Denver Riggleman on the role of the Freedom Caucus in a GOP majority

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Denver Riggleman on the role of the Freedom Caucus in a GOP majority: When ‘disinformation becomes policy’

As a conservative Republican congressman representing a rural Virginia district from 2019 to 2021, Denver Riggleman was a vocal member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus. The all-GOP group includes some of the most recognizable MAGA voices in Congress, like Reps. Lauren Boebert (Colo.), Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio).

Members of that caucus appear to have been instrumental in coordinating efforts to overturn the 2020 election, resulting in the siege of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

In August 2021, Riggleman joined the congressional panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol as a senior technical adviser, where he worked with a team to sort through millions of lines of data detailing communications by people — including members of the caucus to which he once belonged — involved in efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Riggleman details his experience working for the committee in a new book, “The Breach: The Untold Story of the Investigation into January 6th.” He has faced some backlash for releasing the book from members of the committee, which has not yet released its final report. He spoke with Grid about his investigative work for the committee, the state of his former party and the effort to fight disinformation in American politics.

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Riggleman announced he had left the Republican Party in June and said his previous association with the House Freedom Caucus gave him a unique vantage point on the conspiracy-driven politics behind the effort to keep Donald Trump in power.

“It just gave me a unique perspective on how conspiratorial thinking can pollute an entire party, and how that can be pushed by a former president, who has no qualms about lying in order to further whatever objectives he might have,” Riggleman told Grid.

This Q&A has been condensed from two interviews and edited for length and clarity.

Grid: Out of about 16 GOP lawmakers identified as being involved in events on Jan. 6, a dozen are Freedom Caucus members. For a group that claims only a few dozen members total, that seems extraordinary. What do you think accounts for that?

Denver Riggleman: I think part of that is they’ve become sort of the Trump Protection Society. I think that’s the first thing. I think that’s where they get their money and their fundraising. I think that’s how they keep their power, is by hooking themselves to Trump. They really don’t have a whole lot of policy recommendations to help the country. These are individuals who don’t get a whole lot of legislation passed. I think that’s part of it.

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If I had to sum it up, it’s their ability to fundraise off their connections to the former president. I think the other thing, too, is that a lot of these individuals are conspiracy-minded. It seems like they’re more susceptible to outlandish theories, that seems like, than other members of Congress.

You also have a coordinating function, which is the CPI — the Conservative Partnership Institute — where a lot of that organization happens. You have [former House Freedom Caucus chairman, ex-White House chief of staff, and current CPI senior partner] Mark Meadows. There was a million dollars given to CPI when Mark Meadows landed there. [Note: Trump’s Save America PAC made a $1 million contribution to CPI on July 26, 2021.] And it’s Mark Meadows’ text messages where a lot of these conspiracy theories flowed.

CPI is where [Sen.] Mike Lee [R-Utah] took [Trump election lawyer] Sidney Powell. So you have Mike Lee talking about Sidney Powell at the CPI. [Note: On Nov. 9., 2020, Lee texted Meadows: “We had steering executive meeting at CPI tonight, with Sidney Powell as our guest speaker. My purpose in having the meeting was to socialize with Republican senators the fact that POTUS needs to pursue his legal remedies.”] So again, it was a coordinating and organizing function with individuals who protect Trump, but also who are susceptible to conspiracy theories. And a lot of that has to do with the fundraising that’s involved with that, too.

G: Why do you think CPI seemed to have had such a central role in the events surrounding Jan. 6?

DR: CPI is a nonprofit. It’s where money flows through from far-right donors based on their nonprofit structure. But really, it’s the hangout for the Freedom Caucus. It’s really, you could say, sort of like a bizarre Freedom Caucus HQ.

G: You were formerly a member of the House Freedom Caucus. How do you look back on your time with the group?

DR: That experience — being in the House Freedom Caucus — allowed me to see the conspiratorial type of thinking, I think, well before anybody else. And based on the fact I was never in politics before — and I’d worked in counterterrorism, intelligence analysis and data analytics — I think I started to see that these conspiracy theories are much more prevalent than I ever thought they were in the GOP.

I think the other thing is I was able to match what happened to me after [officiating a] same-sex wedding, how I was attacked, to some of the conspiracy theories that I was hearing from the far right. [Note: Riggleman officiated a same-sex wedding for campaign volunteers in 2019, and in June 2020 he lost the Republican primary to challenger and current Rep. Bob Good.]

It gave me a unique perspective on how conspiratorial thinking can pollute an entire party and how that can be pushed by a former president who has no qualms about lying in order to further whatever objectives he might have.

That’s what should scare people. The charges or criminal referrals, you know — great. We should absolutely look at anybody for criminal activity. But the fact is, you had a whole party that was caught up in this massive conspiratorial grift that led to violence on Jan. 6.


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G: You write about your former colleagues in the Freedom Caucus, noting that some of them had “fully bought into even the more unhinged conspiracy theories.” There’s a real possibility, if the Republican Party takes the House in the midterm elections, that some of those members will be in a position to obtain powerful committee chairmanships and other positions. Do you fear that if the GOP wins, some of these members you mention will assume powerful positions?

DR: That’s why I wrote “The Breach.” Here’s the issue: I’m very concerned about critically fact-challenged individuals that are making policy for the United States. That should concern the hell out of people. And I can’t imagine that if a voter knew that these people believe this, that they would vote for them.

However, a lot of these conspiracy theories are baked in. So the best way I can say it — if I can give some credit to “United States of Paranoia” by Jesse Walker — he says that these conspiracy theories become folklore. And for me, they become memes. So if these individuals believe it, then those elected officials are going to push that message into the base because it’s reciprocal, right?

And that’s what really frightens me, is that some of these conspiracy theories are baked in. So it’s not just the elected officials, it’s the base. So the problem is us. We’re the problem. And we have a diseased two-party system. And I think when people are that tribal, if you have one party, like the GOP, that’s in a hold-my-beer moment, the conspiracy theories, that is very concerning. And “The Breach” goes over that and maybe how we can break that cycle.

G: You note that some members of Congress who found themselves in the committee’s crosshairs are slow-walking their responses, running out the clock until the committee expires and Republicans possibly take control of the House. Who, specifically, do you mean when you when you write about that?

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DR: We don’t have phone records for a lot of these individuals. We didn’t subpoena these individuals. So when you ask them to come in voluntarily, like the [current House Freedom Caucus chairman Rep.] Scott Perrys [R-Pa.] of the world, or those type of individuals, they’re not going to come in voluntarily and talk, right? They’re just not going to do that. [Note: After Perry refused the committee’s December 2021 request to provide information voluntarily, the committee issued him a subpoena in May. He has refused to comply with the subpoena.]

I think what they’re simply waiting for is, if the Republicans take over in 2023, which looks likely, they simply move on. Because there’s really no recourse [for the committee] if they don’t have interviews. If you haven’t interviewed them, you don’t have data on them, nor do you follow up on some of those things, because it’s very difficult for Congress to investigate Congress. It’s part of the authorities and part of some of the sensitivities there.

I think we should have been more aggressive in that vein. But again, you know, if it’s voluntary in any way, why would you come in at this point?

G: What do you think about someone like Rep. Jim Jordan, who is a figure of scrutiny for the committee, possibly serving as chair of the Judiciary Committee in 2023?

DR: I think what that says is there’s going to be a lot of subpoenas for frivolous things. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a lot of investigations into certain parts of what the Jan. 6 committee accomplished or what they investigated.

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G: You mentioned Rep. Perry, who had his phone seized by the FBI. Do you think that he or other members of Congress might face criminal liability for their alleged involvement in efforts to overturn the 2020 election?

DR: I’d be very surprised if they face criminal liability, and a lot of it has to do with this one statement: “I believe the election was stolen.” If you keep saying that over and over again, it’s very difficult to prove fraudulent activities, even if it seems absolutely insane, and no voters should trust anybody who believed the election was stolen.

I think the committee succeeded in showing the insanity of “Stop the Steal” and some of those individuals who obviously were fundraising off of this and knew they were lying.

This is a bizarre time in our history, where disinformation becomes policy. That is what should scare people, not whether these people are charged. It should scare people that that type of crazy ran wild through the far-right. And that 147 Republicans voted to object to the electors in one way or the other.

G: The committee is set to release its final report by the end of the year. Do you think by that time they’ll have been able to gather the full story of what happened that day, given the time and resources that have been allocated? Or do you think the full story of the effort to overturn the 2020 election will take more time?

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DR: I think based on the authorities that Congress has, and based on how they conducted this investigation — what they were allowed to see or allowed to do — and if you take sort of traditional investigative techniques, I thought they’ve done a bang-up job. They’ve done a fantastic job.

However, I think we still need a year to a year-and-a-half with the data to look at actually how the command-and-control infrastructure worked. And DOJ, FBI — they have those authorities. But what I’ve been trying to say is, there’s been no criticism of the committee as far as the work that they’ve done. My criticism has been on policy, and the fact that we’re not looking at this as information warfare.

I think Jan. 6 was a learning point for a lot of these individuals who are radicalized, and maybe just the beginning of them learning on how to do this more effectively in the future. And I think we need to look at this as a domestic terrorism problem, apply counterterrorism tech techniques and data analytic techniques beforehand, and then put the resources toward that immediately.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Steve Reilly
    Steve Reilly

    Investigative Reporter

    Steve Reilly is an investigative reporter for Grid focusing on threats to democracy.