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Donald Trump’s conspiracy theory-fueled campaign — and the voters who embrace it

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was cleared of wrongdoing by the FBI into her email practices while at the State Department. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

Donald Trump's first full statement on the FBI's recommendation that Hillary Clinton not face criminal charges over her use of a private email server as secretary of state understandably takes issue with the announcement. Even if Trump had not spent months arguing that Clinton broke the law, it's politically useful to suggest that her actions rose to a higher level of malfeasance than the government would suggest.

That complaint is not where Trump's statement ended, though. In 350 words, Trump also makes the following assertions:

  • Our adversaries "almost certainly" have a "blackmail file" on Clinton based on a successful hack of her server.
  • Clinton used the State Department for "her personal gain, trading favors for cash."
  • It was not an accident that Hillary Clinton was able to "sneak" into the FBI during a busy holiday weekend.
  • It also was not an accident that the statement from the FBI was released on the same day that Obama is campaigning with her.

"Folks," he concludes, "the system is rigged."

When he began his remarks on the email issue, FBI Director James B. Comey noted that his remarks had not been "coordinated [with] ... or reviewed" by any other part of the government. What Trump is suggesting is that Comey did, however, let the Clinton campaign know when he planned to make his statement — telling them before the campaign's June 30 announcement of Tuesday's campaign stop. Or perhaps Trump thinks Comey — a Republican veteran of the George W. Bush administration — rushed his announcement to drop it at a time that was convenient for Clinton.

Neither of those seems terribly likely (for one thing, the first weekday after a holiday weekend is a markedly less convenient moment to bury a story than, say, the last weekday before it.) And it does not seem likely that Trump has any evidence to back up his assertion. Not that he has any evidence to back up his assertion about a "blackmail file" or that Clinton "traded favors for cash" as secretary of state for her "personal gain." That lack of evidence would give most candidates pause — or, really, prevent them from making the claim.

Not Trump. He embraces conspiracy theories as readily as he creates them. He's the first major-party candidate to conduct an interview with Alex Jones, one of the foremost conspiracy theorists in modern America. (A sample Jones theory: Juice boxes are making kids gay as part of a government plot.) Trump has famously embraced the idea that President Obama was born outside the United States, winked at the idea that former Clinton aide Vincent Foster did not commit suicide, suggested that Justice Antonin Scalia's death was suspicious and claimed that Sen. Ted Cruz's father was hanging out with President John F. Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.

In May, a poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University found that no group of Americans was more likely to believe in a group of conspiracy theories the pollsters offered than Trump supporters. Among all respondents, 52 percent did not consider any of the six theories "definitely true." Seventy percent of Trump supporters, though, believed at least one.

The percentage of Trump supporters that believe each of the following assertions is definitely true:

  • President George W. Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks before they happened: 12 percent
  • Global warming is a myth concocted by scientists: 29 percent
  • President Obama is hiding important information about his background and early life: 40 percent
  • As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton knew the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, was going to be attacked and did nothing to protect it: 50 percent

Those theories are mostly fairly extreme examples of political thought. But it's worth noting that Trump has been assisted by the fact that Republicans, broadly speaking, are more likely to believe in such theories, too. While 15 percent of Americans think it is definitely true that Bush knew about 9/11 — and Trump supporters' 12 percent is in line with the 12 percent of Republicans who agree — Republicans are usually somewhere between most Americans and Trump Americans.

The percent of Republicans who think that Obama is hiding information about his background is 31 percent, compared with 17 percent of all Americans. A quarter of Republicans believe scientists made up global warming, versus 18 percent of all Americans. Forty-four percent of Republicans think that Clinton had advance knowledge about the Benghazi attacks, versus 23 percent of all Americans.

Last week, Quinnipiac University released a poll that included a question touching on one of Trump's more recent conspiracy theories. "Donald Trump has suggested that President Obama may sympathize with terrorist organizations such as ISIS," the pollsters asked. "Do you agree or disagree with this idea?"

The results:

A majority of Republicans think the president of the United States may sympathize with the Islamic State.

Part of this certainly overlaps with partisanship. Again, Republicans are less likely to think Bush was aware of 9/11 than are other partisans. But that polarized way of considering the likelihood of outrageous claims about a candidate is something that Trump has embraced.

On Fox News on Tuesday night, Trump took his theory a step further. In an interview with Bill O'Reilly, the presumptive Republican nominee suggested that Hillary Clinton had bribed Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch with the promise of keeping Lynch in her position if Clinton wins. On the Trump scale, that assertion or his claim that Comey colluded with Clinton on Tuesday's announcement is pretty low on the non-believability spectrum — which plays to Trump's advantage. After all, compared with the accusation that a sitting secretary of state leveraged her position to make herself rich, arguing that the FBI director coordinated the timing of some news-making remarks or that Lynch was offered a job is barely worth any hand-wringing at all.