As president, Donald Trump has continued his established habit of ad-libbing bizarre claims that leave most people scratching their heads — for instance, his claim that 3 million people voted in the presidential election illegally, or that the media doesn’t cover terrorist attacks.
These statements often seem to come out of left field. Why would the president claim that the media doesn’t cover terrorist attacks, when it is so clearly and demonstrably false? Where would he get an idea like that?
To certain segments of the internet, however, these claims are deeply familiar. Many of Trump’s more outlandish insinuations appeared first, almost verbatim, on right-wing sites like Breitbart and Alex Jones’ popular conspiracy theory site Infowars.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Jones is “almost certainly the most prolific conspiracy theorist in contemporary America.” In addition to the headlines duplicated above, Jones has also used his site to push theories that 9/11 was a government-orchestrated inside job and that the Sandy Hook massacre was staged. Infowars is not a credible site.
But time and time again, specific claims made by Infowars end up coming out of President Trump’s mouth shortly thereafter.
On Saturday, for example, Infowars ran this story:
And one day later, Trump tweeted this:
While on FAKE NEWS @CNN, Bernie Sanders was cut off for using the term fake news to describe the network. They said technical difficulties!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 12, 2017
Actually, there’s no evidence to support this. During that interview, Sanders made a joke about Trump being unaware of well-sourced, widely read reports that his National Security Adviser had discussed sanctions with Russia prior to Trump’s inauguration — something that Flynn and other top members of the Trump administration, including the vice president, all personally denied prior to the report. After this joke, it appears Sanders briefly lost his audio feed. It was reconnected after a commercial break.
Infowars, however, alleges that Bernie’s feed was deliberately cut because “President Donald Trump’s continual mocking of the ‘fake news’ outlet has worn them down to the point they can’t take a joke.”
Trump’s tweet is an uncanny paraphrase of the Infowars headline. After he tweeted it, Infowars embedded it into its article as a sign of vindication.
Infowars also appears to be the signal boost that led to Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that 3 million people voted illegally in the election.
A few days after the election, Gregg Phillips, a volunteer voter-fraud vigilante, tweeted he had “verified more than three million votes cast by non-citizens.” Phillips’ tweet was four days before the first state — Vermont — even certified the election results. In the months since, he has refused to produce the evidence for his claim or reveal in detail how he reached it.
Infowars, however, wrote up Phillips’ tweet in mid-November and alleged that all of those illegal votes went to Hillary Clinton.
Days after his inauguration, Trump told a room full of lawmakers that he would have won the popular vote if not for 3 to 5 million illegal votes cast for Hillary Clinton.
It went even further: Later that week, Trump promised an official voter fraud investigation before reneging on the promise and pointing back to Gregg Phillips.
I will be asking for a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD, including those registered to vote in two states, those who are illegal and….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 25, 2017
Look forward to seeing final results of VoteStand. Gregg Phillips and crew say at least 3,000,000 votes were illegal. We must do better!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 27, 2017
In summary, this claim made its way from an unverified Tweet, to an Infowars article (which was picked up by right-wing aggregator Matt Drudge), to Trump’s favorite talking point — and very nearly led to the president enacting policy.
Infowars was also the first place to make Trump’s baseless claim that the media doesn’t cover terrorist attacks.
“You’ve seen what happened in Paris, and Nice. All over Europe, it’s happening. It’s gotten to a point where it’s not even being reported. And in many cases the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it. They have their reasons, and you understand that,” Trump told a meeting of military leaders on February 6th.
The continued parallels between Trump’s talking points and Infowars’ conspiracy theories are a holdover from his campaign.
At an campaign stop in New Hampshire about a month before the election, for example, Trump suggested that Clinton had used drugs in the presidential debate in St. Louis and said they should both take a drug test before the next debate.
“She was all pumped up at the beginning and at the end, it was like, ‘take me down,’” Trump said. “I think we should take a drug test prior to the debate.”
The idea that Clinton used drugs to get through debates was also a favorite talking point on Infowars. Throughout her campaign, Jones and Infowars pushed out conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory about Clinton’s supposed ill-health — which were eagerly seized upon by the Trump campaign.
During the campaign, however, Trump went even further than just repeating Infowars’ claims. He also explicitly used to the site to prop up his own claims, and appeared on Alex Jones’ radio show. On the show, he expressed uncritical admiration for Jones.
“Your reputation is amazing,” Trump told Jones in December of 2015, on air. “I will not let you down. You will be very impressed, I hope, and I think we’ll be speaking a lot.”
Jones has claimed to be directly advising Trump, though that has been unconfirmed by independent reports.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 26, 2015
Infowars is also popular in Trump’s highest circle of advisers. His son and campaign adviser, Donald Trump Jr., and the White House’s director of social media, Dan Scavino Jr., have also tweeted out Infowars stories on multiple occasions.
Huffington Post Bans Journalist For Writing About Hillary’s Health, Deletes Article https://t.co/1ocp3Qygle via realalexjones
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) August 29, 2016
— Dan Scavino Jr. (@DanScavino) July 28, 2016
To many, Jones’ theories may seem transparently ludicrous. But Infowars has a wide and devoted audience: Jones’ weekly radio show reaches around two million people, and Infowars.com has a monthly audience of millions more, according to Quantcast.
Now, with Trump in the White House, baseless claims can make the jump directly from Infowars to the mainstream media, which closely follows what the president says and does.
Yet in mainstream outlets, Trump’s claims are often, at least initially, covered as if they came out of thin air. Sometimes the parallels to Infowars eventually surface, but sometimes they don’t. And meanwhile, ‘fake news’ is informing real policy.