When Democrat Rebecca Cooke, a small-business owner and nonprofit founder, entered the race against first-term Republican U.S. Rep. Derrick Van Orden of western Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District she led with a sharp attack:
“Derrick Van Orden is one of the only members of Congress who participated in the deadly January 6th insurrection,” Cooke said Sept. 1 on X, formerly known as Twitter. “He now serves in the building he tried to burn down.”
By now, the Jan. 6, 2021, mob action is familiar — thousands of President Donald Trump’s supporters rallied and then hundreds forced their way into the Capitol building in an unsuccessful attempt to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory in the November 2020 presidential election.
According to the Justice Department, as of Sept. 5, 2023, some 1,146 defendants have been charged in nearly all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In all, 623 federal defendants have had their cases adjudicated and received sentences for their criminal activity on Jan. 6, the Justice Department says. Of those, 378 have been sentenced to periods of incarceration.
Van Orden is not among them.
So, what’s the basis for Cooke’s claim? And how much validity is there to it?
Let’s take a look.
Cooke team responds
When asked for backup for the claim, Cooke spokesperson Charly Norton said in an email to PolitiFact Wisconsin the tweet is based on a television appearance by Van Orden in which he acknowledged “that he participated in the January 6th insurrection, was photographed on Capitol grounds during the Jan. 6th insurrection, and publicly disclosed using campaign funds to attend the January 6th insurrection.”
Now, that’s the Cooke campaign’s take on what Van Orden has said.
Let’s go back and check the record.
According to The Washington Post, Van Orden, a retired U.S. Navy SEAL, was one of two newly elected GOP House members at the rally.
According to Newsweek, in a Jan. 13, 2021, column in the LaCrosse Tribune, Van Orden acknowledged attending Trump’s rally that preceded the insurrection but said he left when the riot began.
“When it became clear that a protest had become a mob, I left the area as to remain there could be construed as tacitly approving this unlawful conduct,” he wrote. “At no time did I enter the grounds, let alone the building.”
Two years later, in January 2023, Van Orden sought to reframe the issue, telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he wished he had not attended the Trump rally if it would have prevented the public from believing he embraced the violence.
“I don’t regret supporting voter integrity,” Van Orden said. “But if you look in hindsight — like the volume of stuff, the way that it could be interpreted that I would support political violence — that is regretful. If that made people think that I support political violence, that is a regret because I don’t support political violence.”
Van Orden noted he tweeted that he condemned “all forms of political violence” even as the rioters were in the building.
Van Orden’s location questioned
That said, just how close Van Orden was to the Capitol attack is in dispute.
Although Van Orden told the La Crosse newspaper he and two friends “stood on the parapet that lines the perimeter of the grounds,” a report by The Daily Beast cited social media posts showing Van Orden in an area the news outlet characterized as being beyond police barricades.
The Daily Beast said it had recreated the photo Van Orden posted on Facebook and determined they would have had to cross police barricades to reach that area.
It is against the law to cross police barricades to reach a restricted area.
Van Orden disputes being in a restricted area and in January the lawmaker told the Journal Sentinel the wall he was on was “450 meters” away from the Capitol and he was only “standing there” near the wall.
A footnote: The Cooke campaign also accused Van Orden of using campaign funds to travel to Washington. According to a Sept. 2, 2022, article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the six-member Federal Election Commission decided unanimously to dismiss a complaint that alleged the money was used inappropriately partly because of the “small amount” of money used for the trip — $4,022.72.
Cooke claimed “Derrick Van Orden is one of the only members of Congress who participated in the deadly January 6th insurrection,” and “now serves in the building he tried to burn down.”
Van Orden acknowledged attending the Jan. 6 rally but said he left before any violence occurred, and later said he regretted being there since it would lead people to think he endorsed the violence that followed.
However, according to a media outlet, a photo posted to Facebook shows Van Orden and two friends in an area beyond police barricades set up at the Capitol that day. Van Orden says he was not behind the barricades but was “450 meters” away from the Capitol and only “standing there” near the wall.
All of that said, Cooke goes too far in making her claim, including the idea that Van Orden tried to burn the building down, which suggests there is evidence he participated in rioting.
For a statement that contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression, our rating is Mostly False.