A few days ago, the New York Times quietly “updated” its report, published over a month earlier, asserting that Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick had been killed by being struck with a fire extinguisher during the January 6 riot.
According to the update, “new information has emerged regarding the death of the Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick that questions the initial cause of his death provided by officials close to the Capitol Police.” As I detailed in a column last week, what the Times calls “new information” actually began emerging the same day the paper filed its January 8 report.
That report was (and still is) entitled, “Capitol Police Officer Dies from Injuries in Pro-Trump Rampage.” It was not the only such Times report from that day. There was another, entitled, “He Dreamed of Being a Police Officer, Then Was Killed by a Pro-Trump Mob,” in which the Times asserted:
On Wednesday, pro-Trump supporters attacked that citadel of democracy [i.e., the Capitol], overpowered Mr. Sicknick, 42, and struck him in the head with a fire extinguisher, according to two law enforcement officials. With a bloody gash in his head, Mr. Sicknick was rushed to the hospital and placed on life support. He died on Thursday evening.
Yet, as early as the morning of January 8, KHOU in Houston reported that Sicknick had died from a stroke. The KHOU story made no mention of the officer’s being struck by a fire extinguisher. It did claim, however, that the stroke occurred “at the Capitol during riots,” and a caption under the officer’s photograph stated that he died “of injuries sustained during the riot at the Capitol.” The headline of the KHOU story attributes the conclusion that a stroke was the cause of death to the head of the Capitol Police union, Gus Papathanasiou. The body of the story identified Papathanasiou as its source for what turned out to be the erroneous report that Sicknick had passed away during the day on Thursday (the day after the riot); in fact, he was still on life support at the time and was pronounced dead late Thursday night.
My aforementioned column noted that Fox News’s Tucker Carlson (relying on a report from the website Revolver News) had just reported that Sicknick was not taken to the hospital directly from the Capitol. To the contrary, not only had the officer made it back to police headquarters; he had texted his brother hours after the siege, stating that although he had been “pepper sprayed twice,” he was “in good shape.” Moreover, Carlson pointed to a CNN report on February 2, to the effect that, according to unidentified law-enforcement officials, medical examiners had found no evidence of blunt-force trauma on Sicknick’s body and concluded the fire extinguisher account was not true.
To be clear, my purpose in focusing on this story has not been to break news, much less to claim credit for the Times’ implicit acknowledgement that its original stories were wrong. In addition to Tucker Carlson, Revolver News, and KHOU, Julie Kelly of American Greatness was also on this before I was — and has emphasized that I was duped.
I have focused on the story for two reasons.
First, I am one of the analysts who uncritically relied on the Times’ initial reporting, deducing from it the conclusion that Sicknick had been “murdered” by the rioters — not a long logical leap if you credit the assertion that a police officer was bashed over the head with a lethal object by rioters who were intentionally and forcibly confronting security forces. Julie Kelly took me to task again yesterday for having “regurgitated” the “narrative that Sicknick was murdered,” which I certainly did do — although I am not, as she describes, a political pundit of the “NeverTrump Right.” Because I repeated a very serious allegation that had not been supported by credible evidence from identifiable sources, I thought it was important to make clear, to the extent it is in my power to do so, that there is now immense reason to doubt the original reporting — while confessing (with a link to the column in which I included the “murder” allegation) that I was as guilty as any other analyst or reporter who amplified the dubious account.
Second, and more significantly, the death of Officer Sicknick became a building block for the House’s impeachment of former President Trump and of the allegations posited by the Democratic House impeachment managers that were publicly filed in their pretrial brief on February 2. By then, there was already substantial reason to question the fire-extinguisher allegation.
Prosecutors have an obligation, rooted in due process and professional ethics, to reveal exculpatory evidence. That includes evidence that is inconsistent with the theory of guilt they have posited. Even if Sicknick’s death was causally connected to the rioting, prosecutors would be obligated to correct the record if it did not happen the way they expressly represented that it happened. The House impeachment managers had not done that last week when NR published my column raising that issue, and to this day, although the impeachment trial is now over, we are still in the dark about the circumstances surrounding the officer’s tragic death at age 42.
Which brings us back to the original Times report. The “updated” version is, to put it mildly, confusing. At first, it attributes to unidentified “authorities” the claim that Sicknick “died from injuries sustained ‘while physically engaging’ with pro-Trump rioters.” The Times then describes Sicknick as “only the fourth member of the force to be killed in the line of duty since its founding two centuries ago.” That assertion is published as if it were an established fact, with no source.
But has it been established that Sicknick was “killed”? Has it been established that he died from injuries sustained while physically engaging with pro-Trump rioters? To my knowledge, it has not. And even the Times implicitly admits that it is unsure of what it is saying. A few paragraphs later, the same report now states:
The circumstances surrounding Mr. Sicknick’s death were not immediately clear, and the Capitol Police said only that he had “passed away due to injuries sustained while on duty.”
This seems very lawyered. “Sustained while on duty” is not the same as a “sustained ‘while physically engaging’ with pro-Trump rioters.” The Times goes on to acknowledge that “law enforcement officials initially said Mr. Sicknick was struck with a fire extinguisher” but that “weeks later, police sources and investigators were at odds over whether he was hit,” and that “one law enforcement official” (unidentified, of course) says that “medical experts have said [Sicknick] did not die of blunt force trauma.” The latest Capitol Police version of events seems to be, “He returned to his division office and collapsed. . . . He was taken to a local hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries.”
What injuries? We’re not told.
Although the Times further concedes that it is “unclear where Mr. Sicknick’s encounter with rioters took place,” the paper weirdly adds that “photos and videos posted by a local reporter during the night of chaos showed a man spraying a fire extinguisher outside the Senate chamber, with a small number of police officers overlooking the area on a nearby stairway.” Okay, but so what? The Times does not say these officers included Sicknick, and the paper’s original claim — which became the House impeachment managers’ formal allegation — was that Sicknick had been hit in the head with a fire extinguisher. In light of the way the Times has already confused matters, to the point of having to provide a not-very-edifying “update,” why speculate that the cited photos and videos are relevant to Sicknick’s death?
Meantime, the word “stroke” does not appear in the Times’ updated story. So is the paper discounting the report that Sicknick died of a stroke, even though that assertion was attributed to a named person presumably in a position to know — the head of the Capitol Police union? And what is the basis for the Times’ continued claim that Sicknick died from injuries sustained while physically engaging with pro-Trump rioters?
Of course, it is entirely possible — perhaps even probable — that this is true. But without an autopsy report, and with indications that Sicknick was able to get back to his office from the siege, later told his brother he was in good shape despite being pepper-sprayed, and bore no signs of blunt-force trauma, why maintain this assertion? After all, the Times has updated its story because the story, as originally published, was misleading. And the Democratic House managers — after resting their allegation solely on the Times’ dubious fire-extinguisher claim — essentially steered clear of the circumstances surrounding Sicknick’s death during their impeachment trial presentation.
Irrespective of whether impeachment had ever been pursued, it is vital that we have an accurate accounting of what happened on January 6, including an accurate accounting of what happened to Officer Brian Sicknick. And since impeachment was pursued, we are also owed an explanation of why the House managers did not clarify the circumstances of Sicknick’s death after making an explosive allegation about how it came to pass.