Capitol Riot Hearing,” with the topic “Gaslighter-In-Chief” by a “Breaking News Intern”;
- Washington Examiner: “Ron Johnson shares dubious article blaming ‘fake Trump protesters’ and ‘provocateurs’ for Capitol riot,” by Haley Victory Smith (and we know why she took the “dubious” swipe at The Federalist);
- Boston Globe: “Senator Johnson pushes false claim that insurrectionists on Jan. 6 were ‘fake Trump protesters’ during hearing,” by Amanda Kaufman and Christina Prignano;
- The Independent of London: “Who is Ron Johnson? The pro-Trump senator sharing conspiracy theories about Capitol assault,” by Alex Woodward;
- Daily Mail of London: “Republican Ron Johnson makes conspiracy theory claims at Senate hearing on riot that anti-Trump ‘agents provocateur’ incited violence and police fired tear gas on ‘pro-police, jovial’ mob,” by Geoff Earle.
There you have it: A rash of fake news, whipped up in a jiffy.
To his credit, Earle from the Daily Mail, unlike the “quality” media, did try to contact me before running the story and I didn’t receive the message in time. The next day we spoke at length and he wrote an updated article with the lively headline, “Chuck Schumer blasts Republican Ron Johnson for spreading ‘mindless garbage’ about ‘fake Trump protesters starting the Capitol riots.’”
The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake, who did read The Federalist article, did not bother to call me, as a professional journalist would do. So I called him out on Twitter and corrected his error that I blamed the leftists.
Blake tweeted back a single line: “Please tell me where I said you blamed them solely.” I answered, “Your entire premise was that I blamed anti-Trump people for the January 6 violence. You are wrong. You never even bothered to clarify anything with me prior to writing your ‘analysis.’ You lied.” That’s the last I heard from that Washington Post blogger.
Not that it matters, but even Vanity Fair had something to say, with Bess Levin headlining her Levin Report: “Republican lawmaker Ron Johnson: Capitol rioters were actually Democrats disguised as Trump supporters.”
Then the wise sages of popular culture began offering their thoughtful critiques. Actor Rob Reiner, the Lincoln Project donor most famous as “Meathead” from Archie Bunker, tweeted that Johnson “bald faced lied.” On ABC’s “The View,” Whoopi Goldberg called Johnson’s reading of The Federalist a lot of “boo hoo.”
Someone got it right
Only one mainstream journalist, veteran reporter Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, got the story right:
At a Senate hearing on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson defended the Trump supporters gathered that day as overwhelmingly pro-police and suggested a small group of ‘provocateurs’ turned unsuspecting marchers into an invading mob.
Johnson also suggested Tuesday that police actions — firing tear gas into the crowd — altered the psychology of a previously peaceful gathering, turning pro-law enforcement demonstrators against the police.
Gilbert then quoted from this writer’s Jan. 14 article in The Federalist. For the record, the editorial position of the Milwaukee paper is strongly critical of Johnson. Gilbert the newsman told both sides of the story and reported the context without omitting or twisting key facts.
Such good journalism shouldn’t be too much to ask. But it isn’t as titillating as conspiracy theories.
J. Michael Waller is senior analyst for strategy at the Center for Security Policy. His areas of concentration are propaganda, political warfare, psychological warfare, and subversion. He is a former professor at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school in Washington, DC. A former instructor with the Naval Postgraduate School, he is an instructor/lecturer at the John F Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg.