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WASHINGTON (AP) — Handed some 41,000 hours of Jan. 6 security footage, Fox News' Tucker Carlson has launched an impassioned new effort to explain away the deadly Capitol attack, linking the Republican Party ever more closely to pro-Trump conspiracy theories about the 2021 riot.
The conservative commentator aired a first installment to millions of viewers on his prime-time show Monday, working to bend perceptions of the violent, grueling siege that played out for the world to see into a narrative favorable to Donald Trump. A small additional bit was shown Tuesday amid calls from critics to stop.
The undertaking by Fox News comes as Trump is again running for president, and executives at the highest levels of the cable news giant have admitted in unrelated court proceedings that it spread the former president's false claims about the 2020 election despite dismissing Trump's assertions privately.
The effort dovetails with the work of Republicans on Capitol Hill, led by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who turned over the security footage to Fox. The Republicans are trying to claw back the findings of the House Jan. 6 investigation, which painstakingly documented, with testimony and video evidence, how Trump rallied his supporters to head to the Capitol and “fight like hell” as Congress was certifying his loss to Democrat Joe Biden.
Trump on Tuesday contended that Carlson's presentation was “irrefutable” evidence that rioters have been wrongly accused of crimes and he thanked the host and the speaker for their work. Carlson praised McCarthy as having “rectified” the official record.
Trump called anew for the release from custody of people who have been convicted or have pleaded guilty to charges from the attack.
At the same time, criticism poured in from Democrats — and some top Republicans, too — over the GOP's attempt to amplify falsehoods about the attack that was seen around the world as Trump supporters laid siege to the seat of U.S. democracy.
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, the Democrat who chaired the House Jan. 6 Committee investigating the riot, called McCarthy's decision to selectively release the security footage “a dereliction of duty."
"The speaker decided it was more important to give in to a Fox host who spews lies and propaganda than to protect the Capitol,” Thompson said in a statement. He called Jan. 6 “one of the darkest days in the history of our democracy.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called the Monday night Fox News episode from Carlson “one of the most shameful hours we have ever seen on television.”
The show's portrayal was "an insult to every single police officer,” Schumer said, especially the family of Brian Sicknick, who died later after fighting the mob. “Nonviolent? Ask his family.”
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said it was a mistake for Fox News to depict the footage as it did — at odds with the Capitol Police assessment and what he and others witnessed firsthand at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
But McCarthy, who has shifted from blaming Trump for the riot to softening his criticism of the former president, stood by his decision, saying people can watch and "come up with their own conclusion.”
In the roughly 30-minute segment, Fox distilled the thousands of hours of footage of the gruesome scenes at the Capitol that day and did show some of the hand-to-hand combat as rioters laid siege to the building, broke windows and kicked down doors to gain entry.
But Carlson also emphasized imagery of the invaders, some in combat gear and wielding flagpoles, merely milling about the gilded halls, taking pictures of the surroundings during pauses in the hours-long attack.
“These were not insurrectionists. They were sightseers,” Carlson said.
The footage he aired focused on one of the highest-profile rioters, Jacob Chansley, the “QAnon Shaman,” garbed in his horned hat and bare chested, as he poked around the building, officers standing by or opening doors. Chansley pleaded guilty to a felony charge of obstructing an official proceeding and was sentenced to 41 months in prison.
Carlson denounced the Jan. 6 committee led by Democrats in the past Congress, and called out Trump's chief Republican critics Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger as liars on the panel.
Carlson is reviving the falsehoods launched by Trump and his allies, including Republicans in Congress, that the attackers were peaceful protesters and acted like tourists, despite the well-documented carnage of the day and the deaths of five people in the riot and its aftermath. It's part of an effort to reverse criminal charges for those being prosecuted in the attack, many of whom have pleaded guilty and said they regretted their actions on Jan. 6.
Capitol Police officers who were defending against the mob have testified to their harrowing experiences — one said she was slipping in other people's blood, while another told of being crushed in the mob — as they worked and ultimately failed to block the rioters from storming the Capitol.
The criminal cases stemming from the riot have laid bare the violence. Officers have testified in court about being chased, hit, dragged and scared for their lives as they tried to defend the Capitol. One tweeted images late Monday of his cuts, stitches and swollen bruises from that day.
Among those who died in the riot and its aftermath were Trump supporter Ashli Babbitt who was shot by police and Capitol Police officer Sicknick who died after fighting the mob.
Carlson aired footage of Sicknick inside the Capitol picking up posters and politely ushering protesters out the door, portraying that as evidence the officer was not killed in the crush.
That last was denounced by Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger as “the most disturbing accusation from last night."
“The Department maintains, as anyone with common sense would, that had Officer Sicknick not fought valiantly for hours on the day he was violently assaulted, Officer Sicknick would not have died the next day,” Chief Manger said in a memo to his police force.
He said the program “cherry-picked” from calmer moments of the day, ignoring “the chaos and violence that happened before or during.”
The Sicknick family said in a statement that the footage simply showed that Brian Sicknick bravely resumed his duties for a time after he had been attacked by a chemical agent.
Ken Sicknick, Brian Sicknick’s brother, said in an interview that the family is “at a loss” about how to fight back against a network with millions of viewers and the speaker of the House who gave access to the footage.
Law enforcement failures on Jan. 6 have been investigated in Congress and acknowledged: Police failed to heed signs of a looming attack and were slow to provide an adequate response, including reinforcement from the National Guard.
More than half of the roughly 1,000 people charged with Capitol riot-related federal crimes have pleaded guilty, including more than 130 who pleaded guilty to felony crimes, according to an Associated Press tally.
Members of the extremist Proud Boys and Oath Keepers groups are facing rare charges of sedition for their roles at the front of the assault. Several members of the Oath Keepers have been found guilty of sedition. Hundreds of other rioters were charged only with misdemeanor offenses and many have served no prison time.
Republicans on Capitol Hill are mounting an effort to retell the history of Jan. 6 through the House Administration Committee, which has opened an online portal for submissions from the public.
Some GOP leaders, however, appeared uncomfortable with McCarthy's move and the way the footage was being used.
Senate Republican leader McConnell quickly distanced himself from the endeavor, saying he wanted to “associate myself entirely" with the police chief's views.
McConnell said, “Clearly the chief of the Capitol Police correctly describes what most of us witnessed firsthand on Jan. 6.”
AP reporters Michael Balsamo and Alanna Durkin Richer and videojournalist Rick Gentilo contributed to this story.