That federal officials were simultaneously using tear gas, batons and explosive devices to clear a nearby park of peaceful protesters was simply a coincidence.
Efforts to present Trump as understanding of the protests, though, conflict with the president’s obvious and visceral dislike of what is happening and his determined effort to cast the protests as an extension of violent far-left opposition to American ideals. Trump keeps insisting that the worst effects of the early demonstrations were a function of “antifa,” a loosely knit movement that opposes fascism and racism. Antifa is a useful enemy for Trump in the moment, allowing him to avoid criticizing black protesters and to identify the opposing wing of American politics as dangerous. That the role of antifa has been limited has not prevented Trump from blaming it broadly.
It wasn’t clear how much of Trump’s focus on antifa was opportunistic and how much actually derived from a belief that antifa is a frightening force jeopardizing the union. In a single, bizarre tweet on Tuesday morning, we got our answer.
Last Thursday, 75-year-old Martin Gugino, a longtime activist in Buffalo, approached an advancing line of police officers in that city. It’s not clear why; video captured by a reporter for a local radio station doesn’t include any audio. Shortly after Gugino approached, holding his phone in his hand, a police officer pushed him, causing Gugino to stumble backward, fall and hit his head on the pavement. Police walk by as Gugino bleeds on the sidewalk. Two officers were suspended after the video emerged, prompting more than 50 others to resign their positions with a special group within the Buffalo Police Department in protest.
That was the story, until the unfailingly pro-Trump network One America News ran a segment elevating ridiculous accusations about Gugino from a right-wing website called Conservative Treehouse. It’s not the first time that One America News has pushed out obviously nonsensical conspiracy theories. Earlier this year, reporter Chanel Rion reported that the coronavirus originated in North Carolina — because some random unidentified guy on Twitter said it had. Rion is OAN’s White House reporter, who attends White House press briefings at the invitation of the administration after the White House press corps barred her for violating social distancing efforts.
Trump loves OAN because of its loyalty to his presidency and his politics. He has often used it as a foil to Fox News when he feels that Fox has strayed too far from him, as when it interviews Democratic legislators. It’s not surprising, then, that he saw OAN’s most recent conspiratorial report. It is still somehow surprising, though, that he decided it was worth sharing with the American public.
If you'd like to see the report on Gugino to which Trump's refers, it's here. It's so obviously false and so impressively sloppy that it's not worth sharing directly. But we should nonetheless parse its contents.
The report is from OAN's Kristian Rouz, whose prior media employment was with Sputnik News — an outlet funded by the Kremlin. (A Daily Beast report from last year indicated that Rouz was working for both outlets simultaneously.) Rouz is no stranger to antifa conspiracy theories, having “reported” in 2017 that Hillary Clinton's political action committee provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to antifa.
In this case, Rouz claims that Gugino was part of a “false flag provocation by far left group antifa.” In other words, that the elderly Gugino intentionally injured himself to make the police look bad, as though there were no other available evidence of the police treating protesters in questionable ways.
The evidence that Gugino is antifa? That he was holding his phone in his hand.
“Newly released videos appear to show Gugino using a police tracker on his phone trying to scan police communications during the protest,” Rouz says. “The tactic, known as skimming, is an old trick used by antifa to locate police officers and plan violence activities, bypassing the police response.”
First, there are no “newly released videos” — just the original video of Gugino approaching the police.
Second, this theory about Gugino scanning police communications devices is an obvious effort to create a justification for police to push him away. Cellphones can be used to record information from embedded chips that put out short-range signals; this is how tap-to-pay systems work, essentially. But beyond Gugino holding his phone in his hand, there’s no evidence this is what he was doing. There’s no evidence that the places he held his phone had any chips that would emit such a signal. There’s no evidence that if he had collected any information about the chips being used that he would be able to do anything with them. There’s no evidence — besides the claims of this one website — that this is an “old trick” used by antifa. Particularly since the implementation of near-field communications (as this short-range interface is called) has happened within the last 10 years.
Shown in real-time, Gugino is obviously just gesticulating and pointing. The Conservative Treehouse blog — which slows Gugino's motions down in order to make them appear more nefarious — argues that it's suspicious when Gugino holds his phone near a police officer's radio microphone. But that microphone is connected to the radio itself, which broadcasts publicly. What information is Gugino supposed to be picking up here? The frequency at which Buffalo police radios broadcast? If so, he could have saved himself a head wound by Googling it.
Oh, but wait. Is this a false flag — a faked injury to cast the police in a negative light — or is it intelligence gathering? Rouz has no idea what he's talking about, but that didn't stop him from elevating the blog — or stop OAN from running the report.
In another context, this would all be laughable, something not even worth parsing. It's so sloppy and obviously untrue, and any actual media organization should be embarrassed to run it. Normally, we'd ignore it.
But OAN has created a loyal viewer in Trump, thanks to its sycophantic coverage of his administration. And that means that Trump saw the report on Gugino, accepted it as believable enough to warrant consideration — and then shared it with 80 million people on Twitter.
For some reason, Trump then decided to make his own assumptions about how the technology worked. Gugino was trying to “black out the equipment,” which means … what? He wanted to keep two police officers from being able to use their microphones? Well, the good news is that dozens more police were in earshot. Trump says Gugino was “aiming scanner,” which is a very scary-sounding way of saying he was “holding a phone.”
Remember the bigger context: Trump is elevating this nonsense because it casts protesters in a negative light and police in a positive one. Despite the White House’s rhetoric, it shows the extent to which Trump is skeptical of the aims of the Black Lives Matter protests and sympathetic to the targets of the demonstrations.
Soon after Trump’s tweet about Gugino, the Republican National Committee’s national spokesman Elizabeth Harrington apparently attempted to defend it by quoting from a news article in which Buffalo’s mayor talked about a protester being “a key major instigator” of vandalism and looting in the city. Harrington has since deleted the tweet.
This by itself is a remarkable assertion, though, implying that Gugino somehow deserved to be pushed and injured by police because the police viewed him as being involved in criminal acts. Never mind that there’s a process for adjudicating claims about criminal activity that doesn’t depend on the police meting out physical punishment. And never mind that there’s no evidence that the police pushed Gugino because of that suspicion. It’s an obvious and explicit after-the-fact rationalization for Gugino having been hurt that bears no relationship to what actually happened.
Never mind, too, that the mayor wasn’t actually talking about Gugino.
But, again, let’s step back. The president of the United States apparently finds it less believable that the Buffalo police pushed an elderly man to the ground, injuring him, than that a 75-year-old activist deployed sophisticated technology to track police on behalf of a shadowy far-left militant movement and then threw himself on the ground in order to make the police look bad.
What do we even do with that?
Gugino remains hospitalized in critical condition.
This article was updated with Harrington’s comments.
The article originally misstated the source of the video as a local television station.