In June 2009, shortly after President Obama wrapped up his visits to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the Washington Times ran an opinion piece suggesting that the newly inaugurated president might be the first to be a Muslim.
It starts slowly, saying that Obama might be the "first Muslim president" in the same sense that Bill Clinton was once dubbed the "first black president" — which is to say that he's not Muslim, he's just sympathetic to the community. But a few paragraphs later, that conceit evaporates.
"With Mr. Obama’s unbelievably ballyhooed address in Cairo Thursday to what he calls 'the Muslim world'," columnist Frank Gaffney wrote, "there is mounting evidence that the president not only identifies with Muslims, but actually may still be one himself." That evidence? Obama referred to the "Holy Koran." He said he knew about Islam. And he used the phrase "peace be upon them" when mentioning Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Obama, Gaffney wrote, was engaged in "the most consequential bait-and-switch since Adolf Hitler duped Neville Chamberlain over Czechoslovakia at Munich."
This was not the beginning of Gaffney's push to raise questions about the role of Muslims in the United States, but it marked a new phase for him and his organization, the Center for Security Policy. The group hit a new high this week, when its highly questionable survey from June became the centerpiece of Donald Trump's proposal this week to ban any Muslims from entering the country.
CNN's Chris Cuomo, confronting Trump about the proposal on Tuesday, told Trump that CNN "wouldn't even put that poll on the air. It's a hack organization with a guy who was dismissed from the conservative circles for conspiracy theories. You know that." (Trump disagreed.)
Gaffney wasn't always an anti-Muslim conspiracist and gadfly. After years of service in Washington, including staffing senators from both sides of the aisle, he went to work for Ronald Reagan's Defense Department. During Reagan's second term, Gaffney was named acting assistant secretary of defense after his boss, Richard Perle, stepped down. Gaffney didn't get the job, though, and when Frank Carlucci became secretary in November 1987, Gaffney was "forced out," as The Washington Post reported at the time. "By midnight Friday," Sidney Blumenthal (of all people) wrote for the paper, "Gaffney's belongings were boxed and he was gone. On the spot, Gaffney called a press conference to express his 'worries' about the Reagan administration's eagerness for an arms control agreement."
Out of government service, he founded the Center for Security Policy as a think tank on foreign policy issues. It provided Gaffney with a prominent platform to weigh in on political topics.
Within the past decade, though, he has made headlines mostly for questionable and outrageous comments such as his suggestion about Obama. During the 2008 election, Gaffney wrote about the "jihadist vote" in another Washington Times piece, suggesting that a large number of Muslims were backing Obama's candidacy financially and with votes. Oh, and that Obama wasn't born in America. (He reiterated that argument before the 2012 election.)
Once Obama was in office, Gaffney was one of the main drivers of the idea that there was a deep-rooted Muslim infiltration of the government and that Muslims wanted to create an alternative system of law in the United States. Gaffney opposed the "Ground Zero mosque," a proposed Muslim center that was to be built near Ground Zero in Manhattan. After he opposed a Muslim community center in Tennessee, the largest paper in that state included Gaffney in a report linking anti-Muslim rhetoric to big paychecks.
His insistence that a group called the Muslim Brotherhood had worked its way into the American political sphere (including in the person of top Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin) eventually meant accusing prominent conservative Grover Norquist of ties to Islamic infiltrators. Gaffney wrote an entire book — published by the Center for Security Policy — accusing Norquist of links to that group and others, which in 2011 ended up getting Gaffney banned from the high-profile annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
In another famous incident, Gaffney suggested in 2010 that a logo for a missile defense group incorporated the Obama campaign logo and an Islamic crescent. It didn't.
The Daily Beast credited Gaffney in 2012 with driving the state and federal push for anti-sharia laws. When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie defended his appointment of a Muslim to the state judiciary against charges that the governor was abetting the implementation of sharia, Gaffney suggested on a radio show that Christie might be turning a blind eye to treason.
The conspiracies aren't all Obama-centric. On MSNBC's "Hardball" in March 2009, Gaffney argued that Saddam Hussein was behind the Oklahoma City bombing. Earlier this year, Gaffney hosted a white supremacist on his radio show to discuss Muslim immigration and later said he didn't know about his guest's full views. (He did, however, welcome Jared Taylor as "the author of six books, including 'White Identity.'") The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate speech, has labeled Gaffney an "extremist."
On Monday, we evaluated the poll that Gaffney's Center for Security Policy had put together, assessing the attitudes of American Muslims toward sharia law and violence toward the United States. The poll itself has serious methodological problems, but the organization and the man who created and paid for that poll should inspire some skepticism of the results, as well.