In granting exclusive access to Jan. 6 Capitol surveillance footage to a cable news host bent on rewriting the history of the attack, the speaker effectively outsourced a politically toxic re-litigation of the riot.
WASHINGTON — Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s decision to grant the Fox News host Tucker Carlson exclusive access to thousands of hours of security footage from inside the Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack was his latest move to appease the right wing of his party, this time by effectively outsourcing a bid to reinvestigate the riot to its favorite cable news commentator, who has circulated conspiracy theories about the assault.
The most conservative Republican members of Congress — many of whom have worked to downplay or deny the reality of the Jan. 6 attack — have been pushing Mr. McCarthy for weeks to release the video after he promised to do so during his campaign for speaker.
Mr. McCarthy has shown little appetite for the kind of aggressive public re-litigation of what happened that day that some of his colleagues have called for, but he is sensitive to the dangers of angering his hard-core base by seeming to drop or disregard the matter.
That is where Mr. Carlson comes in.
“I promised,” Mr. McCarthy said on Wednesday in a brief phone interview in which he defended his decision to grant Mr. Carlson exclusive access to the more than 40,000 hours of security footage. “I was asked in the press about these tapes, and I said they do belong to the American public. I think sunshine lets everybody make their own judgment.”
Still, the sunshine Mr. McCarthy referred to will, for now, be filtered through a very specific prism — that of Mr. Carlson, a hero of the hard right who has insinuated without evidence that the Jan. 6 attack was a “false flag” operation carried out by the government.
After Mr. Carlson has had his way with the video, Mr. McCarthy said he planned to make the footage more widely available. His team has had internal conversations about providing the footage to other media outlets after Mr. Carlson has had his “exclusive” first airing, according to a source familiar with the deliberations who insisted on anonymity to speak about them.
For now, however, Mr. McCarthy has given a large head start to a purveyor of conspiracy theories about the attack.
Understand the Events on Jan. 6
- Timeline: On Jan. 6, 2021, 64 days after Election Day 2020, a mob of supporters of President Donald J. Trump raided the Capitol. Here is a close look at how the attack unfolded.
- A Day of Rage: Using thousands of videos and police radio communications, a Times investigation reconstructed in detail what happened — and why.
- Lost Lives: A bipartisan Senate report found that at least seven people died in connection with the attack.
- Jan. 6 Attendees: To many of those who attended the Trump rally but never breached the Capitol, that date wasn’t a dark day for the nation. It was a new start.
Mr. Carlson declined on Wednesday to comment on his review of the tapes, except to say that he and a large team of staff members looking at the footage were “taking it very seriously.”
Democrats have revolted at Mr. McCarthy’s decision, arguing that it is a politically driven move that risks the security of the Capitol.
In a letter to fellow Democrats on Wednesday, Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said the speaker was “needlessly exposing the Capitol complex to one of the worst security risks since 9/11.”
“By handpicking Tucker Carlson, Speaker McCarthy laid bare that this sham is simply about pandering to MAGA election deniers, not the truth,” Mr. Schumer wrote. “Tucker Carlson has no fidelity to the truth or facts and has used his platform to promote the Big Lie, distort reality and espouse bogus conspiracy theories about Jan. 6.”
Some Republicans, too, said Mr. McCarthy was taking a political risk with his decision. Should Mr. Carlson use the video — through selective editing — to further false narratives, it could supercharge the appetite in the right-wing base for the continued re-litigation of Jan. 6. That could force the issue onto the agenda of more House Republicans, a move that is likely to turn off swing voters.
“It helps McCarthy solidify his speakership among the right, especially those who held their vote out,” said Ron Bonjean, a veteran Republican strategist. “It shows to conservatives that he’s providing complete transparency, and that’s what Republicans have wanted for a long time. That said, if the footage is misused in some way, this could end up generating another black hole for Republicans on Jan. 6. It could cause Republicans to be wrapped around that issue, and to look backward, not forward, toward getting things done.”
Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, has portrayed the treatment of Jan. 6 prisoners as a civil rights atrocity and demanded the release of security footage that could exonerate them. But Mr. McCarthy has not shown the same passion as his right flank for re-examining Jan. 6 — an issue that some of his advisers view as a political loser — and, thus far, he has had little interest in dedicating limited staff resources to doing so.
He set up no select committee to investigate the events surrounding the Capitol breach, though he warned the House Jan. 6 panel last year to preserve its files. He has signaled interest in exploring one avenue, saying that the House select committee that investigated the attack during the last Congress ignored the security failures that allowed the Capitol to be breached. He appointed Representative Barry Loudermilk of Georgia, a Republican he views as being unfairly maligned by the Jan. 6 panel, as the chairman of a House Administration subcommittee tasked with investigating the matter.
Mr. McCarthy has risen to power during a tumultuous time on Capitol Hill. Republicans have a slim governing majority, and he had to repeatedly bend to a demanding hard-right flank in his quest for power.
Some of those same resisters celebrated Mr. McCarthy’s decision to give the footage to Mr. Carlson. “Thank you @SpeakerMcCarthy for following through on this!” Representative Lauren Boebert, Republican of Colorado and one of Mr. McCarthy’s loudest detractors during the speakership battle, wrote on Twitter.
And Mr. McCarthy himself was eager to take political advantage of the move, blasting out a fund-raising email that told potential donors: “I promised I would give you the truth regarding Jan. 6, and now I am delivering.”
Even more mainstream Republicans backed him up.
Former Representative Rodney Davis of Illinois, who as the top Republican on the Administration Committee during the last Congress watched hours of the footage, said he had pushed for it to be released to refute what he called Democrats’ “lies” that Republicans had given tours of the Capitol to rioters in advance.
He dismissed concerns that releasing the footage would endanger Capitol security, citing the Jan. 6 committee’s depiction of the evacuation of Vice President Mike Pence and others during the assault.
Mr. Davis also said there was nothing particularly surprising in the footage he reviewed, which showed the attack on the Capitol largely as it is widely understood to have transpired.
“The Capitol came under attack,” Mr. Davis said. “The brave men and women of the Capitol Police fought back. Hopefully, those who broke the law that day are held accountable.”
Still, Democrats said the move was deeply irresponsible, warning that Mr. McCarthy was granting access to sensitive video of escape routes, security camera angles and logistics at the Capitol.
“We have tremendous security concerns about what’s happening and we want to know what rules are in place for the viewing of this material, which goes right to the heart of how we protect the Capitol and our staffs,” said Representative Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland, who was a member of the now-defunct Jan. 6 committee. “We want to make sure we are not giving a blueprint for attacking the Capitol.”