The sending of package bombs to prominent Democrats and other high-profile figures this week was accompanied by a disturbing phenomenon. Baseless conspiracy theories, once confined to the fringes in the wake of violent acts, leaped with shocking speed into the mainstream discussion of the attacks.
A surprisingly large number of figures from the conservative establishment — commentators, radio hosts, a Trump family member, and other pro-Trump figures — shared, liked, hinted at, raised questions about or otherwise endorsed an evidenceless theory that this was a “false-flag” attack — one that was staged to advance the political goals of the very people it seemed intended to hurt (in this case, Democrats).
But the FBI’s arrest of a suspect Friday pointed to the hollowness of these claims, raising questions about why they were voiced on such a fraught issue in the absence of evidence. The bombs were not “hoax devices,” FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said Friday. The suspect, 56-year-old Cesar Sayoc, “appears to be a partisan,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said. And images circulating of the suspect’s van, which was plastered with pro-Trump and anti-Democrat imagery, and what was believed to be his social media feed, painted a portrait of a distinctly right-wing ideology.
The devices were addressed to former president Barack Obama, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), former attorney general Eric. H Holder Jr., and liberal philanthropist George Soros. Most of the packages had the office of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) as the return address.
In the fever swamps of misinformation and hoaxes on the Internet, the evidence presented on Friday did little to quell the conspiracy mongering. But would the more-established conservative figures who had spread these conspiracy theories admit they made mistakes?
Actually, most continued to dig in.
Ann Coulter, conservative author and commentator
Conspiracy theorizing: “From the Haymarket riot to the Unibomber, bombs are a liberal tactic,” she tweeted on Wednesday after CNN offices in Manhattan were evacuated when one of the bombs was found there.
Friday: Coulter did not back down from her statement, appearing to pivot instead to what appeared to be racially charged barbs about her belief that people of “immigrant stock” are more likely to engage in political violence. “I don’t make predictions, I cite history,” Coulter wrote in an email Friday to The Washington Post. “Sorry, not all immigrants are going to be Democrats.”
Rush Limbaugh, conservative radio host
Conspiracy theorizing: On Wednesday, Rush Limbaugh suggested that a “Democratic operative” was more likely to have sent the devices than a Republican. “Republicans just don’t do this kind of thing,” Limbaugh said. “You’ve got people trying to harm CNN and Obama and Hillary and Bill Clinton and [Florida Rep.] Debbie ‘Blabbermouth’ Schultz and, you know, just, it might serve a purpose here.”
Friday: Limbaugh, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent to his radio station, appeared to continue this line on Friday. “Two weeks out, a bunch of bombs start showing up in places that the media can then say that they are being received by ‘Trump targets?’ ” he said on his show. “I’m sorry. I didn’t fall off the turnip truck ever, and certainly not yesterday, and the world of October Surprises coupled with all the other realities I just exposed, and I think it only makes sense to be suspicious and demanding of proof for whatever we’re gonna be told.”
Michael Savage, conservative radio host
Conspiracy theorizing: Savage had said of the bombs Wednesday that there was a “high probability that the whole thing had been set up as a false flag to gain sympathy for the Democrats,” and as a way to distract from the migrant situation in southern Mexico, according to the Guardian.
Friday: Savage, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent to the administrators of his website, continued to sow doubt about the line of information coming from the authorities about the bombs.
“Michael, your description yesterday of the guy they’d pin (maga hat, confed flag,etc) sounds right on the money💰 Only thing you didn’t envision was a van slathered in pro-Trump images. Once again you were correct!,” he retweeted.
And a follow up: “MAN AND VAN LOOK LIKE CREATED BY HOLLYWOOD,” he wrote.
Lou Dobbs, Fox Business television host
Conspiracy theorizing: On Thursday, Dobbs wrote: “Fake News — Fake Bombs. Who could possibly benefit by so much fakery?” Dobbs later deleted the tweet.
Friday: Requests for comment sent to Fox News and Fox Business representatives were not immediately answered.
John Cardillo, right-wing media personality
Conspiracy theorizing: “Investigators need to take a serious look at far left groups like #Antifa when investigating the bombs sent to [liberal philanthropist George] Soros, Obama, and the Clintons,” Cardillo wrote on Twitter this week. “These smell like the false flag tactics of unhinged leftists who know they’re losing.” He later deleted the tweet.
Friday: Cardillo continued Friday to find ways to blame Democrats and absolve conservatives of responsibility for the package bombs. He tweeted that “far left” officials in Broward County, Fla., were to blame for Sayoc’s actions, given his prior criminal record. He said that Sayoc registered as a Republican only in 2016. And he said the “MSM” — mainstream media — ignored the story of how Donald Trump Jr.'s wife, Vanessa, was taken to the hospital after opening an envelope full of suspicious white powder.
Geraldo Rivera, Fox News correspondent
Conspiracy theorizing: Rivera said Thursday that he believed “that this whole thing was an elaborate hoax.”
“I believe that those bombs were never intended to explode. I think those bombs were intended to further divide the American people,” he said. “Maybe it was a wretchedly incompetent bomber who didn’t know how to make a bomb, that never studied the Internet . . . someone who wanted to embarrass President Trump, somebody who wanted to affect American political life. It could have been a Russian invention."
Friday: Rivera is notable for being the only conservative out of this group to admit he was wrong. He said that the reason he had previously conjured up the theory that the bombs were a false-flag operation was that he “outsmarted” himself.
“Actual alleged perp 56-year old #CesarSayoc,” he wrote, “a middle-aged, rabid, extreme right winger w a troubled past & long criminal record.”
Bill Mitchell, conservative radio host
Conspiracy theorizing: “These ‘explosive packages’ being sent to the #Media and high profile Democrats has Soros astro-turfing written all over it so the media can paint the #GOP as ‘the dangerous mob,' Mitchell wrote on Wednesday. “Pure BS.”
Friday: Mitchell, who did not respond to a request for comment sent via Twitter, continued to sow doubt about Sayoc’s political motivations, hinting about a conspiracy afoot but providing no evidence.
“So many things about this Cesar guy do not add up,” he wrote on Twitter. “If he is #MAGA, why would he send these fake ‘bombs’ to Democrat Congressional Leaders 2 weeks before the midterms and disrupt our winning momentum? It makes no sense. That means there is something else here.”
Candace Owens, right-wing activist
Conspiracy theorizing: “I’m going to go ahead and state that there is a 0% chance that these ‘suspicious packages,’ were sent out by conservatives,” she wrote on Wednesday. “The only thing ‘suspicious’ about these packages, is their timing. Caravans, fake bomb threats — these leftists are going ALL OUT for midterms.” The tweet has since been deleted, but was screengrabbed by other users.
Friday: Owens did not respond to a request for comment sent to the conservative advocacy group for which she works, but she did not appear to have tweeted further about the issue.
Donald Trump Jr., President Trump’s eldest son
Conspiracy theorizing: On Thursday, Trump Jr. reportedly liked a blatantly erroneous all-caps tweet that claimed that the bombs were fake and “MADE TO SCARE AND PICK UP BLUE SYMPATHY VOTE.”
Friday: Trump Jr. continued engaging with partisan tweets. He retweeted Rivera, who had noted that Sayoc’s criminal history predated Trump’s political career and liked a post that railed about the “Left’s violence, intimidation, & mob tactics.”
Abby Ohlheiser and Avi Selk contributed to this report.