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Michael Flynn’s tweet wasn’t actually about #PizzaGate, but his son is now defending the baseless conspiracy theory

The controversy about Michael Flynn, Trump's new national security adviser, explained (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated.

There are so many fake tales floating around about the 2016 election that they appear to be getting confused for one another.

After a gunman who cited a Hillary Clinton-related conspiracy theory entered the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington on Sunday and fired one or more shots, reports and tweets pointed to Donald Trump's pick for national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, having fomented the rumors that apparently spurred the man.

Here's Flynn's tweet:

And here's a sampling of the reactions:

Except Flynn doesn't actually appear to have tweeted something about Comet Ping Pong — not specifically.

Flynn did tweet a link involving dubious claims about the Clintons and sex crimes, and his social media presence is replete with fake news and controversial comments about Muslims, which made it an easy conclusion to draw.

What's more, his son Michael G. Flynn on Sunday did suggest there could be something to the PizzaGate rumors, basically defending his father as if he had tweeted about Comet Ping Pong and challenging the media to disprove the baseless claims. The younger Flynn served as his father's chief of staff — his top aide — making his tweets about this bogus theory particularly significant.

As for Michael Flynn Sr.'s original tweet, the confusion stemmed from fact that there are actually multiple dubious claims involving the Clintons, human trafficking and sex crimes. One involves Comet Ping Pong — a theory which involves “dozens of made-up articles about Mrs. Clinton kidnapping, molesting and trafficking children" -- and another involves billionaire donor and convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein's ties to the Clintons.

At least the latter connection isn't entirely based in fantasy. Here's our Fact Checker's summary:

After leaving office, Bill Clinton was occasionally a passenger on aircraft owned by convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. (Epstein was also a regular visitor to Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, and Trump was a dinner guest at Epstein’s home.) Gawker reported that flight logs show that Clinton, among others, traveled through Africa in 2002 on a jet with “an actress in soft-core porn movies whose name appears in Epstein’s address book under an entry for ‘massages.’” Chauntae Davies, the actress, declined to discuss why she was on the flight. Clinton has not commented.

The Epstein case isn't a full-fledged conspiracy theory in and of itself, but it has resulted in all manner of allegations involving the Clintons. An example from the New York Post: "'Sex slave' claims Bill Clinton visited Epstein’s 'orgy island.'" Here's more, if you're curious. And as the Fact Checker noted, Trump has his own very real ties to Epstein.

D.C. police on Dec. 4 detained a gunman who had walked into Comet Ping Pong, a popular Northwest Washington restaurant and music venue. (Video: Faiz Siddiqui, Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

The link that Flynn tweeted appears to refer not to alleged Clinton-related sex crimes at Comet Ping Pong but rather makes explicit reference to Epstein. After citing anonymous New York Police Department sources linking Clinton to “child exploitation” and “sex crimes with minors,” among other crimes, the article from far-right website True Pundit points to the Epstein case:

The new emails contain travel documents and itineraries indicating Hillary Clinton, President Bill Clinton, Weiner and multiple members of Congress and other government officials accompanied convicted pedophile billionaire Jeffrey Epstein on his Boeing 727 on multiple occasions to his private island in the U.S. Virgin Islands, sources said. Epstein’s island has also been dubbed Orgy Island or Sex Slave Island where Epstein allegedly pimps out underage girls and boys to international dignitaries.
Both NYPD and FBI sources confirm based on the new emails they now believe Hillary Clinton traveled as Epstein’s guest on at least six occasions, probably more when all the evidence is combed, sources said. Bill Clinton, it has been confirmed in media reports spanning recent years, that he too traveled with Epstein over 20 times to the island.

Comet Ping Pong is not referenced by True Pundit — either explicitly or implicitly. And in fact, the Reddit posting that spawned what's come to be known as “PizzaGate” (the thread has now been taken down by Reddit) is from Nov. 4, according to Snopes — two days after the True Pundit article posted on Nov. 2.

The whole matter is a near-perfect microcosm of just how much fake news stories have penetrated our political process — so much so that we can't even keep them straight. And it's likely to lead to those who embrace conspiracy theories or simply distrust the mainstream media to believe Flynn was unfairly maligned for his tweet.

But it's also worth noting here the Flynns have trafficked in these kinds of bogus stories many times before. And even as Flynn Sr. can't be specifically tied to fomenting the Comet Ping Pong rumors beforehand, his decision to pass along a baseless article about the Clintons and sex crimes makes conspiracy theories like Comet Ping Pong more believable. This stuff is becoming a scourge.

In addition, Flynn's son isn't someone who just happens to be related to an appointee to a major post in the Trump Cabinet. He's someone who has advised his father at the highest level — making his embrace of baseless conspiracy theories a very legitimate issue. (In other words, this isn't akin to a president's black-sheep brother with no real role in an administration doing something objectionable.)

Update: The Post has now confirmed that Flynn Jr. now has a .gov email address, which suggests he'll play a role in the Trump administration. The news was first reported by CNN late Monday morning.

As CNN has reported, the younger Flynn has “shared stories alleging top Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin had a connection to the Muslim Brotherhood, pushed a conspiracy theory that Sen. Marco Rubio was a closeted homosexual who abused cocaine, and repeatedly used expletives to attack Trump's political opponents.”

But in this case, it is not fair to tie Flynn Sr. directly to what happened Sunday afternoon in Washington. Critics will argue this is a distinction without a difference — that Flynn fomented rumors that contributed to the perception that the Clintons were involved in all manner of unholy things. But when it comes to combating fake news, it's worth being as specific and accurate as possible.