A glowing profile of Ray Epps published last week by The New York Times has done little to quell suspicions on the right that the self-professed onetime Trump supporter had a mystery role in the January 6 Capitol riot.
Epps, a 61-year-old Arizona man, is seen in multiple video clips from January 6 and the day before trying to whip up other Trump supporters to “go into the Capitol” the next day. Whether by virtue of his own size and air of authority or some unknown factor, Epps appears in many clips to be taking on a leadership role among Trump supporters who showed up to protest what they believed was a stolen 2020 presidential election.
“In fact, tomorrow, I don’t even like to say it cause I’ll be arrested,” Epps tells a man filming him with a phone camera.
“Well, let’s not say it,” the man responds.
“I’ll say it. We need to go into the Capitol,” Epps says.
“I’m going to put it out there. I’m probably going to go to jail for this. Tomorrow, we need to go into the Capitol, into the Capitol!” Epps tells fellow protesters in another clip.
“What? No! No!” members of the crowd respond in unison.
“Peacefully!” Epps adds.
The crowd of Trump supporters then starts chanting, “Fed! Fed! Fed!” at Epps.
“Okay folks, spread the word. As soon as the president is done speaking we go to the Capitol. The Capitol is this direction,” Epps tells a crowd in a clip from the next day, January 6.
“He’s done speaking! We are going to the Capitol where our problems are. It’s that direction. Please spread the word,” Epps shouts at passersby in another clip.
Over and over again, at least four times on video, Epps repeats his call to action.
I just played this video for AG Merrick Garland. He refused to comment on how many agents or assets of the federal government were present in the crowd on Jan 5th and 6th and how many entered the Capitol. pic.twitter.com/lvd9n4mMHK
— Thomas Massie (@RepThomasMassie) October 21, 2021
Later, while the vast majority of MAGA supporters were still near the National Mall where Trump was speaking, Epps is seen at the front of the very first crowd that breached the security perimeter around the Capitol. Moments before the crowd pushes past Capitol police officers, Epps whispers something into fellow protester Ryan Samsel’s ear. Later in January, Epps and Samsel both told the FBI separately that Epps had been encouraging Samsel to relax because the cops were just “doing their job.”
No charges were ever filed against Epps for his role in the riot.
The unproven theory that Epps, a member of the right-wing group the Oath Keepers, was working with the federal government, perhaps persuaded by the FBI to turn informant for protection, was first floated on a 4chan message board last summer and was taken up by Revolver News, the right-wing media outlet started by former Trump speechwriter Darren Beattie. Fox News host Tucker Carlson has since discussed the Epps theory several times on his show. Even Trump mentioned Epps at a rally, and the hashtag #WhoIsRayEpps trended on Twitter.
In the Times’ profile of Epps, which referred to Epps as a “victim,” criminal justice reporter Alan Feuer acknowledged that Epps was “not just a bystander” on January 6 but said that his role was “twisted” as the FBI asset theory gained momentum.
Revolver News used “selectively edited videos and unfounded leaps of logic” to try to show Epps was a government plant, the Times claimed. It’s not clear what “selectively edited” means in this case.
“Things became significantly worse” for Epps after Carlson and top Republicans began to “amplify the lies,” the Times article said, and meanwhile Trump, whom Epps had supported, “tarred his name and destroyed his reputation.” Epps has “suffered enormously,” and his “life has been ruined by a Jan. 6 conspiracy theory,” the Times lamented.
Notably, the Times said Epps was taped urging people to go “to the Capitol,” strange phrasing since Epps clearly states again and again that he wants protesters to go “into the Capitol” specifically.
Nowhere in the Times article does Feuer appear to press Epps, who he says wore a look of “pained exhaustion” during the interview, on why exactly he wanted protesters to physically enter the Capitol building or why he happened to be at the front of the crowd when they penetrated the security perimeter.
The Times’ treatment of Epps is gentle compared to its coverage of other January 6 participants, dubbing them in a June editorial, “flag-draped thugs storming the halls” and a “howling mob” that “rampaged through the Capitol” as part of a “coordinated assault.” In January, the Times gave oxygen to the idea that some of the events of January 6 could be considered domestic terrorism.
One of the most eyebrow-raising details of the Epps case is that Epps was mysteriously removed from the FBI’s wanted list as federal investigators poured money and resources into tracking down hundreds of individuals who participated in the Capitol breach.
A former DOJ official said in January that Epps was removed from the list because he had already been identified, and the FBI was no longer looking for him. Epps himself reached out to the FBI two days after January 6 and “explained his position,” according to his lawyer, John Blischak, who said Epps “was never in the Capitol building.” Less than a week after the riot, Epps tried to disavow the rioters’ violent entry into the Capitol building, telling The Arizona Republic, “The only thing that meant is we would go in the doors like everyone else. It was totally, totally wrong the way they went in.”
Two months later, Epps also sat down with FBI agents for a formal discussion. The FBI has so far declined to comment on Epps, even when pointedly pressed by GOP lawmakers.
According to the legal definition of incitement, an individual’s words must carry an imminent risk of harm to persons or property. So far, the Biden administration’s Justice Department does not appear to think Epps’ calls to enter the Capitol meet that standard, or break the laws governing behavior on Capitol grounds, which bar disorderly or disruptive conduct.
Meanwhile, the DOJ has charged other January 6 rioters including five Proud Boys with seditious conspiracy for offenses that include behaving similarly to Epps, urging people to enter the Capitol.
A 69-year-old Idaho grandma who is reportedly a breast cancer survivor was sentenced to two months in prison for her role in the riot, which included encouraging rioters to “just come in” to the Capitol, telling them, “This is your house.” An Indiana grandma, 49, was the very first person to be sentenced on charges related to January 6. She admitted she was inside the Capitol for 10 minutes but said she did not damage anything.
Over the past year, Republican members of Congress have attempted to get answers on Epps, peppering federal law enforcement officials with questions about him during congressional hearings last year and this year.
“Can you tell us without talking about particular incidents or particular videos how many agents or assets of the federal government were present on January 6, whether they agitated to go into the Capitol, and if any of them did?” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) asked Attorney General Merrick Garland in October during a House Judiciary Committee hearing in October.
“So I’m not going to violate this norm of the rule of law. I’m not going to comment on an investigation that’s ongoing,” Garland responded.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) followed a similar line of questioning during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in January.
“Who is Ray Epps?” Cruz asked Jill Sanborn, executive assistant director of the FBI’s National Security Branch.
“I’m aware of the individual, sir. I don’t have the specific background of him,” she responded.
“Was Ray Epps a fed?” Cruz later asked.
“Sir, I can’t answer that question,” Sanborn replied.
Epps was interviewed by the January 6 select committee in November and again in January.
On January 11, the same day as Cruz’s questioning, the committee released a statement saying it is aware of “unsupported claims” that Epps was an FBI informant and revealing that Epps informed them that “he was not employed by, working with, or acting at the direction of any law enforcement agency on Jan 5th or 6th or at any other time, & that he has never been an informant for the FBI or any other law enforcement agency.”
Beattie is suspicious of the timing and substance of the Times article.
“Ray Epps, the only person caught … repeatedly directing people into the Capitol is the only January 6 rioter the New York Times has written a puff piece for,” he tweeted last week. “And this likely is the beginning of a monumental damage control campaign.”