MORRISTOWN, N.J. (AP) — With a pair of weekend retweets, President Donald Trump amplified an unfounded conspiracy theory.
It was hardly the first time. His political career began the same way.
Trump has a long history of spreading falsehoods drawn from the conservative fringe. His unlikely rise to the White House was fueled in part by spreading the lie that President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S., and he has trafficked in numerous others to malign his opponents and advance his own views.
Now he has used the power of the presidency to promote a baseless claim about the death of disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, breaking another norm of the office and further sowing public confusion over the apparent suicide of one of the most high-profile inmates in the federal system. Epstein, who faced up to 45 years in prison on federal sex trafficking and conspiracy charges, was found dead in his cell in a Manhattan jail early Saturday.
Epstein had ties to prominent people around the globe, including Trump, who partied with him in the 2000s, and former President Bill Clinton. Within hours of Epstein’s apparent suicide, Trump retweeted an accusation that tied both Bill and Hillary Clinton to the death, one of many conspiracies circulating on social media. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
Trump defended the retweet on Tuesday, calling the original poster “a very respected conservative.” He said he had “no idea” whether the Clintons were involved in the death, but continued to fan the theory, saying that the former president spent far more time on Epstein’s private plane, and perhaps his private island, than known.
The Clintons have denied any wrongdoing. In a statement last month, Clinton spokesman Angel Ureña said the former president took four trips —one to Asia, one to Europe and two to Africa — on Epstein’s airplane in 2002 and 2003. Staff and Secret Service detail traveled with Clinton on “every leg of every trip,” Urena said.
Ureña also said Clinton had never traveled to Epstein’s private island.
Trump has made a similar accusation before: that the Clintons had a hand in a high-profile suicide. He previously tweeted about the 1993 death of White House aide Vince Foster, calling it “very fishy.” But there is no evidence of foul play.
As he was privately considering his own run for the White House, Trump began to try to stoke doubts about Obama’s legitimacy as president. He began to get notice among hard-line conservatives in 2011 when he claimed that Obama, the nation’s first African American president, was not born in the United States. Even after Obama produced his long-form birth certificate that proved he was born in Hawaii, Trump repeatedly voiced the belief, only fully backing off in the final stages of the 2016 campaign.
While birtherism was Trump’s most infamous conspiracy theory, it was far from his only one.
He has promoted dozens of outlandish claims, many of which are so blatantly untrue that they have not required even a cursory fact check to disprove.
Among his claims:
— That Sen. Ted Cruz’s father may have had a hand in President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
— That Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia may have been murdered.
— That thousands of Muslims celebrated in U.S. cities after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
— That 3 million to 5 million votes were cast illegally in the 2016 election, none of them for Trump.
— That vaccines may cause autism.
— That global warming is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.
— That wind farms may cause cancer.
With the weight of the Oval Office behind these claims — some containing deliberate misinformation, others ignorance — the theories carry a degree of peril, according to presidential historian Julian Zelizer.
“We expect some semblance of truth from the Oval Office and sending out conspiracy theories like this is a whole new level of danger,” Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University. “People believe some of this, people can act on some of this. People can act violently, even, and part of that comes from a president dealing in untruths and conspiracies.”
For his part, Trump sometimes says that a mere retweet absolves him of any responsibility.
Repeatedly, he claimed he was just passing on information to his Twitter followers — now over 63 million — while not recognizing the significance carried by words, distributed in any fashion, by the president of the United States or leader of the Republican Party. During the 2016 campaign, in just one example, Trump retweeted false crime statistics that dramatically overstated the number of white people killed by black people.
“Bill, am I gonna check every statistic?” he told Fox News host Bill O’Reilly then. “All it was is a retweet. It wasn’t from me.”
Lemire reported from New York.
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