This week, Donald Trump has been pushing an unhinged conspiracy alleging, without a shred of evidence, that Joe Biden ordered the murder of two dozen Navy SEALs. Biden, according to this theory, gave the order to shoot down a Navy SEAL helicopter as part of a scheme to cover-up that the killing Osama bin Laden in 2011 was faked. The story gets stranger from there.
Trump retweeted an article about the conspiracy, published on the obscure website DJHJ media, on Tuesday night. Trump's elevation of the tweet resulted in more than 14,000 retweets before the original poster, Oscar the Midnight Rider 1111, was suspended from Twitter.
Maybe Trump just mistakenly hit the retweet button? No. Trump retweeted a video making the same allegations on Tuesday night. The video was quickly viewed nearly 900,000 times.
It's impossible to overstate how bizarre this theory is, even by Trump's low standards. The conspiracy originated with an interview of Alan Howell Parrot at the American Priority Conference, a pro-Trump event held at Trump's resort in Miami. Parrot is a falconer who claims to have learned various secrets working for powerful figures in the Middle East.
Parrot claims that long before the 2011 raid, bin Laden was captured by the United States who transferred him to Iran on orders from Hillary Clinton and others. In 2010, Parrot says, Iran transferred bin Laden to Pakistan. But just before the 2011 raid, Iran replaced bin Laden with a body double. Parrot claims that, to cover up the botched operation, Obama paid Iran $152 billion and Biden ordered the murder of the Navy SEALs.
"Obama paid money and Biden paid with their blood," Parrot says. He claimed to have "Terrabytes of information, video, audio, photos" that support his claims. None were produced.
Promoting a vile and unhinged conspiracy theory, baselessly accusing your opponent of murdering U.S. troops, would be disastrous for most candidates. But Trump's conduct has largely been met with indifference by major media outlets.
Associated Press: No coverage.
USA Today: No coverage.
The Wall Street Journal: No coverage.
ABC News: No coverage.
CBS News: No coverage.
NBC News: No coverage.
The New York Times limited its coverage to a brief mention in its live coverage of Trump's rally on Tuesday night: "Mr. Trump spent part of his evening amplifying a false conspiracy theory about the Central Intelligence Agency, President Barack Obama and the terrorist Osama bin Laden." Notably, this summary does not mention that the conspiracy theory Trump was amplifying accused his opponent of orchestrating the murder of members of the U.S. military.
The Washington Post, in a piece posted Wednesday afternoon, included a more complete summary of the conspiracy theory in a round-up of various conspiracies promoted by Trump in recent days: "Trump was promoting the idea that the Obama administration, including Joe Biden, had members of the U.S. military murdered and that the official story of Osama bin Laden’s killing was a hoax."
This is the best possible outcome for Trump. His base on social media gets fed salacious information that will keep them energized and distracted. But anyone who receives information from more mainstream sources will likely be unaware of Trump's gambit.
Navy Seal responds
While the media has largely ignored Trump's conspiracy theory, the Navy SEALs are paying attention. "Very brave men said [goodbye] to their kids to go kill Osama bin Laden. We were given the order by President Obama. It was not a body double," Robert O'Neill, a former Navy SEAL who participated in the bin Laden raid, tweeted. O'Neill is "a Trump supporter who was banned from all Delta flights in August after he published a photo of himself not wearing a mask in the cabin."
The QAnon connection
The account that Trump initially retweeted, Oscar the Midnight Rider 1111, also promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory. QAnon's adherents believe that Democratic officials and celebrities — including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Tom Hanks — are Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are running a secret sex trafficking operation. Trump, according to the conspiracy, is the only person who can stop the evil cabal.
QAnon adherents have emerged as a key pro-Trump constituency. Trump has not been shy about promoting Twitter accounts that embrace QAnon. As of August, Trump "amplified accounts promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory at least 216 times via at least 129 individual accounts."
Trump has had only positive things to say about the group:
Last month, speaking from the White House briefing room, Trump praised the group. "I don't know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate," Trump said. Trump also described QAnon as "gaining in popularity" and comprised of "people who love our country." Trump was asked by a reporter if he believed in the QAnon conspiracy theory — specifically that he "is secretly saving the world from this satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals." Trump did not reject it. Instead, Trump said that "[i]f I can help save the world from problems, I'm willing to do it."
Nevertheless, Trump is rarely asked about his promotion of QAnon. It doesn't come up in most interviews and wasn't mentioned during the first debate.
Trumpism and the future of the Republican Party
The mainstreaming of fringe conspiracy theories won't disappear if Trump fails to win a second term. Marjorie Taylor-Green, a Republican congressional candidate in Georgia, is poised to become the first member of Congress who supports the QAnon conspiracy theory. Her Democratic opponent dropped out of the race in September.
Despite her endorsement of QAnon, Taylor-Green has been welcomed not only by Trump, but by the Republican Party. Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), who is in a tight race for reelection, announced she would hold a joint event with Taylor-Green on Thursday. The pair will appear together for a "a major announcement."
Sooner or later, Trump will no longer be president. But Trumpism, and the elevation of bizarre and dangerous conspiracy theories, is here to stay.