The final day of the House January 6th Committee’s summer hearings last week briefly returned the spotlight to one of the human tragedies of the Capitol Hill riot: the death of 42-year-old Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, who suffered two strokes in the aftermath of clashes with the crowd and passed away the next day. Inevitably, we were also treated to spin from the Donald Trump apologists—and the anti-anti-Trump contingent—whose outrage is reserved for those who erroneously suggest that Sicknick died from injuries at the MAGA rioters’ hands.
On July 21, the committee’s social media account tweeted out screenshots of text messages between two Trump campaign officials, Tim Murtaugh and Matthew Wolking, who in the days after Jan. 6th were appalled by Trump’s silence about Sicknick’s death.
On January 9th, two of President Trump’s top campaign officials texted each other about the President’s glaring silence on the death of Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, who succumbed to his injuries the night of January 7th. pic.twitter.com/vh4v7qwQYp
— January 6th Committee (@January6thCmte) July 22, 2022
Another Twitter user inveighed against committee vice chair Liz Cheney and her staffer Jeremy Adler for abetting a deception and exploiting Sicknick’s death for political purposes:
Washington Examiner writer Jerry Dunleavy apparently felt it necessary to tweet out a thread noting that the medical examiner’s report, released in April 2021 (more than 100 days after the riot), concluded that Sicknick died of natural causes.
This fake controversy highlights the revolting extent to which the MAGA and anti-anti-Trump crowd (which includes supposed leftists like Glenn Greenwald) have played politics with Sicknick’s death.
For starters, the medical examiner’s conclusions change nothing with regard to either Trump’s disgraceful silence or the Murtaugh/Wolking exchange about it (an exchange whose most notable aspect, perhaps, is the two staffers’ readiness to be shocked, at that late date, by the fakeness of Trump’s support for law enforcement). On January 9, 2021, the public had no reason to question the initial reports saying that Sicknick’s death was the result of injuries sustained during the riot. A press release issued by the Capitol Police on the evening of January 7 unequivocally stated that Sicknick had ”passed away due to injuries sustained while on-duty”:
Officer Sicknick was responding to the riots on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol and was injured while physically engaging with protesters. He returned to his division office and collapsed. He was taken to a local hospital where he succumbed to his injuries.
This version of Sicknick’s death was reiterated the next day in a statement from Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, which said that the officer “succumbed last night to the injuries he suffered defending the U.S. Capitol, against the violent mob who stormed it on January 6th.” This account was also consistent with what we had all seen of the clashes between the police and the pro-Trump mob. As many as 150 officers did suffer injuries. Some were battered with sticks and flag poles. One screamed in pain while stuck in a door, crushed and attacked by the rioters. One was dragged down the Capitol steps and beaten.
Some media outlets, notably including the New York Times and the Associated Press, did report a claim from two anonymous law enforcement sources that Sicknick was struck in the head with a fire extinguisher during the confrontation. (This claim, too, probably stemmed from an actual incident: there is video footage showing a different Capitol Hill cop being hit in the head with a fire extinguisher tossed by a rioter.) And some journalists, including New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and NBC News correspondent Richard Engel, did post overwrought tweets about Sicknick being “clubbed to death” by MAGA thugs. But there seems to be no evidence that any news organization deliberately “lied” or “fabricated” anything about Sicknick’s death, as MAGA Twitter breathlessly claimed after the release of the medical examiner’s report:
They killed a cop! They killed Officer Sicknick! Heard repeatedly in the lying media.
A blatant lie they used to buttress the Big Lie. The Big Lie of an “insurrection.” You know, the 100% unarmed insurrection, where the only death was a protester. That one.
— First Words (@unscriptedmike) April 20, 2021
Well well well … U.S. Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick suffered two strokes and died of natural causes.
The media lied.
— Kambree (@KamVTV) April 19, 2021
Accusations of lying about Sicknick’s death have also been leveled at the Capitol Police and at the Justice Department—among others, by MAGA personality Jack Posobiec and CBS reporter-turned-conspiracy-nut Lara Logan (and, in touching solidarity, left-wing pundit Nathan Robinson).
The DOJ did lie about the death of Officer Sicknick. Based on the past few years, Americans can expect zero accountability. Big tech & the media can erase/excuse/undermine etc but that will not change the truth. https://t.co/zgnpkkmbYE
— Lara Logan (@laralogan) April 19, 2021
It turns out that the Capitol Police lied about the death of Brian Sicknick, who died of natural causes. Law enforcement has an institutional interest in exaggerating the harms suffered by police officers in order to elicit public sympathy and distract from police incompetence. pic.twitter.com/0Ep3iOyCkC
— Nathan J Robinson (@NathanJRobinson) April 20, 2021
But again, there is no reason to believe the police statements about Sicknick’s death were deliberately dishonest. Even if it was immediately evident that Sicknick had no wounds or bruises, a blow to the head that later causes a stroke may leave no visible injuries; what’s more, the leading theory at the time appears to have been that Sicknick’s stroke and subsequent death resulted from being sprayed in the face with a noxious chemical—perhaps pepper spray or bear spray. Court documents say that a video shows two rioters, Julian Khater of Pennsylvania and George Tanios of West Virginia, spraying a substance from a canister in Sicknick’s face; the two are still awaiting trial on assault charges.
Do we now know for a fact, as the Jan. 6th apologist narrative would have it, that Sicknick’s death was unrelated to the riot? No, we don’t. The report by medical examiner Francisco J. Diaz does definitively state that Sicknick’s fatal strokes were not due either to internal or external injuries or to a direct allergic reaction to the chemical spray. It does not, however, rule out that physical or emotional stress was a contributing factor—which is certainly not a far-fetched conjecture. In fact, Diaz explicitly told the Washington Post that “all that transpired played a role in his condition.” Even without an allergic reaction, sudden inhalation of pepper spray, tear gas and other chemical irritants can cause a spike in blood pressure, increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke.
Notably, the Jan. 6th Committee hearings included some harrowing testimony last month from Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards, who was caught in the “war zone” next to Sicknick:
All of a sudden, I see movement to the left of me, and I turned and it was Officer Sicknick with his head in his hands. And he was ghostly pale, which, I figured at the point, he had been sprayed. And I was concerned. My cop alarm bells went off. Because if you get sprayed with pepper spray, you’re going to turn red. He turned just about as pale as this sheet of paper. So I looked to see what had hit him, what had happened, and that’s when I got hit as well.
If, after reading this account, you are still convinced that it’s merely a remarkable coincidence that Sicknick collapsed with a stroke several hours later and died the next day, you’re welcome to that narrative. But I don’t think it’s misleading or out of line for Democrats (including President Biden) to continue to describe Sicknick as a fallen officer who died in the line of duty, or to say that his death was the result of the Capitol Hill riot instigated by Trump’s Big Lie about the stolen election. If that’s political exploitation, then it’s one in which Sicknick’s family concurs.
“My son, Capitol Police Officer, Brian Sicknick, died on January 7, 2021. He died because of the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol Building on January 6,” Gladys Sicknick wrote in May 2021 to GOP senators urging them to vote for an independent commission to investigate the events of that day. (She met with more than a dozen Senate Republicans trying to persuade them, without success, to support the investigation.) Last week, after the Murtaugh/Wolking text messages were presented at the hearing, Sicknick’s mother and two brothers, Kenneth Sicknick and Craig Sicknick, appeared on CNN in a devastating interview blasting Trump not only for his inaction and indifference but for whipping up his “sycophants” and inciting the Capitol Hill attack.
Sandra Garza, Sicknick’s live-in companion of over a decade, was equally scathing in an interview with the local CBS affiliate—which is all the more noteworthy because Garza, like Sicknick himself, voted for Trump in November 2020. When WUSA-9 interviewer Adam Longo suggested that it sounded like her feelings about Trump had changed, Garza responded with a bitter laugh:
Absolutely they’ve changed. He didn’t call in any reinforcements. He didn’t want the riot to stop. Oh, and then actually he orchestrated this entire thing. . . . That’s when it really hit me. And that’s when the anger really started to boil up within me. And I was like, yeah, I actually can’t stand this guy and you know, I hold him responsible for Brian’s passing.
If Trump does run again, the Sicknick family, Garza, and Officer Edwards would make very compelling spokespeople against him.
Ultimately, it is impossible to know with certainty just how responsible the mob (and its instigators) were for Sicknick’s death. Anyone claiming that he died directly from injuries at rioters’ hands is being at best incredibly sloppy and at worst outright deceptive (and feeding the “fake news” trope). And anyone claiming that the officer’s death had nothing to do with the events of Jan. 6th is overstepping the facts.
But let’s keep it in perspective. The violence on Jan. 6th, Trump’s sickening indifference, and the question of accountability matter far more.