President Trump has long used his fame and platform to amplify conspiracy theories and undermine his political enemies by muddying the waters when it comes to facts.
For years, he has helped to erode voter faith in institutions by invoking the idea of a sinister force — such as the “deep state” or a rigged electoral system — that is thwarting the will of the people in an attempt to undermine him.
But a macabre subgenre of Mr. Trump’s fondness for conspiracy theories has been to accuse, directly or indirectly, his political enemies of murder.
In the heat of the 2016 Republican primary, Mr. Trump elevated an unsubstantiated rumor, published by the Trump-friendly National Enquirer, insinuating that the father of one of his rivals, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, had been involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Earlier that year, he fed into the idea that Antonin Scalia, a Supreme Court justice who died in his sleep in 2016, could have actually been murdered in his bed.
On Saturday, two and a half years into his presidency and hours after Jeffrey Epstein, the financier accused of sex trafficking, was found dead in a federal jail cell in Manhattan, Mr. Trump once again weighed in by elevating an online conspiracy theory that the Clintons were linked to his death.
Mr. Epstein “had information on Bill Clinton & now he’s dead,” Terrence Williams, a comedian and Trump supporter, wrote on Twitter on Saturday. Mr. Williams also noted that “for some odd reason, people that have information on the Clintons end up dead.” Mr. Trump promptly shared the baseless insinuation online by retweeting it to his 63 million followers.
Mr. Trump, who is entering the thick of election season, has yet to find any candidate in the crowded Democratic field whom he delights in invoking as much as his forever foils, Bill and Hillary Clinton, the onetime reigning couple of Democratic politics who have been the subject of conspiracy mongering on the right for decades.
Even though the Clintons have retreated from politics, “it’s one of those things that continue to live on,” said Douglas Brinkley, the historian.
Mr. Trump’s decision to weigh in on the case of Mr. Epstein’s apparent suicide, even while his own Justice Department is investigating, also had a political imperative behind it, Mr. Brinkley said. “The first thing Trump wanted to do was put Bill Clinton into the mix,” he added. “Make it about Bubba, not about the Donald.”
Mr. Clinton and Mr. Epstein were first linked in 2002, when it was reported that the former president took his first of four trips aboard Mr. Epstein’s private jet, for a trip related to Mr. Clinton’s work on his foundation, according to a Clinton spokesman, and Mr. Clinton has stressed that he has not been in touch with Mr. Epstein in over a decade.
But Mr. Trump has his own long history with Mr. Epstein, one he has been playing down since before he began his presidential campaign. The two New Yorkers were friends through the 1990s, and into the 2000s, and in at least one instance, were even caught on camera ogling women together at Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s Palm Beach, Fla., estate. The source of their eventual falling out — which Mr. Trump has highlighted more than the friendship itself — has been in dispute.
Whether he believes the theories he promotes or not, Mr. Trump knows that many people will latch onto them, lured by the idea that a hidden force is controlling fate.
“He revels in conspiracy theories because he knows it gives him quick and easy traction with the masses — they’re easily swayed by the notion that there is an organized group getting over on them,” said Timothy L. O’Brien, a journalist and one of Mr. Trump’s biographers. “Because he never feels remorse or guilt about peddling these fables, he dives right in even when he knows better.”
On Saturday, when the news of Mr. Epstein’s death broke, Mr. Trump was at his New Jersey golf club, where he plans to spend his vacation and where, accompanied by few aides, he often uses Twitter more freely than when he is at the White House.
“It’s another example of something where he should stop and think about the fact that he’s the president of the United States, and stop his thumbs, but he never does,” said Rich Lowry, a columnist and editor of the conservative National Review.
In the murky story of Mr. Epstein’s death, Mr. Trump found particularly fertile soil: the demise of an accused pedophile with powerful friends, whose apparent suicide in a federal Manhattan jail has raised questions about “serious irregularities” and has many people — not just Mr. Trump — speculating in public about what might have really taken place.
“Something stinks to high heaven,” Claire McCaskill, a Democratic former senator from Missouri, wrote on Twitter.
By Monday, however, some of Mr. Trump’s closest advisers sought to tamp down the talk of a conspiracy now that the Justice Department is involved in the investigation.
Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, had suggested on Saturday that he found Mr. Epstein’s death suspicious. But on Monday, he said: “It is best to wait for some key facts like the findings of the autopsy. Withholding judgment is the wisest course to follow. D.O.J. is very motivated to get to the bottom of it.”
Waiting for facts to settle, however, has never been Mr. Trump’s preferred style.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly used conspiracies to bond with his supporters since promoting the false story that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, rather than Hawaii, which helped him rise in the polls in 2011 when he first considered a run for president.
“Conspiracy theories are a perfect tool to emotionally connect with voters and supporters,” said Sam Nunberg, a former campaign aide.
Last year, Mr. Trump promoted accusations that a “criminal deep state” element within the government had planted a spy inside his presidential campaign to try to help Mrs. Clinton win the presidency — a scheme he branded “Spygate.”
And during the 2016 campaign, he promoted the idea of foul play as a reason for Justice Scalia’s death.
“I’m hearing it’s a big topic,” he said then. “It’s a horrible topic but they’re saying they found the pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow,” Mr. Trump told the radio host Michael Savage.
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