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Matt Gaetz pushes debunked theory that D.C. rioters were Antifa

Tom McLaughlin
Northwest Florida Daily News

After rioters stormed the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz suggested at least some might have been members of Antifa posing as supporters of President Donald Trump — a claim that since has been debunked.

As he has done since early on in Trump's campaign for office, Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, stood firmly behind the president even in the wake of Wednesday's events. 

More:As Trump rioters breached Capitol, Florida lawmakers tweeted scenes of mayhem

"This morning President Trump explicitly called for demonstrations and protests to be peaceful," he told colleagues in a speech following the removal of demonstrators from the Capitol. "He was far more explicit in his calls for peace than some of the BLM and left-wing rioters were this summer when we saw violence sweep across this nation."

Thousands of Trump supporters converged in D.C. on Wednesday to protest the certification of Electoral College votes declaring Joe Biden the winner of the Nov. 3, 2020, presidential election. From in front of the White House, Trump spoke to the assembly and urged them to march on the Capitol. 

Some part of the group did just that, and during the ensuing protest a mob forced its way into the Capitol, where its members roamed the hallways and clashed with law enforcement as lawmakers and staffers were evacuated or locked down.

Police reported that there were four deaths and 52 arrests in the chaos.

About 8 p.m. Wednesday after the building was cleared, Congress reconvened to continue the ratification process. 

Gaetz's father, former Florida Senate President Don Gaetz, said he had spoken to his son both during the time he was sheltering as the Capitol was being overrun and later after the congressman spoke in objection to verifying the Nov. 3 vote results.

"He was literally in line to speak when the disruption occurred. We (Don Gaetz and his wife, watching on C-SPAN) saw him briefly on the floor. We got a call shortly thereafter. He was somewhere within the Longworth Office," Don Gaetz said. "He called to say he was OK and his staff was OK. At that time he was waiting to go back to speak. He was concerned about what was going on in the Capitol and anxious to get back to the issues."

In a Thursday email, Congressman Gaetz confirmed he never felt in danger during the chaotic hours during which the Capitol was under siege.

"I spent the lockdown in the Longworth House Office Building with my fiancée and members of my staff. We did not feel threatened," he wrote in an email. "I would reiterate my position that political violence is not acceptable in America today. I far prefer to resolve disputes with words." 

Don Gaetz said he and his son share a deep respect for the U.S. Capitol and agreed what was happening inside "was a very serious and terrible thing."

"He publicly condemned the thugs and criminals that broke into the building," Don Gaetz said.

As debate ensued prior to Congress verifying Biden's election, Gaetz, who objected to vote counts in Arizona and Pennsylvania, said "I know there are countries where political violence may be necessary, but America is not such a country."

More:DC riots live updates: Trump condemned, police defend actions, city stunned after violent Capitol siege

Gaetz noted that while he and his peers don't always see eye to eye, the day would have been "even more of a catastrophe" if any of them had been hurt.

In this image from video, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz speaks as the House reconvened Wednesday to debate the objection to confirm the Electoral College vote from Arizona after protesters stormed into the Capitol. [HOUSE TELEVISION VIA AP]

At one point during his 5-minute speech, he seemed even to make a call for unity.

"We should seek to build America up, not tear her down and destroy her," Gaetz said.

But any olive branch he might appeared to have extended to his Democratic colleagues, who booed him consistently as he spoke, was quickly withdrawn.

"I'm sure glad that for at least one day I didn't hear my Democrat colleagues calling to defund the police," Gaetz said to a standing ovation from his Republican peers.

Gaetz and some of his most conservative colleagues also sought to shift blame for the evening's events away from Trump and toward Antifa. 

"I don't know the reports are true," he told his colleagues. "But the Washington Times has just reported some pretty compelling evidence from a facial recognition company showing that some of the people who breached the Capitol today were not Trump supporters. They were masquerading as Trump supporters, and, in fact, were members of the violent terrorist group Antifa."

Gaetz was referring to an article published by the right-wing Washington Times — an article that since has been removed from its website — that claimed a retired military officer had told the publication the firm XRVision used its facial recognition software to identify two of the rioters as Philadelphia Antifa members and one as a climate and Black Lives Matter protester.

In a statement provided to The Washington Post, XRVision executive Yaacov Apelbaum denied that claim, saying "XRVision didn't generate any composites or detection imagery for the Washington Times nor for a 'retired military officer,' and did not authorize them to make any such representations."

Apelbaum told the Post his firm did analyze the footage and identify three people.

"We concluded that two of the individuals ... were affiliated with the Maryland Skinheads and the National Socialist Movements," the firm determined. "These two are known Nazi organizations, they are not Antifa. The third individual identified ... was an actor with some QAnon promotion history. Again, no Antifa identification was made for him, either."

After media outlets debunked the Washington Times reporting, Gaetz on Thursday afternoon posted a tweet defending his previous statements.

"I cited a Wash Times publication w/requisite caveat," Gaetz tweeted. "If it isn’t true, the point still stands that our nation has endured both left- and right-wing violence & I condemn it all. Specifically, I condemned the attacks on the Capitol and on Speaker Pelosi’s home."

Similarly, claims that widespread voter fraud tainted the 2020 election also have not been substantiated. Still, Gaetz was among the dozens of Republican members of Congress who voted to reject Electoral College vote counts in Arizona and Pennsylvania, saying the election saw an unprecedented number of votes that could not be authenticated.

Critics have accused Gaetz and other staunch Trump supporters of undertaking a dangerous effort to overturn a lawful U.S. election, criticism that only intensified following Wednesday's violence.

Still, Gaetz remained defiant, saying, "We came here today to debate, to follow regular order, to offer an objection, to follow a process that is expressly contemplated in our Constitution, and for doing that we got called a bunch of seditious traitors."