Rep. Kinzinger looks to put the Ray Epps conspiracy theory to bed once and for all

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., has lost patience with the members of his party who continue to push the unfounded conspiracy theory that a Trump supporter named Ray Epps who encouraged demonstrators to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was, in actuality, either an FBI agent or informant sent to stir up trouble.

"It’s very clear he’s not. From our perspective, you have to push back against new conspiracy theories before they take hold," Kinzinger, speaking about the Jan. 6 select committee's interview with Epps, told Yahoo News in a Wednesday interview.

The "false flag" theory about Epps has been promoted by Fox News host Tucker Carlson and brought up during hearings by Republican lawmakers like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Matt Gaetz of Florida. It is based on the idea that Epps was working for the government in some capacity when he was captured on video urging other pro-Trump protesters to enter the Capitol.

On Tuesday, the Jan. 6 committee attempted to put those rumors to rest, announcing that it had conducted an interview with Epps, a 60-year-old Arizona resident and former chapter president of the far-right Oath Keepers militia group. Kinzinger and Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., are the only two Republicans on the committee.

"The Select Committee is aware of unsupported claims that Ray Epps was an FBI informant based on the fact that he was on the FBI Wanted list and then was removed from that list without being charged," the committee said in a statement. "Mr. Epps informed us that he was not employed by, working with, or acting at the direction of any law enforcement agency on January 5th or 6th or at any other time, and that he has never been an informant for the FBI or any other law enforcement agency."

In a Twitter thread posted shortly after the committee released its statement, Kinzinger, who plans to step down from Congress following his current term, went even further, calling out those in his party who have, in his view, sought to absolve themselves for what transpired on Jan. 6.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., stares during the House vote to censure Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., in November.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., during the House vote to censure Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., in November. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)

"The narrative on Jan. 6 has been that it’s first antifa, or patriots who love their country, maybe crisis actors, def false flag operatives, or now FBI agents," Kinzinger wrote. "Take your pick. Truth is they were rioters incited by lies. And RAY is no fed. Just another misled man."

Yahoo News caught up with Kinzinger by telephone in his home district in Illinois, where he and his wife are awaiting the imminent arrival of their first child.

Yahoo News: Why specifically did the Jan. 6 select committee interview Epps?

Adam Kinzinger: In the process of what we’re doing, there’s over 300 people we’ve called as witnesses or deposed, we’ve interviewed either formally or informally. You know, he may have some information and I’ll let the committee get ahead of anything else on that. But I think it was pretty obvious that we had to speak out because this is a conspiracy [theory] that started, I guess, a couple of months ago now and basically has been taken as gospel by now. And it was time for the committee to step up and say what we knew, at least what he said, and go from there and nip conspiracies in the bud.

The interview, I take it, took place in November. That seems like a long time from interviewing him and reaching the conclusion that he had not committed any crime and was not involved with any FBI operation, to actually disclose it to the public. Was there any thought process on that?

You’d have to ask the committee’s staff that make these kinds of daily decisions. I think the reality is, you know, we don’t want to go out there, necessarily, and if there’s an informal interview, an informal question, to release every single person we talk to ahead of time.

Part of that is, obviously, for privacy for the individual and privacy for the investigation. But it got to the point where it went from potential theories pushed by people like Marjorie Taylor Greene into what was perceived as fact. And so the committee responding when we did should not, by anybody, be seen as anything other than we just realized we had to do that for the sake of conspiracies that were growing and growing.

Trump supporters take over the steps of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Trump supporters take over the steps of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)

I guess the central point that some people on the right are making, or have used to imply some sort of conspiracy, is that incitement of a riot is a federal crime and Epps is seen on video encouraging pro-Trump demonstrators to “go into the Capitol.” Can you explain why what he did doesn’t rise to the level of a chargeable offense?

No, I can’t. That’s a DOJ question. For me, what I know is that the implication was he was one of the main FBI agents, and I think that’s key, the accusation that he was both an agent and an informant. According to him, he’s had no involvement with any sort of law enforcement. I would say this: There were 30,000 to 40,000 people there that day. I’m certain that if you comb some of the video from the day before and the day of, there are people that say things that probably all could be charged with if you used that low definition.

The question is, and again this is for the DOJ, what is the threshold with what do you charge? Now, is it different for a president of the United States, or a leader from a pulpit, or somebody who has, in the president’s case, taken weeks or months to build a case of a stolen election narrative? Is it different than, say, somebody that maybe in the heat of the moment says, "We need to go into the Capitol." With DOJ, I don’t know all the evidence of whether [Epps] did or didn’t. What’s clear is this has gone from the accusation that Mr. Epps is an FBI agent who incited people to go into the Capitol to now trying to parse questions on right-wing Twitter, for instance, of "Well, if he said this he should be charged because we have to hold that to the same standard as Donald Trump." And that’s simply not the case. It’s a redirect, which they’re very good at.

In your Twitter thread on Tuesday, you noted that the FBI had removed Epps — who did not end up entering the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 — from its Most Wanted list because there was no evidence he broke any laws. Did the bureau or the Department of Justice specifically comment on that directly to the committee?

Not that I’m aware of. Again, I think that is a question for them. I think the broader point on that is he was on the Most Wanted list and he came off the Most Wanted list, and I think we need to get back to what was the original story and accusation. The original story and accusation was that Mr. Epps was an FBI agent, or in some cases they CYA [cover your ass] a little with "maybe an informant," which is a very different standard.

But the broader point is I’m not certain the FBI is totally competent with everything, but I’m totally certain that they would not be so incompetent as to put their own agent on the Most Wanted list.

Did the committee ask Epps about his involvement in Arizona with the far-right group Oath Keepers?

I’m sure that came up. Again, I will refer that to the committee, and I’m sure that there will be further stuff to come out, but I’d refer those questions to them. The extent of my knowledge is, we interviewed him, here’s what he said. Then it’s taking logic: The guy was on a Most Wanted list. I know a few more details beyond that.

The accusation was that he’s an FBI agent. It’s very clear he’s not. From our perspective, you have to push back against new conspiracy theories before they take hold. This one has taken hold and that’s evidenced by the fact that even in spite of all the evidence, people are trying now, particularly the Tucker Carlsons, to find a way around and argue something different even than [what] they were a couple days ago.

Fox personality Tucker Carlson.
Fox personality Tucker Carlson. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

On that note, in your Twitter thread you stated it was important to take on lies and conspiracy theories. We had a back-and-forth in which I suggested that Tucker Carlson book you on his show. Your response was that going on as a guest wouldn’t be productive. Can you further elucidate that point?

Yeah. I mean, look, here’s how Tucker operates: If he has you as a guest on his show, he over speaks you. I think I was on one of Tucker’s very first shows, in fact, and we were talking about the issue of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election and all he did was laugh and paste over anything I was trying to say.

Then, when the segment, is over he spends the whole next segment trying to discredit you without your presence. All he does is set it up in a way that he can guarantee he discredits you after the fact. Now, would I debate, in theory, somebody like Tucker on a different show, where we were participating under the same ground rules? That’s very different than somebody who goes in with the intention of later discrediting to an audience already predisposed to believe conspiracy. So there’s no benefit of going on someone like Tucker’s show, being even part of that profit machine.

Regarding the state of the Republican Party right now, when you look at how few people seem to be taking on what you’re calling “lies and conspiracy,” what does it leave you feeling as you prepare to conduct the Jan. 6 hearings and as you face retirement from politics?

It leaves me sad of what the party has become. This is a party that always attracted me for the truth-tellingness, the kind of realism and the American strength aspect of foreign policy, the not playing into people’s emotions on the role of the federal government, the saying what needs to be said when it gets too big, etc. That’s been lost. It’s now a party that is profiting on populism, and that has one focus: raising money.

It’s a disappointing moment. We have to continue to fight for the soul of it because just as it was corrupted over time, it can be fixed over time. But the bottom line of it is that we’re in a moment where truth doesn’t matter, and this party will be around for a while. It’s depressing to think that’s where we are with it.

What role do you think Epps serves people like Tucker Carlson at this moment?

Not speaking to [Epps's] motivation, but he is serving to give people further conspiracy, to give people, I guess, hope that it will be discovered that there is this grand conspiracy. It’s continuing to slow down the workings of government, where people can finally accept reality and move on. And for the party, in the long term it’s quite destructive, because people have a long memory, and so does videotape.

The other point I’ll make just generically is that [Epps] is, I believe, a Marine Corps veteran. Any time you see veterans that go out and espouse conspiracy theories, it makes me sad because the military has always garnered bipartisan respect and it absolutely has to be the institution that if no other does, it will. It makes me sad to see that there are so many [military members] that have politicized this moment.