The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump praises baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, says he appreciates support of its followers

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., August 19, 2020. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

President Trump gave a major boost to the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, saying Wednesday that he appreciated the support of its followers, calling them “people that love our country.”

Pressed at a White House briefing about the online movement, which the FBI has identified as a potential domestic terrorist threat, he claimed not to know anything about it other than the affection its adherents have for him. But when a reporter outlined the erroneous claims underlying the theory — “that you are secretly saving the world from this Satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals” — Trump seemed to embrace that role for himself.

“I don’t know much about the movement; I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate,” Trump said during a White House press briefing. “I heard these are people that love our country.”

Asked about the fringe conspiracy theory QAnon on Aug. 19, President Trump said he knew little of the group beyond "they like me very much." (Video: The Washington Post)

“QAnon believes you are secretly saving the world from this cult of pedophiles and cannibals. Are you behind that?” a reporter pressed.

“I haven’t heard that. Is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing?” Trump responded. “If I can help save the world from problems, I am willing to do it. I’m willing to put myself out there. And we are actually, we’re saving the world.”

QAnon took root on Internet message boards in the fall of 2017 with posts from a self-proclaimed government insider identified as “Q.” The pseudonymous figure posted cryptic clues about Trump’s impending conquest over the “deep state,” spawning an elaborate far-right worldview that came to absorb many other debunked ideas.

Though its followers have been heralding Trump for years, there is deepening concern that the elaborate and oft-mutating philosophy is seeping into the mainstream as candidates who espouse its ideas are now competing in, and winning, congressional races.

Online communities devoted to QAnon, despite recent enforcement actions by Facebook and Twitter, lit up in response to the president’s comments, with users writing in all caps that the remarks “validated” their movement.

Others were aghast at the president’s praise of QAnon.

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who ran against Trump in 2016, tweeted: “Why in the world would the President not kick Q’anon supporters’ butts? Nut jobs, rascists, haters have no place in either Party.”

Rival Joe Biden’s presidential campaign quickly criticized Trump for seeking “to legitimize a conspiracy theory that the FBI has identified as a domestic terrorism threat. Our country needs leadership that will bring us together more than ever to form a more perfect union. We have to win this battle for the soul of our nation.”

Trump’s propensity to back anyone who backs him was also on display Wednesday when he, and national Republicans, embraced the candidacy of Laura Loomer, a self-described Islamaphobe who won the GOP nomination in a Florida primary for a House seat.

Loomer has been banned from Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms for hate speech, anti-Muslim comments and disseminating misinformation. She falsely claimed on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) wanted “another 9/11” terrorist attack and called Islam a “cancer.”

“Great going Laura. You have a great chance against a Pelosi puppet!” Trump, whose Mar-a-Lago estate is in the district, tweeted Tuesday night with a reference to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

‘Great going’: Trump praises right-wing activist Laura Loomer after her Florida GOP primary win

The apparent endorsement of aspects of the QAnon worldview by Trump and his associates has alarmed scholars of extremism and digital communications, some of whom characterize the theory’s adherents as a cult. Experts have also observed a striking overlap between key tenets of the conspiracy movement and the central themes of the president’s reelection campaign. Among these are the valorization of Trump as a quasi-messianic figure battling the so-called deep state, the vilification of both Democrats and Republicans who cross him and the depiction of his rivals as criminal and illegitimate.

“Incredibly dangerous, but sadly not surprising,” said Ethan Porter, a George Washington University professor and the author of “False Alarm: The Truth About Political Mistruths in the Trump Era.” “In one fell swoop, the president conflated the hallucinated enemies of QAnon with his very real domestic political opposition. Most Americans don’t believe in QAnon — they’re wise enough to separate facts from obvious fictions. Either the president is not as wise, or he is willing to cast a blood libel on his political opponents, regardless of consequences.”

He added that Trump’s comments were “the most frightening thing he’s done since Lafayette Square,” a reference to his administration’s use of tear gas on peaceful protesters outside the White House to clear the area for the president to have a photo op.

Until now, Trump, as well as top White House aides and members of his campaign, have repeatedly elevated the movement’s iconography and rallying cries — in a more tacit embrace of the conspiracy theory.

Kayleigh McEnany, when she was a spokeswoman for his reelection campaign, interviewed a QAnon supporter and promised to convey his comments to the president. The Trump campaign’s director of press communications went on a QAnon program last fall and urged listeners to “sign up and attend a Trump Victory Leadership Initiative training.”

QAnon symbols have appeared in official campaign advertisements targeting battleground states. And the White House’s director of social media and deputy chief of staff for communications, Dan Scavino, has endorsed praise from QAnon accounts and posted their memes.

More recently, Trump celebrated the primary win of QAnon believer Marjorie Taylor Greene, in a conservative district that almost assures her a seat in Congress. Even as some Republican congressional leaders distanced themselves from the Georgia candidate, Trump called her a “a future Republican Star” and “a real WINNER!”

Former GOP congressman Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania said in an interview that it was Trump’s embrace of Greene that pushed him to make his support for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden public on Wednesday.

“I just thought, ‘this is just beyond the pale,’ ” Dent said. “It’s crazy stuff that empowers people on the fringe.”

In Florida, Loomer, 27, went from the fringe of the right wing to a place on the ballot in the general election by beating five Republicans in the Palm Beach and Broward counties election Tuesday. She is considered a long shot in the race against four-term Rep. Lois Frankel (D) in the strongly Democratic district.

“A political rock star” was the term Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, used in a call to Loomer just before her acceptance speech, according to the Palm Beach Post.

The RNC did not respond to multiple emails seeking request for comment from McDaniel regarding her conversation with Loomer or what she thinks of Loomer’s statements that Muslims should not be allowed in office.

Loomer has never run for office before and has lived in Florida less than three years, but her support network of some of the most outrageous voices on the right helped lift her candidacy, as did the support of Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.).

Calling herself the most “Trumpian” of the candidates, she won the crowded primary with about 42 percent of the vote. Christian Acosta, a former nuclear engineer who is now a college professor, came in second with 25 percent of the vote.

Loomer outraised the field by a wide margin, bringing in $1.1 million. She also outspent her opponents, disbursing $924,059. One of her supporters is Steven Alembik, who is also a Trump supporter. Alembik once tweeted about former president Barack Obama, using an expletive, racist term and called him a Muslim.

Frankel has more cash on hand for the general election — $1.2 million to Loomer’s $237,563 — but said she takes Loomer’s candidacy seriously.

“When people have a lot of money, they can sell any kind of message. We will put up a robust campaign,” Frankel said.

She said Loomer’s association with people such as Alex Jones, the Infowars conspiracy theorist who calls the Parkland and Sandy Hook school massacres hoaxes, will repulse voters in her district, as will her attacks against Muslims such as Omar.

“She’s an extremist who surrounds herself with extremists, and the voters in my district will reject that,” Frankel said. “Her bigotry is disgusting and anti-American.”

Loomer celebrated her victory at the West Palm Beach Hilton, surrounded by supporters. Among them: Gaetz; Roger Stone, who was recently pardoned by Trump after being convicted of lying to Congress; Milo Yiannopoulos, a former Breitbart News writer and right-wing personality; and Gavin McInnes, founder of the Proud Boys, which the Southern Poverty Law Center says promotes white nationalist and anti-Muslim views.

Stone called Loomer “the Joan of Arc of the conservative movement.” McInnes, whose group calls itself a Western-chauvinist organization, called Loomer a fighter. Yiannopoulos, who was banned from Twitter in 2016 for making racist comments, emceed Loomer’s victory party.

A campaign spokesman for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) didn’t respond to a request for comment about whether he supports Loomer.

The National Republican Congressional Committee is not expected to weigh in on the Florida race in the strongly Democratic district. Asked whether NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer and the committee backed Loomer, an NRCC spokesman refused to answer and instead attacked a Democrat running against a GOP incumbent on a separate, unrelated allegation.

While most Republicans have remained silent or welcomed conspiracy theorists into their ranks, some more moderate members have spoken out. A pair of Republicans on the Sunday talk shows this week called on their leadership to do something. “It’s time for leaders to come out an denounce it,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said on CNN, referring to QAnon. Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.), tweeted “the GOP is better than this.”

Rozsa reported from West Palm Beach, Fla.