“Mr. President, do you believe that the emails from Hillary Clinton — do you believe that they’re in Ukraine?” the reporter asked, referring to messages once stored on Clinton’s personal email server, a fixture of the 2016 campaign.
“I think they could be,” Trump responded. He then clarified: “You mean the 30,000 that she deleted?”
Yes, the reporter replied.
“Yeah, I think they could very well — boy, that was a nice question,” Trump said, chuckling. “I like that question.”
And, lo, a new conspiracy theory was born. The president of the United States thinks that perhaps Ukraine has Clinton’s emails simply because a reporter wasn’t clear on what Trump thought. Because the question served the dual task of implying misbehavior by Ukraine and resurfacing one of Trump’s favorite political targets, he embraced it.
This is someone, after all, who spent decades selling real estate in New York City, an enterprise that is not generally known for its commitment to accuracy. If you need to tweak the truth to make the sale, well, you wouldn’t be the first person to do so. The differences between that and what Trump often does as president are ones of scale and import.
Not all of the conspiracy theories Trump has embraced are so fleeting and so (relatively) innocuous. There are a number Trump has embraced for years, ones that, as president, guide his policy decisions in ways that outside observers consider actively harmful. But they are a constant: Trump is the first president in modern history to make the embrace and propagation of conspiracy theories a central component of his administration.
With his theories about Ukraine becoming suddenly central to the viability of his presidency (thanks to the House impeachment inquiry), we were curious about whether he had ever embraced a conspiracy theory that turned out to be true. This is another defining character trait of Trump’s, after all, his insistence that his warnings and predictions are unfailing. He called the Brexit vote, he says, although he didn’t. He warned of the rise of Osama bin Laden, he claims, though that’s not true, either. So: Has he ever touted a conspiracy theory that ended up being accurate?
Some definitions are probably useful. “Conspiracy theory” is generally a pejorative term, applied to something for which there isn’t any evidence. But conspiracy theories aren’t necessarily wrong; they only necessarily involve conspiracies. That’s an important consideration when evaluating claims by Trump, which are often misrepresentations or lies. His claim during the 2016 election that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) wasn’t eligible to be president because he was born in Canada wasn’t really theorizing a conspiracy. It was just untrue nonsense.
With those boundaries set, we identified 19 conspiracy theories — some constrained, some sprawling — that Trump has elevated since becoming a vocal participant in U.S. politics before the 2012 presidential election. Seventeen of them are obviously false or lack substantive evidence in their defense. One involves a claim Trump makes about a past belief that is hard to evaluate. And one — one lonely, lucky theory — appears to have been validated to some extent.
They are listed below in chronological order from when Trump introduced them. Some theories have become central to Trump’s political identity; those are highlighted.
Theory: Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction
Status: Not clear Trump espoused this prior to it being proved.
“Two minutes after we leave, there’s going to be a revolution, and the meanest, toughest, smartest, most vicious guy will take over. And he’ll have weapons of mass destruction, which Saddam didn’t have.” — interview with Esquire, August 2004
This one, of course, appears to have been true. The invasion of Iraq was predicated on the idea that the country had armaments, which were not subsequently discovered.
But, then, we knew that by August 2004. If Trump raised this question before America’s learning that fact, we weren’t able to find it. For all of his criticism of the war, Trump’s contemporaneous public statements about it generally tracked with public opinion. In late 2004, the war was unpopular, and Trump was criticizing it.
Core theory: Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States
Corollary theories: Obama misrepresented his place of birth on college applications, Obama didn’t do as well in college as he claimed.
“The reason I have a little doubt — just a little! — is because he grew up and nobody knew him. When you interview people — if I ever got the nomination, if I ever decide to run — you may go back and interview people from my kindergarten, they’ll remember me. Nobody ever comes forward. Nobody knows who he is until later in his life. Very strange. The whole thing is very strange.” — interview with “Good Morning America,” March 2011
Birtherism defined Trump’s entry into U.S. politics and helped set the pattern by which he eventually won the White House. This idea that Obama wasn’t born in the United States — obviously false given both his public documentation and contemporaneous evidence — was a popular one in the conservative media. By embracing it, Trump got a ton of attention from the outlets that promoted the idea. Four years later, that pattern of elevating the concerns of the fever swamps of conservative thinking led to his hard-line approach to immigration and, then, the Republican nomination.
In September 2016, the general election looming, Trump’s presidential campaign halfheartedly reversed his stance on the issue.
Core theory: Global warming is a hoax
Trump’s antipathy toward addressing climate change has waxed and waned over the past decade. Depending on his audience and the economics of the moment, he has at times offered a softer line on the issue. When there was a broad focus on climate change a decade ago and business leaders were calling for action, the Trump Organization joined them. When Trump was mad about an offshore wind farm near a golf course in Scotland, his views of reducing emissions were much less generous.
Opposition to addressing climate change is by now a central tenet of conservative politics and, therefore, something that Trump has moved to the center of his own political priorities. There’s ample evidence for those interested in seeing it that global warming is real, dangerous and a function of human activity, but for Trump, the politics of his base helps serve as a disincentive to do so.
Theory: Vaccines are related to autism
“Lots of autism and vaccine response. Stop these massive doses immediately. Go back to single, spread out shots! What do we have to lose.” — tweet in October 2012
Vaccines are not related to autism, as numerous studies have found, and are instead an essential part of a robust public health effort. Trump nonetheless has reiterated this concern repeatedly, including in a Republican primary debate in 2015.
Core theory: Immigrants bring higher crime to the United States
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. ... They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” — Trump’s presidential campaign launch, June 2015
It took less than 24 hours for Trump’s insistence that immigrants from Mexico brought crime to the United States to be disproved. Immigrants, as you’ve likely heard by now, are less likely to commit crime than native-born Americans. It’s similarly unfounded to claim that immigrants who come to the United States illegally are more likely to engage in criminal activity.
Earlier this year, as Trump was struggling to force Congress to approve funding for a wall on the border with Mexico, he continued to claim that doing so would greatly reduce crime, perhaps bringing crime rates down by 50 percent. This is an issue so central to Trump’s politics that he simply asks his supporters to trust him over the available evidence.
Theory: Trump saw a television broadcast of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating on Sept. 11
“I 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.” — speech, November 2015
This became one of the early fights between Trump supporters and reality. There has been no footage uncovered of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9/11 attacks and little evidence that such celebrations took place to any significant extent. Trump nonetheless stood by the claim specifically because of how it served him politically: pitting both Muslims and the media as hostile to what he stood for.
Theory: Muslims seek to bring sharia law to the United States
“They want to change your religion. I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I don’t think so. Not going to happen. As part of their global jihad. And 51 percent of those polled agreed that Muslims in America should have the choice of being governed according to Sharia.” — speech in South Carolina, December 2015
After the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., in November 2015, Trump put a new focus on the specter of Islamic terrorism in the United States. Part of that effort involved Trump’s embrace of a long-standing conspiracy theory popular in conservative media: that Muslim immigrants sought to overthrow the U.S. justice system in favor of a religious system centered on the Koran.
By the time Trump deployed it, “sharia” had become something of a buzzword, a shorthand summary of xenophobic fears about Muslim immigrants. Trump’s invocation of sharia above was overshadowed by another part of his speech: his call for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States.
Theory: Obama paid Iran a ransom to see hostages from Iran released
Status: Supported by later reporting.
“We basically paid a ransom. And that’s a really bad precedent that we set. Believe me. We paid a ransom. We get nothing.” — speech, February 2016
In January 2016, Iran freed a number of American hostages, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian. It was part of a sweeping agreement between Tehran and Washington centered on containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. At about the same time, the United States repatriated hundreds of millions of dollars that had been frozen decades earlier.
Trump and other conservatives quickly framed the timing as being indicative of a ransom payment. Months later, the State Department bolstered that argument, admitting that the money had been held until the hostages were released as a form of leverage.
Theory: Foul play might have been involved in the death of Justice Antonin Scalia
“They’re saying they found the pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow.” — radio interview, February 2016
When Scalia, then a sitting Supreme Court justice, was found dead in his bed at a hunting ranch in Texas, conspiracy theories flew. Part of that stemmed from an early description of the scene, with an owner of the ranch saying that he had been found with “a pillow over his head.” For Trump, that became “a pillow on his face” — and something suspect.
What’s interesting about this particular theory is that it seems to bear no relation to anything of political utility. Instead, it’s apparently Trump planting the seeds of later being able to say “I told you so.”
He didn’t get that opportunity. There has been no indication that Scalia’s death was anything but a function of natural causes.
Theory: Ted Cruz’s father was linked to the Kennedy assassination
“I just asked about stories that were appearing all over the place, not just in the National Enquirer, about the fact that a picture was taken of him and Lee Harvey Oswald. They didn’t deny that picture. And I just asked, what was that all about?” — interview on the “Today” show, May 2016
Looking back at this odd moment, Trump’s comments about Cruz’s father seem to make a bit more sense. At the time, it was simply baffling: Trump’s claim was based on a shoddy National Enquirer report and targeted a Republican primary opponent who had already all but lost his race. Why bother elevating a nonsensical theory about how his father was tied to Lee Harvey Oswald?
We now know more about Trump’s relationship with the Enquirer. Weeks after Trump elevated the Enquirer story into the national conversation, the chief executive of the Enquirer’s parent company made good on his offer to assist Trump in burying unhelpful stories. A former Playboy model who claimed she’d had a lengthy extramarital relationship with Trump was paid a six-figure sum for the rights to her story — a story the Enquirer decided not to run.
Core theory: Voter fraud is rampant in American politics
“The only way we can lose, in my opinion — and I really mean this, Pennsylvania — is if cheating goes on. I really believe it.” — speech in Pennsylvania, August 2016
Trump’s embrace of the unfounded claim that U.S. elections are riddled with illegal voting has always been defensive. Shortly before the 2016 election, he claimed that he would lose Pennsylvania only if illegal voting occurred. At the time he trailed in the state by a healthy margin, and it’s clear that his invocation of alleged fraud was a function of his hoping to establish an excuse: The Democrats cheated.
As it turns out, his deployment of that excuse was aimed at the wrong state. Trump won Pennsylvania — so his allegations about rampant fraud turned to other states where he had been less successful. He’s focused in particular on alleged fraud in New Hampshire, which he lost narrowly, and California, where claims that illegal voting took place serve both to undercut the large margin by which he lost the national popular vote and also to impugn immigrants who he claims are at the center of an illegal voting machine.
There’s no evidence at all for Trump’s repeated claims of voter fraud and no evidence for the existence of systematic voter fraud in general. It’s something that’s been investigated repeatedly by Republicans eager to advance new voting restrictions, but without success.
Trump’s campaign admitted as much in a Michigan lawsuit aimed at stopping a recount in that state.
“All available evidence,” his lawyers wrote, “suggests that the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake."
Core theory: The Russia inquiry was a hoax
Corollary theories: The FBI targeted Trump with a coup, Russia didn’t interfere in the 2016 election.
“FAKE NEWS — A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!” — tweet, January 2017
The Russia investigation spawned a sprawling network of interlaced theories amplified by Trump and Fox News that have at their heart a simple proposition: Trump was unfairly or illegally targeted by the FBI and the Obama administration. Calling this theory “unproven” is generous, a function of the still-outstanding probe led by Trump’s Justice Department into the origins of the investigation into Russian interference in 2016. There’s no substantial evidence that the investigation itself was predicated on bias or information known to be false at the time.
Trump and his allies have focused on text messages between two FBI officials involved in the probe that disparaged Trump. Those messages have been de-contextualized and turned into shorthand for malfeasance, with Trump, for example, constantly insisting that their mention of an “insurance policy” was a reference to targeting him. It wasn’t.
The evidence that spawned the investigation stands apart from those text messages. The report by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III released earlier this year documents the origins of the probe and the evidence underlying it. It articulates the specific ways in which Russia sought to interfere in the 2016 election. It doesn’t exonerate Trump’s campaign on suspicions of having collaborated with the Russian effort but, instead, indicates that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to bring any criminal charges.
There’s a separate theory involving a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant obtained against a former Trump campaign staffer named Carter Page. But that’s better addressed with another theory of Trump’s; specifically, the next one to emerge.
Theory: Trump Tower was wiretapped during the 2016 election
Corollary theories: The FBI targeted Carter Page illegally.
“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” — tweet, March 2017
This theory was quickly rejected by all of those who would know, including the FBI, Obama administration officials and other intelligence agency figures. But, as is often the case with conspiracy theories, it quickly evolved into a new form that was more defensible.
One was that Page warrant. Obtained in late October 2016 against Page, someone who was on the FBI’s radar as a target of Russian intelligence efforts even before his joining the campaign, the FISA warrant allowed intelligence agents to track Page’s communications. Page wasn’t part of Trump’s campaign at the time, but this warrant has become a linchpin of the argument that Trump was unfairly targeted, with defenders of the theory arguing that the warrant allowed the government to ensnare a number of other Trump officials.
There’s no robust evidence that the point of the warrant was anything other than tracking someone who had been identified by a Russian agent years prior and who had traveled to Russia in July 2016. It’s also clearly not the case that the Page warrant had anything to do with Trump’s claim about Trump Tower being tapped, a claim that itself derived from speculation by a conservative radio host that was then amplified by Breitbart News.
Theory: Ukraine was somehow involved in 2016 hacks targeting Trump’s opponents
Corollary theories: The interference in the 2016 election was a function of Ukraine.
“[The Democrats] get hacked, and the FBI goes to see them, and they won’t let the FBI see their server. They brought in another company that I hear is Ukrainian-based. That’s what I heard. I heard it’s owned by a very rich Ukrainian.” — interview with the Associated Press, April 2017
This particularly theory, that Ukraine had a hand in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee in 2016, is obviously unfounded. Trump has been raising it for years and, as we noted earlier, even brought it up with Ukraine’s president. But there’s simply no evidence that Ukraine-the-country or even any Ukrainians in particular had any role in the hack or in investigations into that hacking.
This has become an important component of the impeachment inquiry as Trump’s defenders seek to rationalize his request to Zelensky by claiming more broadly that Ukraine tried to interfere in the election. If that can be demonstrated, the thinking goes, Trump’s request to Zelensky can be rationalized. So they’ve seized upon a 2017 Politico article claiming that Ukrainians (as individuals) worked with an individual tied to the Democratic Party as evidence that Ukraine (as a government) interfered in the same way that Russia did.
But, of course, that’s not what Trump asked Zelensky anyway.
Core theory: Polling is biased and skewed against Trump
“I read polls every day in the newspapers. Of course, a lot of them turned out to be fake polls, in my opinion.” — interview, May 2017
Trump’s relationship with polling has evolved over time. During the Republican primary in 2016, he embraced polls because they showed him leading. During the general election, he didn’t talk about them much because they generally showed Hillary Clinton leading. Early in his presidency, he would cherry-pick polls that showed him as more popular, meaning he would often lift up polling from friendly pollsters like Rasmussen Reports. Recently, with impeachment looming, he has often simply made up poll results.
Polls once served Trump the way stock prices still often do: External metrics showing how well he’s doing. When those metrics don’t show what he wants, he has to ignore or rationalize them. One way in which he has rationalized bad poll numbers has been to claim bias on the part of pollsters or to imply that polls undercount his support. (He has at times claimed that one should add 10 points to any approval poll to capture support from people who don’t want to admit liking him.)
In reality, polling was broadly accurate both during the 2016 and 2018 campaigns, and there’s no reason to think that Trump’s approval is significantly higher (or lower) than current polling indicates. There’s similarly no reason to believe Trump’s recent insistence that his approval among Republicans is at 95 percent.
Theory: The death toll from Hurricane Maria has been overestimated
“3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much.” — tweet, September 2018
Trump’s handling of the damage done to Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria in 2017 quickly generated criticism. Following storms that hit the U.S. mainland, the government response to Maria was seen as slow and inadequate. Trump visited the island after the fact, celebrating the low death toll — only to see the death toll increase significantly as he was departing.
As we’ve reported, it’s difficult to determine how many deaths are directly attributable to the storm. (Does someone who died of a lack of access to critical medicine count?) To determine the number of deaths that resulted from the storm, George Washington University compared fatality counts after the storm with historic death data, finding an estimated increase of 3,000 deaths likely attributable to the storm. The Puerto Rican government accepted the new number.
The federal government didn’t. While on the island, Trump had favorably compared the toll at that point with the deaths following Hurricane Katrina — “16 people versus in the thousands.” The new data suggest that the toll in Puerto Rico well exceeded the toll from Katrina, an uncomfortable political reality for Trump.
Theory: Wind turbines cause cancer
“If you — if you have a windmill anywhere near your house, congratulations, your house just went down 75 percent in value. And they say the noise causes cancer.” — speech, April 2019
Trump has hated wind turbines since that incident with the Scottish golf course. While he tried to gin up opposition to the offshore wind farm in that case, he embraced and amplified various conspiracy theories about turbines, a preview of his strategy for building political support once he ran for president.
The claim that the noise of turbines causes cancer is not only unproven, it’s fairly obviously ridiculous.
Core theory: Joe Biden behaved improperly or illegally in Ukraine
“Biden, he calls them and says, ‘Don’t you dare persecute, if you don’t fire this prosecutor’ — The prosecutor was after his son. Then he said, 'If you fire the prosecutor, you’ll be okay. And if you don’t fire the prosecutor, ‘we’re not giving you $2 billion in loan guarantees,’ or whatever he was supposed to give. Can you imagine if I did that?” — Fox News interview, May 2019
Trump’s accusations against former vice president Joe Biden are similarly central to the impeachment inquiry and similarly defended by Trump’s allies as sufficient predicate for Trump’s request for an investigation into Biden.
They center on the idea that Biden threatened to withhold aid to Ukraine to force the termination of a prosecutor who was targeting a company called Burisma, for which Biden’s son Hunter was then working. In the May Fox interview, Trump quoted Biden appearing to admit doing exactly that.
Biden did, in fact, threaten to withhold the aid if the prosecutor wasn’t fired. The important context for that request, though, was that the prosecutor was broadly seen as corrupt and the target of similar demands from others in the U.S. government and internationally. What’s more, there’s no indication that the company for which Hunter Biden worked was actively being investigated or that Biden believed that it was. The fired prosecutor has claimed that Biden was acting inappropriately, but other Ukrainian officials have dismissed that assertion.
The irony here is that final question from Trump. According to House Democrats, Trump did, in fact, “do that,” withholding aid to Ukraine in July to try to pressure Ukraine to launch the investigations into Biden and that server.
Theory: Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself
“Died of SUICIDE on 24/7 SUICIDE WATCH? Yeah right! How does that happen[.] Jeffery Epstein had information on Bill Clinton & now he’s dead” — tweet from Terrence Williams retweeted by Trump in August 2019
Last week, Attorney General William P. Barr addressed this one.
“I can understand people who immediately, whose minds went to sort of the worst-case scenario because it was a perfect storm of screw-ups,” Barr said, dismissing Epstein’s death as anything other than suicide.
In the case of his boss, though, Trump’s mind embraced the worst-case scenario not necessarily because of questions about what happened but, instead, because of the extra step Williams included in his tweet: It was the Clintons’ fault.
As we’ve seen, that’s a claim that’s hard for Trump to resist.