The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Trump’s chief conspiracy theory suffers a major blow, he reaches for more desperate ones

Then-President Trump long said Obama officials “spied” on his campaign. The Post reported Oct. 13, 2020, the Justice Department found no criminal wrongdoing. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Oliver Contreras/The Washington Post)

It was a crystallizing moment in our current political reality: The president, staring down an increasingly likely reelection loss, saw one of his favorite conspiracy theories about his 2020 opponent crumble. As we were learning that, he was lodging even-more far-flung and desperate conspiracy theories.

Trump has regularly grasped at conspiracy theories seeking to damage his political opponents. But even by his standards, his recent efforts have been remarkable.

QAnon, a baseless conspiracy theory, is fueled by right-wing outrage online and in the real world. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

The Washington Post reported Tuesday evening that a Trump-backed Justice Department probe into the unmasking of Michael Flynn and others had quietly closed with no criminal charges or even a report to substantiate Trump’s and his allies’ allegations of a Watergate-style conspiracy. But on the same day, Trump was promoting the idea that the Obama administration, including Joe Biden, had members of the U.S. military murdered and that the official story of Osama bin Laden’s killing was a hoax.

That might sound like an oversimplification, but it’s precisely what Trump chose to promote Tuesday.

One retweet alleged that Biden and former president Barack Obama “may have had Seal Team 6 killed” and that a “CIA Whistleblower Exposes Biden’s Alleged Role with the Deaths of Seal Team- Claims to have Documented Proof.”

Another suggested that the CIA kept bin Laden in Iran before having him transferred to Pakistan for Obama’s “trophy kill” ahead of the 2012 election.

As the Daily Beast’s Will Sommer documents, though, the elaborately constructed and completely unsubstantiated theory also holds that bin Laden wasn’t even killed — but rather that Iran provided a body double and the U.S. government shot down a helicopter with Navy SEALs in it to cover it all up. It also links the 2012 tragedy in Benghazi, Libya, to the supposed coverup. The source is a man who claims ties to powerful Middle Eastern figures.

The first tweet Trump retweeted no longer appears on Twitter and appears to have been removed. The second remains.

Robert O’Neill, a member of SEAL Team 6 who has written about his role in bin Laden’s death and has since become a Trump-supporting conservative media figure, rebuked the Trump-promoted conspiracy theory Tuesday.

“Very brave men said good bye to their kids to go kill Osama bin Laden. We were given the order by President Obama,” O’Neill tweeted. “It was not a body double. Thank you Mr. President.”

Trump on Tuesday also retweeted a self-described independent journalist who alleged that a man who shot a conservative protester in Colorado was affiliated with antifa. (Trump also retweeted a graphic GIF featuring a series of photos that captured the killing.) But the Denver Police Department has said it had determined that “the suspect is a private security guard with no affiliation with antifa.” The independent journalist’s evidence that they actually were? Following an Occupy Wall Street Twitter account — among many they followed — that mentioned antifa in its profile.

Trump’s retweet calls to mind a similar instance in which he promoted a theory that the elderly man who was knocked over by law enforcement in Buffalo and bled from his head “could be an ANTIFA provocateur.” There remains nothing to substantiate that claim.

Also on Tuesday, Trump retweeted a user who baselessly alleged that CNN “was already planning his funeral” after Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis.

And last week, Trump retweeted someone who accused Hillary Clinton of having “planned, financed, & executed the Russia hoax.” The basis of that claim was a letter from Trump’s director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, which said the intelligence community “obtained insight into Russian intelligence analysis” alleging that Clinton had “approved a campaign plan to stir up a scandal against U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump by tying him to Putin and the Russians’ hacking of the Democratic National Committee.” But the same letter flatly states in the very next sentence that, “The IC does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.”

In other words, this is a completely unsubstantiated claim — but one that Trump in a series of tweets promoted as fact.

If anything should reinforce just how discerning Trump is with these conspiracy theories, it’s the other thing that happened Tuesday. As The Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky and Shane Harris reported:

The federal prosecutor appointed by Attorney General William P. Barr to review whether Obama-era officials improperly requested the identities of individuals whose names were redacted in intelligence documents has completed his work without finding any substantive wrongdoing, according to people familiar with the matter.
The revelation that U.S. Attorney John Bash, who left the department last week, had concluded his review without criminal charges or any public report will rankle President Trump at a moment when he is particularly upset at the Justice Department. The department has so far declined to release the results of Bash’s work, though people familiar with his findings say they would likely disappoint conservatives who have tried to paint the “unmasking” of names — a common practice in government to help understand classified documents — as a political conspiracy.

Trump’s allies have long complained that the Russia investigation was based upon a similarly baseless conspiracy theory. In that case, though, there was extensive evidence of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia, including documented cases of members of the Trump campaign working with a Russian intelligence officer and welcoming opposition research from a Russian lawyer tied to Vladimir Putin. What’s more, it revealed significant evidence of Trump’s potential obstruction of justice (though special counsel Robert S. Mueller III decided that it wasn’t his place to accuse Trump of an actual crime). The Justice Department inspector general, Michael Horowitz, has said the Russia investigation was properly predicated.

Trump has compared the unmasking to Watergate, folding it into an often nebulous conspiracy theory he has dubbed “Obamagate.” The fact that his own Justice Department — one whose head, Attorney General William P. Barr, has regularly taken controversial, Trump-friendly actions — doesn’t seem to have found anything even worthy of charges should certainly color any views of the reliability of Trump’s theories.

That said, for Trump, it has always been about throwing stuff at the wall and hoping it sticks. It’s getting more transparently desperate, though.