A stunning report by The New York Times this week claimed that, in recent months, President Trump has begun privately peddling conspiracy theories regarding President Obama’s birth certificate and the leaked Access Hollywood tape that featured him boasting about his affinity for grabbing women’s genitals. On Wednesday, the president took that paranoid behavior public, dredging up a decades-old tragedy to malign a media anchor he doesn’t like.
Together, those comments paint a picture of a president struggling to remain grounded in reality.
Shortly after news broke Wednesday that NBC had fired Today anchor Matt Lauer over a “detailed complaint about inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace,” President Trump took to Twitter to express his delight in another “fake news” purveyor getting the ax.
“So now that Matt Lauer is gone when will the Fake News practitioners at NBC be terminating the contract of Phil Griffin?” he wrote, seemingly referencing his ongoing feud with the MSNBC president. (As HuffPost and New York Magazine reporter Yashar Ali noted, in 2011, Trump asked Griffin to fire host Lawrence O’Donnell because he was unhappy with O’Donnell’s criticism of him over his birtherism claims. Griffin declined.)
He added, “And will they terminate low ratings Joe Scarborough based on the ‘unsolved mystery’ that took place in Florida years ago? Investigate!”
So now that Matt Lauer is gone when will the Fake News practitioners at NBC be terminating the contract of Phil Griffin? And will they terminate low ratings Joe Scarborough based on the “unsolved mystery” that took place in Florida years ago? Investigate!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 29, 2017
Trump appeared to be referring to an instance from Scarborough’s time as a Republican congressman: in July 2001, one of then-Rep. Scarborough’s congressional aides, Lori Klausutis, was found dead in his Fort Walton Beach, Florida district office. The 28-year-old had been discovered by “two people who came to seek help with an immigration case,” according to The Tampa Bay Times (previously the St. Petersburg Times).
However, suggestions that Scarborough may have been involved with the woman’s death were swiftly shut down by authorities, who stated in the immediate aftermath that there were no outward signs of foul play or indication of suicide; a subsequent autopsy by a local medical examiner instead found that Klausutis had “lost consciousness because of an abnormal heart rhythm and fell, hitting her head on a desk.” The head injury, officials said, caused her death.
None of those facts stopped the rumors from flying.
As the now-defunct Gawker noted in 2015:
The medical examiner’s ruling [in August 2001] didn’t satisfy a surprisingly varied cross-section of armchair conspiracy theorists and Poirots, though. There were your garden-variety crackpots. But there were also people like Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott, whose mention of the case prompted an outraged Scarborough to write a lengthy letter to the magazine in 2005.
In his letter, Scarborough lashed out at Wolcott, calling his article “libelous” and claiming that he had only met the aide three times. Any implication that he may have resigned his post over a tawdry sex-scandal gone wrong was false, he said. Scarborough had n fact announced in May 2001 — a few months prior to Klausutis’ death — that he was leaving office to spend more time with his children, stating that his last day would be September 6.
Scarborough faced additional challenges in addition to Wolcott’s piece: according to Gawker, filmmaker Michael Moore reportedly “registered the domain name JoeScarboroughKilledHisIntern.com”, and former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris used the incident to campaign for Senate, implying that Scarborough and GOP officials needed to answer for the incident.
Now, nearly two decades later, the debunked theory is resurfacing once again, thanks to the president, who referred to the incident as an “unsolved mystery” on Wednesday, despite having no evidence to back up that claim.
Trump has a habit of wading into the conspiracy mire where it’s least warranted. When he’s not busy propping up debunked theories about “unsolved” crimes, the president seems to enjoy pushing myths that he himself has admitted are false.
As Tuesday’s New York Times report noted, over the past year, the president has — in closed circles — continued to question the “authenticity” of President Obama’s birth certificate, echoing his own past claims (which carry racist overtones), despite admitting publicly in 2016 that the birtherism conspiracy was false.
The birtherism myth — which centers on the false idea that Obama was not born in the United States, but rather overseas, effectively disqualifying him for the presidency — has its roots in Illinois’ 2004 U.S. Senate campaign. That year, candidate Andy Martin published a press release questioning Obama’s faith and cultural values, falsely claiming that he was a threat to the Jewish community because he was a Muslim. From there, the claim snowballed, gaining momentum in right-wing circles and eventually catching Trump’s attention.
Although he spent years pushing the myth, claiming he had hired investigators to look into the matter, Trump eventually conceded publicly that Obama had been “born in the United States — period” during a 2016 campaign event.
A year later, Trump is inexplicably back to propping up the birtherism lie once more.
Sources also told the Times in a separate report on November 25 that Trump has cast doubt on the Access Hollywood tape, in which he can be heard talking about “grabb[ing women] by the pussy” and having affairs with married women.
“We don’t think that was my voice,” Trump reportedly told one Republican senator. Times reporter Maggie Haberman added in a follow-up interview on CNN that Trump had explained to the senator he was “looking into hiring people to ascertain whether it was his voice.”
The president’s claim — that the voice on the leaked recording does not belong to him — reportedly “stunn[ed]” Trump’s advisers. Not only has Trump publicly apologized for his behavior in the tape, he specifically admitted in his apology that it was indeed his voice in the recording, noting simply, “I said it.” On Monday, Access Hollywood host Natalie Morales also addressed Trump’s sudden reversal, reiterating that “the tape is very real” and that Trump “said every one of those words.”
Trump’s sudden change of heart on both subjects has worried aides, who the Times claimed are often forced to “nudge friendly lawmakers to ask questions of Mr. Trump in meetings that will steer him toward safer terrain.”
Trump’s tendency to casually dabble in conspiracy theories, jumping in and out as he sees fit, signals a larger problem to many critics, who see Trump’s decision to conjure up falsehoods as dangerous.
“It’s dangerous to democracy; you’ve got to have shared facts,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) told the Times. “And on so many of these, there’s empirical evidence that says no: You didn’t win the popular vote, there weren’t more people at your inauguration than ever, that was your voice on that tape, you admitted it before.”
More concerning, these myths often make their way around conservative media and right-wing corners, where they provide dangerous fodder for other conspiracy theorists who are less restrained in propagating them.
Trump’s tweet on Wednesday, for instance, immediately prompted right-wing media outlet Breitbart News to publish its own skeptical take on the Scarborough conspiracy, suggesting that the case was still unsolved and praising Trump for “going for the kill.”
“If Russia is fair game, why not Scarborough’s dead intern?” the outlet wrote.
The r/The_Donald subreddit heeded the call. By mid-afternoon, the message board was on fire with comments praising Trump’s Scarborough tweet.
“Oh. My. God. He. Actually. Said. It,” one post read.
“So amazing as someone who has been into ‘conspiracies’ for nearly a decade to see all these theories finally coming to light,” another user wrote.
If nothing else, the president’s decision to push unsubstantiated myths has left a dark stain on his presidency.
Trump’s conspiracy meddling hit a low point on November 21. When asked whether he would support embattled U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore — who has been accused of sexual abuse by several women who say Moore approached them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s — the president all but offered up his endorsement, effectively agreeing with Moore that his accusers were all part of a “desperate attempt” to take down the former Alabama chief justice.
“He denies it. Look, he denies it. If you look at all the things that have happened over the last 48 hours… he totally denies it,” Trump told reporters, dismissing the allegations. “He says it didn’t happen. And look, you have to look at him also.”