The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump draws rebukes for suggesting 75-year-old protester pushed to the ground in Buffalo was part of a ‘set up’

Martin Gugino, a 75-year-old protester, lies on the ground after he was shoved by two Buffalo police officers during a protest in the past week.
Martin Gugino, a 75-year-old protester, lies on the ground after he was shoved by two Buffalo police officers during a protest in the past week. (Jamie Quinn/Via Reuters)

President Trump sparked another uproar Tuesday with a tweet endorsing the baseless conspiracy theory that a 75-year-old protester in Buffalo, seen on video being pushed to the ground by police last week, could have been part of a “set up” coordinated by anti-fascist demonstrators.

Trump’s speculation — which originated on a conspiracy-theory website and was not supported by any evidence — came as the president is already struggling to manage both a deadly pandemic and racial unrest across the nation. The missive demoralized some aides and allies, who were frustrated if not particularly surprised by Trump’s latest incendiary suggestion.

White House officials, worried that the president’s handling of the protests is hurting him politically, have been deliberating whether to have Trump deliver a speech as early as the end of this week confronting the current moment of national turmoil, and largely viewed his tweet as an unhelpful distraction. These and other officials and allies spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Police officers in Buffalo appeared to push a man onto the ground while clearing Niagara Square following a citywide curfew. (Video: WBFO / Spectrum News Buffalo via Storyful)

One of the officials said that, ideally, Trump will not offer a speech until the White House has settled on clear policy preferences or a broad framework to address both the concerns of the protesters as well as Trump’s law-and-order agenda. Any legislative solutions are likely to be driven by the Republican-controlled Senate, the official added.

On Tuesday, a group of White House officials — Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser; Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff; and Ja’Ron Smith, deputy director of the Office of American Innovation — met with Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) about legislation to overhaul policing practices.

It was against this backdrop that Trump’s musings on Twitter drew a sharp rebuke from the Buffalo man’s lawyer, condemnation from Democrats and a now-familiar refrain from many Republicans claiming not to have seen a tweet by the president that was making headlines.

Twitter, which has recently taken a more aggressive stance in policing the truth of Trump’s tweets, said this one had not violated its policies because it was “speculative.”

Two Buffalo police officers have been charged with assault after footage showed them shoving Martin Gugino to the ground and blood pooling on the sidewalk below his head. Gugino has been transferred out of intensive care but remains hospitalized.

“I watched, he fell harder than was pushed,” Trump said in his tweet. “Was aiming scanner. Could be a set up?”

Trump cited a report by One America News Network, a tiny conservative cable outlet that reported on speculation appearing on a blog called the Conservative Treehouse.

A post on the blog suggests Gugino appeared to be using a police scanner on his phone, which it said is a common tactic of antifa, the loosely affiliated anti-fascist movement Trump has blamed for violence at protests of the death of George Floyd, who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis. Trump said Gugino “could be an ANTIFA provocateur,” writing that he was “pushed away after appearing to scan police communications in order to black out the equipment.”

Kelly V. Zarcone, a lawyer for Gugino, said Trump’s characterization has no basis in fact and questioned his motives.

“Martin has always been a PEACEFUL protester because he cares about today’s society,” she said in a statement. “He is also a typical Western New Yorker who loves his family. No one from law enforcement has suggested otherwise so we’re at a loss to understand why the president of the United States would make such a dark, dangerous and untrue accusation against him.”

Gugino is a member of two nonprofit organizations: PUSH Buffalo, which focuses on affordable housing, and Western New York Peace Center, a human rights organization. He is also part of the Catholic Worker Movement.

Trump doubles down on conspiracy theory about woman’s death, ignoring grieving widower’s plea for peace

The White House did not respond to requests for comment. But one White House official defended Trump, saying his tweet said only that Gugino “could be” an antifa protester and that some of Gugino’s social media posts seem sympathetic to that cause.

Among many of Trump’s allies, however, the reaction was one of overwhelming exasperation, with one outside adviser describing his tweet as “dumb” and “beyond stupid.” Aides and advisers believed that before the coronavirus pandemic and before Floyd’s death prompted national outrage, Trump had been making inroads with black voters and they viewed his latest controversy as another act of self-sabotage. 

The president, they added, should be focused on the economy making a comeback, as well as hammering the message that Democrats are weak on issues of safety and security.

A Washington Post-Schar School poll released Tuesday found that 50 percent of Americans said they favored a president who would address the nation’s racial divisions, while 37 percent said they would rather have a president who can restore security by enforcing the law. Among Republicans, 63 percent said they preferred a president who would restore security while a much smaller 23 percent opted for one who would address racial divisions.

Trump’s tweet came just two weeks after he created another controversy by continuing to push the baseless conspiracy theory on Twitter that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough was linked to the 2001 death of a former congressional staffer — despite a plea by the widower for Twitter to delete the president’s tweets.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) called Trump “cruel & reckless” for his latest postings.

“The president is tweeting conspiracy theories about the Buffalo incident based on no evidence, no proof,” Cuomo tweeted. “Was the blood coming out of his head staged? Were our eyes lying to us? No. The man is still in the hospital & the president is disparaging him.”

Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden also weighed in, writing: “My Dad used to say there’s no greater sin than the abuse of power. Whether it’s an officer bloodying a peaceful protester or a President defending him with a conspiracy theory he saw on TV. I’m a Catholic — just like Martin. Our faith says that we can’t accept either.”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), meanwhile, seized on the fact that the correspondent from OANN, the network whose segment Trump cited, has written for Sputnik, the Russian government-owned news outlet.

“The story Trump is referencing was written by a Russian working for the Kremlin’s propaganda agency,” Murphy wrote on Twitter. “Get ready — this is the next 5 months. Russia and the Trump campaign openly collaborating to spread lies and manipulate the election.”

Numerous Republicans sought to sidestep questions from reporters when asked about Trump’s tweet.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) ignored questions by responding with the unrelated point that Senate Republicans intend to take up legislation to address racial discrimination.

“I haven’t read the damn thing,” Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) told reporters. Asked if he’d like to see it, he replied, “I’d just as soon not.”

When presented with a printout, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), replied, “Oh, Lord. Ugh. Yeah.”

Asked if she cared to comment, Murkowski declined.

“Umm, again, why would you fan the flames?” she added. “That’s all I’m going to say. Thanks.”

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the majority whip, told reporters he considered Trump’s tweet “a serious accusation,” adding it “should only be made with facts and evidence, and I haven’t seen any yet.”

Mike DeBonis, Paul Kane, Colby Itkowitz, Tony Romm, Meryl Kornfield and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.