On Wednesday, fourth-place GOP presidential contender Vivek Ramaswamy capped off a month of conspiratorial campaigning by asserting, yet again, that the January 6, 2021, riot inside the Capitol building was an “inside job.”
“There is now clear evidence,” the 38-year-old entrepreneur tweeted, “that there was at the very least entrapment of peaceful protestors, similar to the fake Gretchen Whitmer kidnapping plot & countless other cases. The FBI won’t admit how many undercover officers were in the field on Jan 6, Capitol police on one hand fired rubber bullets & explosives into a peaceful crowd who they then willingly later allowed to enter the Capitol. That doesn’t add up & the actual evidence turns the prior narrative upside down: if the deep state is willing to manufacture an ‘insurrection’ to take down its political opponents, they can do anything. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.”
The timeline of Ramaswamy’s revelation is certainly curious. Law enforcement use of (a small number of) rubber munitions and flash-bang devices on that day was known in real time, as was the U.S. Capitol Police’s selected removal of barricades in front of some oncoming demonstrators, back when the future presidential candidate was still pinning partial blame for the “disgraceful Capitol riot” on the “downright abhorrent” behavior of former President Donald Trump. The 2020 plot to kidnap Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer looked “an awful lot like entrapment” by at least January 2022; as of September 2022, Ramaswamy was still decrying the “Grand Old Party of Crybabies” for insisting, despite the “lack of evidence of fraud,” that “the presidential election was stolen.”
The only bit of stated evidence that looks remotely new is an apparent reference to the June 2023 congressional testimony of former FBI Washington Field Office Assistant Director Steven D’Antuono that “a handful” of agency informants were on the scene January 6, and that he wasn’t sure of the overall number. (D’Antuono also testified that the FBI had been instructing its informants to discourage Trump supporters from heading to the Capitol that day, since there were credible fears that his planned “Stop the Steal” rally could turn violent. He also characterized the notion of the feds stoking the protest as being “furthest from the truth.”)
Whatever the import of one or even several handfuls of government agents amid the 884 individuals to date who have been convicted of January 6–related crimes, it took a while for Ramaswamy to arrive at “entrapment” as the primary cause. In July 2023, even while beginning to shift blame away from Trump (calling it “unproductive”), the candidate was still pegging as the main culprit “pervasive censorship.” By the end of August, in direct contradiction to his “victimhood mythology” critique of the year before, the candidate was triangulating his January 6 position by saying that had he been in then–Vice President Mike Pence’s shoes, he would have somehow made the transfer of presidential power contingent on federal election reforms.
Part of Ramaswamy’s positioning is, in the uncharitable words of National Review Editor in Chief Rich Lowry, “to avoid criticizing Trump at almost all costs.” He has pledged to pardon the 46th president, as well as “all peaceful, nonviolent January 6 protesters who were denied their constitutional due process rights.” He vowed to pull out of the Colorado primary in protest of the state Supreme Court banning Trump from the ballot. He has called Trump an “excellent president,” defended his use of the word vermin, and described his own campaign as “America First 2.0.” When news broke this week that Ramaswamy would not be spending previously planned money on television ads in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, Trump wrote on Truth Social that “He will, I am sure, Endorse me.”
Whatever the campaign context, Ramaswamy has been on an “inside job” tear this month, beginning with this rapid-fire volley of Trump-friendly conspiratorial assertion at the December 6 GOP debate:
Why am I the only person on the stage at least who can say that January 6 now does look like it was an inside job, that the government lied to us for 20 years about Saudi Arabia’s involvement in 9/11, that the Great Replacement Theory is not some grand right-wing conspiracy theory, but a basic statement of the Democratic Party’s platform, that the 2020 election was indeed stolen by Big Tech, that the 2016 election, the one that Trump won for sure, was also one that was stolen from him by the national security establishment that actually put out the Trump Russia collusion hoax that they knew was false?
This was followed one week later by a live and contentious CNN town hall, in which moderator Abby Phillip pressed him repeatedly to provide evidence for the provocative “inside job” claim. Amid several condescending remarks along the lines of “I know this is very uncomfortable for you,” the candidate mustered the same three tidbits reiterated in this week’s tweet: that “there were federal law enforcement agents in that field,” that some of the Capitol building’s security guards rolled out the proverbial “red carpet” for the trespassers, and that the Whitmer plot proves January 6 intent:
It’s the same issue, and the same FBI—same even part of the FBI. Three people who were in an alleged plot to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer were acquitted at the end of trial, because it was entrapment. That is, government agents put them up to do something they otherwise wouldn’t have done….FBI agents putting them up to a kidnapping plot that we were told was true, but was entrapment. Same thing with the Capitol Police, people letting them in freely, many of those people then being charged. The government cannot put you up to do something, and then charge you for it. That’s wrong.
The Michigan case, which Reason treated with skepticism from the beginning, has some glaring differences with January 6, and not just that the Capitol Police are not, in fact, the FBI. One was a private, ginned-up conspiracy among a handful of surveilled and infiltrated actors to commit a crime that had zero chance of taking place; the other a planned public event featuring thousands of motivated participants. The centrality of FBI informants to the Whitmer plot was clear from the charging documents onward; but as C.J. Ciaramella pointed out in a feature article posted in September 2022, “no court records in the hundreds of prosecutions of January 6 rioters have mentioned the use of agents provocateurs.”
Could there have been government agents trying to stoke conflict on that chaotic day, only to watch their handiwork spin so horribly out of control that one protester was shot and killed, 114 police officers reported injuries, and elected officials were scurried off into safe rooms during what was supposed to be the certification of the presidential election? Absolutely, yes. As Ciaramella wrote, “It’s not an entirely unreasonable suspicion, given the bureau’s history of infiltrating and disrupting political movements.”
But there’s a vast chasm between just asking questions about that day versus making bald factual assertions about a “manufacture[d]” plot to “take down…political opponents.” The latter formulation feeds the very “victimhood mythology,” “sore losing,” and “conservative brand of victimhood” Ramaswamy was decrying just 15 months ago. It contributes to an apocalyptic rhetorical populism for which violence is a logical next step. And it denies agency to the more than 200 Trump supporters who, of their own volition, chose to attend the Stop the Steal rally, march to the Capitol, trespass on the grounds (whether by strolling in through a removed barrier or bashing through obstacles), then engage in conduct that led to their criminal conviction of “assaulting, resisting, or impeding officers and/or obstructing officers during a civil disorder.”
You can be suspicious of the FBI, critical of the overly aggressive January 6 prosecutions and sentencing, and of the belief that those convicted of nonviolent crimes from that day should not be imprisoned, without embracing an evidence-starved theory of government malfeasance that just so happens to let both Trump and his most violently deluded supporters off the hook. Yet Ramaswamy’s transparent cynicism is arguably a rational (if grotesque) response to political incentives, given that half of Republicans pin blame for January 6 on the left.
“Ramaswamy has sounded as pro-Trump as Trump’s own children, inveighed against an establishment that barely exists, played footsie with conspiracy theories, and courted controversies — both righteous and stupid — to gain the attention of the base of the party,” Lowry wrote. “It’s dispiriting that such a shrewd and self-interested guy thinks this is how you rise within the Republican Party.”
It’s even more dispiriting that he’s probably right.
Author: Matt Welch