Perhaps in part because of his notoriety, Chansley last week earned another flurry of attention. Fox News host Tucker Carlson, eager to undermine the existing presentation of the riot as a day of violence aimed at helping President Donald Trump retain power, aired snippets of footage that he insisted were an exoneration of Chansley’s actions on that day. Trump allies and those generally interested in elevating skepticism about the credibility of government seized upon Carlson’s report as evidence that the fix was in. If the feds were setting up Chansley, who weren’t they setting up?
On Friday, Twitter owner Elon Musk — one of those interested in elevating skepticism, certainly — tweeted the Chansley-specific segment of Carlson’s program from earlier in the week. He described Chansley’s eventual sentencing as having been a function of “a non-violent, police-escorted tour.”
Chansley got 4 years in prison for a non-violent, police-escorted tour!?
Dave Chapelle was violently assaulted on stage by a guy with a knife. That guy got a $3000 fine & no prison time. https://t.co/qDRWxozD8B
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 10, 2023
A bit earlier, he’d shared with his 130-million-plus followers a snippet of Chansley appearing to encourage protesters at the Capitol to go home.
“Free Jacob Chansley,” Musk wrote over the video.
To a casual observer, this seems compelling. Footage showing Chansley walking through the Capitol with police officers? Asking people to leave? Hard to argue with that as exonerating.
Except, of course, that these snippets of video are cherry-picked to create precisely this perspective. This was always the concern when we learned that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had agreed to share original footage with Carlson, that the Fox News host would simply wade through what was available to make an argument (however sloppy) that the official story of the riot was inaccurate or biased. In a legal filing made public this weekend, that’s precisely what government attorneys say happened.
Before we get to that, though, we can see how this collapse of the day’s timeline affects Musk’s tweet in which Chansley is shown telling protesters to go home. In it, Chansley refers to a video that Trump had just shared, the one produced that afternoon in which Trump calls the rioters “very special” and tells them he loves them.
The thing is, that video came out at 4:17 p.m. — after Chansley had already entered the Capitol and, eventually, been escorted out. In other words, Chansley, like Trump, was encouraging people to go home only after the worst of the riot had already unfolded.
The government argues, compellingly, that the rest of Carlson’s footage is similarly belated. The Fox News segment was cited by attorneys for Proud Boy Dominic Pezzola as demonstrating that the government withheld exculpatory footage. In response, the government attorneys note that everything Carlson aired, save one 10-second snippet, was made available to defendants by late September 2021. This is after Chansley’s plea agreement, but we’ll come back to that.
Here’s how the government explains what’s shown by Carlson.
“The televised footage shows Chansley’s movements only from approximately 2:56 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. Prior to that time, Chansley had, amongst other acts, breached a police line at 2:09 p.m. with the mob, entered the Capitol less than one minute behind Pezzola during the initial breach of the building, and faced off with members of the U.S. Capitol Police for more than thirty minutes in front of the Senate Chamber doors while elected officials, including the Vice President of the United States, were fleeing from the chamber.”
There’s no reason to think this isn’t true; Carlson’s footage didn’t include timestamps. What’s shown, then, isn’t how Chansley was treated during the entirety of his time in the Capitol but, instead, for a period in which rioters were already outnumbering police.
“It is true that a sole officer, who was trying to de-escalate the situation, was with Chansley as he made his way to the Senate floor after initially breaching the Chamber, as the televised footage reflects,” the government filing states. “But the televised footage fails to show that Chansley subsequently refused to be escorted out by this lone officer and instead left the Capitol only after additional officers arrived and forcibly escorted him out.”
Carlson mentioned that most of Chansley’s time in the building was caught on camera but pretends that the shaman’s arrival was somehow mysterious, saying that “there is dispute about how Chansley got into the Capitol building.” There is not. Both footage captured by security cameras and by rioters themselves shows that Chansley was among the first people to enter the building, walking through a door kicked open by another rioter.
The group made its way toward the Senate chamber, as Vice President Mike Pence was being evacuated. By 2:45, they were inside the room. Chansley left “only after law enforcement was able to arrive en masse to remove him.”
Importantly, Chansley agreed to his culpability in the day’s events. In a statement of offense to which Chansley signed his name, his actions are described.
Chansley and the government agree that Chansley agree, “was among the crowd that passed the police line at the West front, entered the scaffolding erected in advance of the Inauguration on top of the staircase heading up to the Lower West Terrace of the U.S. Capitol building. The defendant and others pushed past the police line at the top of the scaffolding, and entered the Upper West Terrace of the U.S. Capitol building at approximately 2:10 p.m.”
He was “one of the first 30 rioters inside the U.S. Capitol building,” the statement reads. Once near the Senate chamber, and while members of Congress were still inside, Chansley “us[ed] his bullhorn to rile up the crowd and demand that lawmakers be brought out.” After reaching the gallery at the top of the Senate chamber, Chansley insisted that he was going to join others on the floor. It was during this period that “Officer K.R. … followed the defendant on to the Senate floor.”
Again, this is included in the statement of offense. The period from which Carlson plucked his footage to prove that Chansley was welcomed by police was acknowledged by both the government and Chansley in September 2021. The “new footage” is irrelevant to what both sides already said happened.
“The defendant proceeded to take pictures of himself on the dais and refused to vacate the seat when Officer K. R., the lone law enforcement officer in the Chamber at the time, asked him to do so,” the statement continues. Instead, Chansley used his bullhorn to celebrate that the riot presented an opportunity “to allow us to send a message to all the tyrants, the communists, and the globalists, that this is our nation, not theirs, that we will not allow America, the American way of the United States of America to go down.”
Carlson had this footage, too, but decided to instead show Chansley thanking Capitol police officers to imply that they were complicit with his efforts.
“The fact that we had a bunch of our traitors in office hunker down, put on their gas masks and retreat into their underground bunker, I consider that a win,” Chansley told the media after the riot, as he admitted in the statement of offense.
Carlson could presumably do the same sort of cherry-picked assessment of other rioters’ activities that day. Pezzola, the Proud Boy, was probably captured on footage walking down a hallway at some point, video that could be used to present a softer image of the guy who allegedly broke the first window in the building that day. (That Carlson hasn’t run any more footage since his first effort last week is itself interesting.) That’s the whole point: give bad-faith actors like Carlson enough raw material and they’ll make whatever story they want.
Particularly when there’s a big audience of allies willing to uncritically share the new narrative. People like the guy who owns Twitter. For him and for Carlson, what’s important about Jan. 6 wasn’t the effort to block Joe Biden’s inauguration. What’s important, it seems, is that Americans think the government is out to get them — and, therefore apparently, that they put more trust in cable-news hosts and business leaders.