Do January 6 ‘spectators’ deserve any benefit of the doubt? We doubt it.

Van Orden Capitol Grounds Jan 6

A social media post of US Rep. Derrick Van Orden on the US Capitol grounds prior to the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021 was used in campaign ads by state Sen. Brad Pfaff during his 2022 race with Van Orden.

By Pat Kreitlow

October 24, 2023

Derrick Van Orden should be considered insurrection-adjacent and is fair game for questions about whether he’ll be part of any post-2024 election subversion.

When constituents, candidates, and reporters confront US Rep. Derrick Van Orden about his presence on the US Capitol grounds during the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection, he’s liable to hold up a copy of a recent PolitiFact story that has a big “Mostly False” label across the top and then claim to have been absolved of any responsibility for the deadly violence that occurred that day. That’s not the case, and this episode is indicative of how tricky it can be to fact-check political claims so that voters understand the big picture.

Van Orden—having lost the 2020 election weeks earlier to Democratic incumbent Rep. Ron Kind—used campaign funds to fly to a Washington, DC rally for former President Donald Trump. (“Be there, will be wild!” Trump tweeted on Dec. 19, knowing that was the day Congress would hold a ceremonial session to announce Biden had defeated him.) What Trump provoked was a national tragedy, as fellow Americans attacked and beat law enforcement officers, stormed the US Capitol, and forced Congress to flee as the electoral votes were being counted.

Photographic evidence shows Van Orden was in a restricted area beyond police boundaries on the Capitol grounds, but the protester-turned-congressman has consistently said he did nothing wrong, left the scene before things turned violent, and immediately denounced those who took part in it. 

Van Orden may not have entered the Capitol that day, but that does not remove responsibility for the role he played. The size of the crowd undisputedly encouraged some of the participants to take actions they wouldn’t dream of doing if they were among only a handful of fellow conspiracy theorists. Trump is responsible for summoning the mob and whipping it into a frenzy, but everyone who answered his call—Van Orden included—played a role in determining the size and scope of an activity designed to overturn a presidential election.

But wait, some might say, what about the PolitiFact story and the “Mostly False” judgment it assessed to one of Van Orden’s possible opponents? This is where it’s important to know how fact-checking can miss the forest for the trees.

Democratic candidate Rebecca Cooke’s campaign put up a fundraising post last month that said, “Derrick Van Orden is one of the only members of Congress who participated in the deadly January 6th insurrection. He now serves in the building he tried to burn down. Our democracy is on the line in 2024. Chip in and let’s defeat Van Orden at the polls.”

PolitiFact rightly acknowledges that Van Orden is not among the 1,146 people charged so far with some kind of crime related to the insurrection. But as Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer of The Recombobulation Area noted on UpNorthNews Radio, the evidence is clear that Van Orden is one of those members of Congress who as a private citizen in 2021 did travel to an area filled with like-minded people—and some of those people damaged the Capitol and tried to disrupt a presidential election or worse. While one candidate’s phrasing might merit PolitiFact scrutiny, it obscures the larger issue, Shafer said, about Van Orden’s presence and participation.

“I did take some issues with it,” Shafer said. “Sometimes traditional journalism will engage with the bad-faith arguments of Republicans in a really problematic way, and I think that was an example of that. Sometimes in order to appear non-partisan or centrist you get further away from the truth which is obviously exactly what you don’t want to do when writing up a PolitiFact story.”

In keeping with his pugnacious reputation, Van Orden will most likely use the story to attack critics as being “Mostly False.” He shouldn’t. No one who traveled to Washington, DC at Trump’s invitation—based on what had repeatedly been proven to be lies about the election—can claim to be a mere spectator to mayhem that followed. 

Trump and his co-defendants are learning one-by-one that justice is coming. For the members of Congress who were aligned with Trump in some way, such as undermining election integrity, voting to overturn results, or encouraging the mob, we believe justice is also coming for them—at the ballot box. If not, the incentive only grows for more subversion during and after the 2024 presidential election.



  • Pat Kreitlow

    The Founding Editor of UpNorthNews, Pat was a familiar presence on radio and TV stations in western Wisconsin before serving in the state Legislature. After a brief stint living in the Caribbean, Pat and wife returned to Chippewa Falls to be closer to their growing group of grandchildren. He now serves as UNN's chief political correspondent and host of UpNorthNews Radio, airing weekday mornings 6 a.m.-8 a.m on the Civic Media radio network and the UpNorthNews Facebook page.


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