The Capitol insurrection was based on a lie about the 2020 election. And for a whole year now, the insurrection itself has been lied about.
Donald Trump supporters’ violent attack on the Capitol has been the subject of a dishonesty campaign that began amid the fog of January 6 and escalated even as the facts became clearer. Trump, some right-wing media figures and some Republican members of Congress have mounted a sustained effort to rewrite the history of that deadly day.
They have falsely claimed all of the rioters were unarmed. They have falsely claimed the people at the Capitol merely held a “protest” against an election they falsely claimed was fraudulent. They have falsely claimed the rioters were welcomed into the Capitol by police officers.
They have falsely claimed the riot was orchestrated by left-wing groups or the FBI. And they have falsely claimed nonviolent rioters are being jailed as “political prisoners.”
Here is a fact check of five of the most enduring lies about January 6.
Lie: The rioters were completely unarmed
Trump and some of his allies continue to claim that all of the people at the Capitol on January 6 were unarmed.
In a December 21 statement, Trump called January 6 a “completely unarmed protest.” Similarly, in a tweet on December 17, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia wrote, “One of the biggest holes in the lie about J6 being a planned insurrection is that all the people there were unarmed. Anyone with half a brain knows that gun owners only leave their firearms at home when they don’t feel the need to carry a gun or are obeying the law.”
Facts First: It’s not even close to true that all of the people at the Capitol on January 6 were unarmed – and the claim is still false even if it is specifically about guns. People who illegally entered Capitol grounds during the insurrection were armed with a wide variety of weapons, including guns, stun guns, knives, batons, baseball bats, axes and chemical sprays. The Department of Justice said in an official update last week that so far “over 75” people charged in connection to the attack “have been charged with entering a restricted area with a dangerous or deadly weapon.”
We may never get a complete inventory of the concealed weapons the rioters possessed on January 6, since nearly all of the rioters were able to leave the Capitol without being detained and searched. But prosecutors have alleged that some of the people present at the Capitol were armed with guns, as were some other Trump supporters who traveled to Washington for January 6.
Mark Mazza of Indiana has been charged with crimes including possession of a firearm on Capitol grounds; he has pleaded not guilty. According to the Capitol Police, Mazza accidentally dropped his loaded revolver during a struggle with police on a Capitol terrace. He allegedly told investigators later that if he had visited House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that day, “you’d be here for another reason.”
Guy Reffitt of Texas has been charged with crimes including illegally carrying a semi-automatic handgun on Capitol grounds; he has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors allege Reffitt “specifically targeted at least two lawmakers – the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and then-Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell – whom he sought to physically remove or displace from the Capitol building.” And police allege Christopher Alberts of Maryland was arrested trying to flee Capitol grounds on January 6 with a loaded pistol; he has pleaded not guilty.
Mark Ibrahim, who was an off-duty special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration at the time of the riot, has been charged with crimes including carrying a firearm on Capitol grounds. Ibrahim, who has said he was later fired by the DEA (the DEA would confirm to CNN only that he no longer works there), was photographed that day displaying what appeared to be a handgun. He has pleaded not guilty.
In addition, Lonnie Coffman of Alabama, who pleaded guilty to weapons charges in November, admitted that he had carried two loaded pistols in Washington on January 6 and that a truck he had parked blocks from the Capitol contained additional loaded guns, Molotov cocktails and other weapons. Cleveland Meredith Jr., who pleaded guilty to threatening to kill Pelosi and was sentenced to 28 months in prison, drove from Colorado to Washington with a rifle and handgun that were found in his trailer outside a Washington hotel. The FBI said Meredith had told agents he had tried to get to Washington on January 5 but ended up arriving late on January 6.
Lie: The rioters were merely protesting a ‘rigged’ election
Trump called on his supporters to come to Washington on January 6 for a “wild” protest against President Joe Biden’s victory, which Trump falsely claimed was fraudulent. During his rally speech on the morning of January 6, Trump pushed that election lie, directed supporters to march to the Capitol and urged them to “fight like hell.”
After the insurrection, Trump continued to repeat the election lie for months – and adapted it to minimize what had happened at the Capitol. In an October statement, he claimed that the “real insurrection” was the 2020 election and January 6 was simply a “day of protesting.” (He also made similar claims later in the year.)
Facts First: Both parts of Trump’s claim are obvious lies. The election wasn’t rigged and wasn’t fraudulent; Biden won fair and square; there was a tiny smattering of voter fraud that was nowhere near widespread enough to have changed the outcome in any state, let alone to have reversed Biden’s 306-232 victory in the Electoral College. And the insurrection of January 6 – in which approximately 140 police officers were assaulted and the peaceful transfer of power was violently interrupted – involved thousands of alleged crimes; it was, very clearly, no mere protest.
“This was not a peaceful protest. Hundreds of people came to Washington, DC, to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power,” Chief Judge Beryl Howell of the DC District Court said last January. Howell added in October: “The rioters attacking the US Capitol on January 6th, as part of a large mob, were not mere trespassers engaging in protected First Amendment protests; they were certainly not tourists. And I say that again and again because there still seems, in some areas, to be a debate about that issue.”
Lie: The rioters were invited into the Capitol by police
A common refrain from January 6 rioters, and some of their Republican defenders, is that they were welcomed into the Capitol by police officers.
Trump said in a book interview in March that “the Capitol Police were ushering people in” and “the Capitol Police were very friendly. You know, they were hugging and kissing.” The claim has been echoed by Trump supporters. For example, Trump-endorsed Republican Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake declared at a Trump rally in October that the people being held in jail over the Capitol attack “were invited in by Capitol Police.”
Facts First: The claim that the rioters were invited into the Capitol is false. Again, about 140 police officers were assaulted while trying to stop the mob from breaching the Capitol. There were hours-long battles between police and rioters near some entrances. CNN obtained footage from police body-worn cameras showing how dozens of officers engaged in hand-to-hand combat with rioters in a desperate effort to keep them out of the building.
There are plenty of instances where rioters waltzed into the Capitol without a fight, but only after they had stormed past barricades and, in some cases, even stepped through broken windows. In some areas, police were so outnumbered by the mob that they retreated, stood aside or tried to politely engage with rioters to de-escalate the situation rather than fighting or making arrests, but that is clearly not the same as welcoming rioters into the building.
Since we don’t have video of every single encounter between police and rioters, it’s theoretically possible that some tiny number of officers did invite rioters in. The Capitol Police announced in September that three officers were facing discipline for unspecified noncriminal “conduct unbecoming” that day, while three others were facing discipline for other policy violations.
But no evidence has publicly emerged to date of even one officer inviting a rioter into the Capitol. And even if a few isolated incidents emerge in the future, it’s clear that this was not a widespread or systemic occurrence as Trump and others suggested.
Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger said on CNN in September: “The officers that we have investigated and disciplined, the cases that we investigated, they run from minor infractions to officers making very poor judgments for more serious misconduct. But this notion that the Capitol Police were somehow allowing these folks into the Capitol, inviting them in, helping them, just simply not true.”
Lie: The jailed rioters are nonviolent political prisoners
One of the most prevalent counternarratives about January 6 is that a large number of nonviolent people who were present at the Capitol are being unfairly prosecuted by liberal zealots at the Justice Department, and that these nonviolent people have now become “political prisoners” while awaiting trial in jail. Such claims have emerged as a rallying cry among a small but vocal cohort of Trump loyalists in the House Republican conference.
Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar claimed in July that jailed rioters who had supposedly spent time in solitary confinement “are not unruly or dangerous, violent criminals” but are “political prisoners who are now being persecuted”; he suggested that there are “nearly 200” nonviolent Capitol participants behind bars. And the pro-Trump group behind September’s “Justice for J6” rally said its event was meant “to bring awareness and attention to the unjust and unethical treatment of nonviolent January 6 political prisoners.”
Facts First: This “political prisoners” narrative is false. The vast majority of the 700-plus people charged in the Capitol riot to date were released shortly after their arrests. Only a few dozen were ordered by judges to remain in jail before trial, and most of those defendants were charged with attacking police or conspiring with far-right militia groups.
It’s true that the conditions are poor at the Washington jail where incarcerated rioters are being held. And it’s obviously unpleasant for anyone to live behind bars. But the small subset of January 6 defendants who are currently in jail are there only because a federal judge ruled that they are either too dangerous to release or pose a flight risk. The decision to keep them incarcerated was not made by Biden’s political appointees or any other Justice Department officials.
A few rioters have claimed in court that they are the victims of politically motivated prosecution because they support Trump. Federal judges, including those appointed by Trump, have rejected these arguments.
Lie: January 6 was a false flag attack
Before the Capitol was even cleared of rioters on January 6, some prominent Trump supporters started to try to deflect blame – claiming that left-wing Antifa, a loose collection of self-described anti-fascists, was actually behind the violence.
Such “false flag” theories – that the violence was secretly orchestrated by Trump’s opponents in an attempt to make Trump look bad – never went away. And the theories have expanded to include claims that the violence was orchestrated by the Black Lives Matter movement or even by an arm of the federal government itself, the FBI.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson has promoted false flag theories, focusing on the FBI, both in his own remarks and in his revisionist documentary series on a Fox streaming service in November. Carlson has claimed on his show that government documents showed that “FBI operatives were organizing the attack on the Capitol on January 6.” Former Army Capt. Emily Rainey said in the documentary (and in a trailer Carlson tweeted out): “It is my opinion that false flags have happened in this country, one of which may have been January 6.”
And Trump himself has given oxygen to the theories, claiming in a December interview with ring-wing commentator Candace Owens, “You have BLM and you had Antifa people, I have very little doubt about that, and they were antagonizing and they were agitating.”
Facts First: The insurrection at the Capitol was not a false flag. Just as it looked on January 6, a mob of diehard Trump supporters stormed the building. They did so after Trump urged supporters to come to Washington and then, as we noted above, made a speech urging them to “fight like hell” and to march to the Capitol. The rioters’ allegiance to Trump has been exhaustively documented in court proceedings and in their social media posts and media interviews.
Though there are thousands of pages of court documents stemming from criminal cases against January 6 rioters, no Capitol riot defendant as of the end of 2021 had any confirmed involvement in Antifa or Black Lives Matter groups. (One defendant who filmed the riot had expressed support for Black Lives Matter but was disavowed in 2020 by BLM activists, some of whom suspected he was a provocateur connected to the political right.) By contrast, hundreds of Capitol riot defendants were confirmed to be Trump supporters – and some were members of far-right extremist groups. Members of the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys have been charged with conspiracy regarding January 6; some have pleaded guilty.
Carlson wrongly described the court documents he inaccurately claimed were a smoking gun about FBI operatives organizing the attack; you can read more about that claim here. While it is entirely possible that some of the Capitol rioters were secretly serving as informants for the FBI – The New York Times reported in October that a member of the Proud Boys who had entered the Capitol on January 6 was an FBI informant – the presence of a few FBI informants among the estimated 2,000-plus people who illegally breached the Capitol would not make the entire mob assault an FBI-orchestrated “false flag” operation.
Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, vice chair of the House select committee investigating the insurrection, said on Fox News in November that there is no truth to claims that January 6 was a false flag perpetrated by “deep state” liberals trying to set up Trump supporters.
“It’s the same kind of thing that you hear from people who say that 9/11 was an inside job, for example. It’s un-American to be spreading those kinds of lies, and they are lies,” Cheney said.
CNN’s Holmes Lybrand and Hannah Rabinowitz contributed to this article.