Trump’s Long History With Conspiracy Theories
By Angelo Fichera and Saranac Hale Spencer
Posted on October 20, 2020
During a town hall event on Oct. 15, NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie pressed President Donald Trump on his sharing of a baseless conspiracy theory that accused his election rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, of murder.
The theory, which has no basis in fact, specifically claimed Biden had members of SEAL Team 6 killed to cover up a purportedly failed assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Trump retweeted a post spreading the theory, therefore amplifying the message to his 87 million followers.
Trump defended the post by arguing it was simply “a retweet” of someone’s “opinion.” He added, “I’ll put it out there, and people can decide for themselves.” But internet conspiracy theorists, as we wrote, took it as the president’s confirmation of the “intel.”
At the same event, Trump also declined to condemn QAnon — the widespread conspiracy theory movement that baselessly suggests Trump is dismantling an elite child sex trafficking ring involving high-profile Democrats. He claimed he knows “nothing about” it.
Guthrie, Oct. 15: Let me ask you about QAnon — it is this theory that Democrats are a satanic pedophile ring and that you are the savior of that. Now can you just once and for all state that that is completely not true and disavow QAnon in its entirety?
Trump: I know nothing about QAnon. I know very little … I do know they are very much against pedophilia.
An FBI memo has described the theory as one that presents a potential domestic terror threat. And in addition to Guthrie describing the theory’s main tenets in posing the question, a reporter also told Trump of its main gist in August when questioning him on it. QAnon signage and paraphernalia have also regularly shown up at Trump rallies.
Trump’s responses spoke to what is a yearslong pattern of Trump directly espousing or leaning into conspiracy theories, often those that smear his political opponents or critics.
Here, we summarize some of the conspiracy theories that Trump has either explicitly pushed or subtly elevated both before and during his time in the White House — many of which we’ve covered at length before.
False Birther Conspiracy
President Barack Obama was born in Hawaii — a fact confirmed in multiple ways, including when our staffers physically saw and photographed the original birth certificate in 2008.
Still, a conspiracy theory claiming the first Black president was not born in the U.S. persisted long after the 2008 campaign. Trump himself continued to repeatedly promote the claim years after it was definitively debunked.
The future president peddled the false claim in interviews in 2011, for example, as well as in a 2012 tweet in which he claimed to have an “extremely credible source” telling him that the birth certificate was a “fraud.” It was not a fraud.
For more, see “Donald, You’re Fired!“
ISIS and Obama
In 2016, months before the presidential election, Trump falsely suggested that Obama had supported ISIS terrorists. He was also wrong when he claimed that a conservative website’s story — which misinterpreted an intelligence memo — proved him “right.”
For more, see “Trump’s ISIS Conspiracy Theory.”
Ted Cruz’s Father and JFK’s Assassination
Vying for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Trump in a May 2016 national interview baselessly linked the father of his competitor, Sen. Ted Cruz, to the man who assassinated President John F. Kennedy.
“His father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald’s being, you know, shot,” Trump said. “I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous. What — what is this right, prior to his being shot. And nobody even brings it up.”
The claim was premised on a thinly sourced story in the tabloid National Enquirer about a picture taken months before the assassination. A photo expert told the Enquirer that a man standing next to Oswald has “more similarity than dissimilarity” with a passport photo of Cruz’s father. But that same expert told us it is “stupid” to claim, as Trump did, that Cruz’s father “was with Lee Harvey Oswald” prior to Kennedy’s assassination.
For more, see “Trump’s Tall Tabloid Tale.”
Questioning Cruz’s Eligibility
Trump made a dim reprisal of his “birther” message in 2016. This time it was aimed at Cruz.
Trump claimed in January 2016 that Illinois was “very seriously” looking at the senator’s eligibility to run for president and “may not even let him run.” But, as we’ve written, that misrepresents the process. Illinois was following standard procedures involving ballot challenges.
The objection, which had been filed by a licensed attorney who makes his living as a pharmacist and was publicized on the conservative website WND.com, was rejected.
As we wrote in 2015, Cruz is a citizen by birth because his mother was a U.S. citizen when he was born.
For more, see “Trump Overstates Cruz Challenges.”
Celebration in New Jersey on 9/11
In 2015, Trump claimed that he “watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering. So something’s going on. We’ve got to find out what it is.”
The next day, he claimed, “It did happen. I saw it. It was on television. I saw it. There were people that were cheering on the other side of New Jersey, where you have large Arab populations. They were cheering as the World Trade Center came down.”
But multiple efforts to verify his story turned up zero evidence that “thousands of people” in New Jersey cheered the attacks on 9/11. Trump later claimed to have evidence, citing a Sept. 18, 2001, Washington Post story and demanding an apology. But that story didn’t support his claim, either.
Trump repeatedly has amplified a debunked theory linking MSNBC host Joe Scarborough to the death of one of his staffers in 2001, when he was a Republican congressman. The medical examiner found that the death was accidental, due to a heart problem that caused the aide to fall and hit her head on a desk.
In 2017, Trump asked on Twitter whether Scarborough, a Trump critic, should be fired “based on the ‘unsolved mystery’ that took place in Florida years ago” and said, “Investigate!”
In May, Trump again returned to the subject — more than once — asking for a reopening of the “Cold Case on the Psycho Joe Scarborough matter in Florida. Did he get away with murder? Some people think so.”
The president’s tweet prompted a response from the late staffer’s widower, who wrote to Twitter’s CEO asking for the tweets to be taken down, saying that such misinformation tarnishes her memory.
“These conspiracy theorists, including most recently the President of the United States, continue to spread their bile and misinformation on your platform disparaging the memory of my wife and our marriage,” he wrote.
For more, see “Trump’s Evidence-Free Attempt to Link Scarborough to Aide’s Death.”
Misrepresenting COVID-19 Deaths
Trump boosted a falsehood that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had “quietly” reduced the COVID-19 death toll to just 6% of what had previously been reported.
But, as we explained before, there was no change in the number of deaths reported by the CDC. Rather, that was a serious misrepresentation of a CDC chart detailing the other conditions that were present in patients who died with COVID-19.
For more, see “CDC Did Not ‘Admit Only 6%’ of Recorded Deaths from COVID-19.”
Biden and SEAL Team 6
As we noted earlier, Trump retweeted a conspiracy theory with the completely baseless suggestion that Biden had members of SEAL Team 6 killed to cover up a purportedly failed assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011.
We found no corroboration supporting the theory’s outrageous claims, which were promoted three weeks before the 2020 election at a conservative political conference held at Trump National Doral in Florida.
Yet conspiracy theorists took Trump’s amplification to be confirmation. One popular post said that Trump “confirms” the “intel” that Biden “directly participated in a plot to have #SEALTeam6 MURDERED, then arranged a massive cash deal as part of a cover up.”
For more, see “Conspiracy Theory Baselessly Claims Biden Had Navy SEALs Killed.”
The ‘ANTIFA provocateur’
When a 75-year-old man, Martin Gugino, was hospitalized after being pushed by police during a protest in June, Trump suggested the man may have been an “ANTIFA provocateur” trying to “black out” police equipment. Antifa is an umbrella term for far-left anti-fascists, not a specific organization.
Trump’s tweet appeared to be based on an unreliable website’s story about the encounter.
A criminal justice researcher who assessed the video of the encounter told us there was nothing suggesting Gugino was trying to block police communication and that the object in his hands “looks nothing like a hand-held frequency scanner.” Gugino’s lawyer told us he was holding his cell phone.
For more, see “Trump Tweets Baseless Claims About Injured Buffalo Protester.”
Biden and ‘the Dark Shadows’
In an August interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, Trump cast suspicion on Biden by saying he is controlled by “people that you’ve never heard of. People that are in the dark shadows.”
Ingraham asked, “What does that mean? That sounds like conspiracy theory. Dark shadows, what is that?”
Trump responded by referring to “people that you haven’t heard of” who are “controlling the streets.” He then told a story about a plane that was “almost completely loaded with thugs wearing these dark uniforms, black uniforms with gear” and later said they “were on the plane to do big damage.”
He declined to elaborate to Ingraham, saying “it’s under investigation right now,” but that the plane was heading to Washington, D.C., during the Republican National Convention. There were indeed protests and some arrests — but not “big damage” — during the convention’s final night, when Trump delivered an address in front of the White House.
Some outlets pointed out that his story was similar to, albeit more sensational than, an account offered by Rep. Devin Nunes, who told Breitbart about flying on a plane from Salt Lake City on which he “saw maybe two dozen [Black Lives Matter] people” heading to D.C.
A day after Trump’s interview with Ingraham, though, he changed the direction of the plane, saying “the looters, the anarchists, the rioters” had boarded a plane “going from Washington to wherever.”
For more, see “FactChecking Trump’s Fox News Interview.”
About seven months before the 2016 election, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was found dead in his bed on a hunting trip in Texas. Scalia, 79, suffered from coronary artery disease, obesity and diabetes, among other ailments. There were no signs of foul play.
But an early report from John Poindexter, the owner of the ranch where Scalia died, led to conspiratorial speculation that the justice may have been killed. He told a local newspaper that Scalia was found with “a pillow over his head.”
Speculation began to grow that Scalia may have been murdered, and conservative commentator Michael Savage was among those making that suggestion.
As a guest on Savage’s radio show, Trump — who was a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination then — said that he didn’t know the details, “But they say they found a pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow.”
Poindexter clarified the next day that Scalia “had a pillow over his head, not over his face as some have been saying.” He told CNN, “The pillow was against the headboard and over his head when he was discovered. He looked like someone who had had a restful night’s sleep. There was no evidence of anything else.”
During the 2016 election, Trump rekindled an old conspiracy theory about his opponent, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, when he said he thought the death of Vince Foster was “fishy.”
In reality, Foster, who had worked with Clinton as a lawyer in Arkansas and was a deputy in the White House counsel’s office during the Clinton administration, killed himself in a Northern Virginia park in 1993. Before his death, he had told his sister he was depressed and seeking help.
Still, though, Foster is one in a string of people who have died and become part of what is often referred to as the Clinton body count conspiracy theory, a long-circulating theory which baselessly alleges that the Clintons have killed many people to cover up alleged crimes.
In a 2016 Washington Post interview, Trump called Foster’s death “very fishy,” even while saying, “I don’t know enough to really discuss it.”
“He had intimate knowledge of what was going on,” Trump said of Foster, without offering any evidence to contradict the findings of multiple investigations. “He knew everything that was going on and then all of a sudden he committed suicide.”
Epstein and the Clintons
After the financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in federal prison in 2019, a medical examiner reported that Epstein committed suicide by hanging himself. But many conspiracy theories homed in on Epstein’s connections to former President Bill Clinton and suggested Epstein was actually killed as part of a cover-up. Other theories argued that Trump, who also had ties to Epstein, was behind it.
Trump for his part retweeted a post suggesting that the Clintons were somehow responsible for Epstein’s death. The tweet used the hashtag “#clintonbodycount.”
The president later defended his action, emphasizing that it was a “retweet” and that it came from a “highly respected, conservative pundit” and “big Trump fan.” But he also said he had “no idea” if the Clintons were involved.
For more, see “The Epstein Connections Fueling Conspiracy Theories.”
Trump repeatedly shared the false assertion that Ukraine, or a “Ukrainian company,” had the server of the Democratic National Committee — part of a conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election.
He told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a July 2019 phone call: “The server, they say Ukraine has it.” He repeated the claim in a November 2019 “Fox & Friends” interview, saying, “A lot of it had to do they say with Ukraine. …They have the server, right? From the DNC, Democratic National Committee.”
But there’s absolutely no evidence of that.
The DNC actually hired CrowdStrike, a U.S.-based cybersecurity firm, to investigate Russia’s hacking of its computer network in 2016, and CrowdStrike said it has “never taken physical possession of any” of the 140 servers the DNC said had to be decommissioned during the process. The company did its analysis by making an exact copy of everything on the DNC’s hard drives through a process called “imaging.”
In September 2019, Tom Bossert, the administration’s former homeland security adviser, said he had explained the facts to the president. He responded to Trump’s claims in the Zelensky call by saying, “It’s not only a conspiracy theory, it is completely debunked.”
For more, see “Trump Repeats False Ukraine Claims.”
Trump has hailed the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment for COVID-19, although numerous studies have failed to find it to be effective for treating the disease and the FDA announced in June that it had revoked its emergency use authorization.
A month after the FDA’s announcement, though, Trump waded into conspiracy theories about the drug. He promoted a dubious video making the false claim that hydroxychloroquine was a “cure” for COVID-19, and, in a flurry of tweets about the video, Trump retweeted a post that said the drug “is being suppressed to keep deaths high so the economy can be shut down ahead of the election.”
There is no evidence to support the idea that anyone is conspiring to “suppress” hydroxychloroquine in order to harm the economy for political gain. Rather, there is substantial evidence suggesting that the drug is not effective for treating COVID-19.
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