Americans just got a glimpse of what it will mean to have a Conspiracy Theorist-In-Chief.
In Northwest Washington, D.C. on Sunday, Edgar Maddison-Welch, a 28 year-old man from Salisbury, North Carolina, walked into Comet Ping Pong, a family friendly pizza place, armed with an AR-15 assault-style rifle. He was there, he later told police, to self-investigate “Pizzagate,” a conspiracy popularized by associates and supporters of the incoming president.
The episode serves as a multifaceted warning: of the dangers of fake news, wherein unfounded accusations are shared rapidly on online forums and social media among people unable or unwilling to distinguish between rumor and fact. And of a United States president who stokes these flames of confusion, which have proven beneficial to him––emboldening conspiracy theorists and their potentially dangerous vigilante followers along the way.
Pizzagate is perhaps the most sinister tale spun from what Hillary Clinton once labeled a “vast right wing conspiracy”: the rumor that, despite a complete lack of supporting evidence, Comet Ping Pong is the headquarters for an international child sex trafficking ring led by Clinton and her former campaign chairman, John Podesta.
Powerful Democrats, the conspiracy alleges, use “pizza” as a euphemism for occult ritual child sex abuse. For “proof” of this, believers point to the fact that Comet Ping Pong’s owner, James Alefantis, once dated David Brock, a powerful Clinton sycophant, and in his emails, released by Wikileaks, Podesta received an invitation to a dinner hosted by the controversial performance artist Marina Abramovic and, separately, sometimes referred to the immensely popular food item in unusual contexts. The conspiracy ultimately expanded to include a different rumor: that the Clintons and other powerful world leaders were involved in child sex abuse facilitated by Jeffrey Epstein, a billionaire who in 2008 was convicted of soliciting sex from an underage girl and who counts among his friends former president Clinton and incoming president Trump, both of whom have flown on his private plane.
The conspiracy found an audience on the message boards 4chan and Reddit, and then with Alex Jones, the radio host and founder of Infowars, a popular website that pushes rapture erotica and reports on news like the Super Bowl’s illuminati ritual halftime show and how the Sandy Hook massacre was in fact a false flag operation orchestrated by the government using crisis actors. A review of the Facebook page belonging to the shooter, who did not harm anyone, reveals that he ‘liked’ Jones and Infowars.
Jones, a Texas native who is himself the subject of a conspiracy that he may in fact be Bill Hicks, the liberal comedian who died in 1994, was an early and loyal supporter of Trump throughout the 2016 campaign. Although he initially endorsed Rand Paul, he changed his mind after Trump appeared on his radio program, via Skype from Trump Tower, in December 2015. During that interview, which was arranged by Roger Stone, a longtime Trump friend and associate, Jones showered Trump with praise, claiming, falsely, that he had been “vindicated” for his assertion that Muslims were cheering in the streets of Jersey City after the September 11 terror attacks.
Trump promised Jones “we’ll be speaking a lot,” and he apparently meant it. After Jones and Infowars spent the duration of the primaries, caucuses and general election spinning rumors about Clinton’s health and voter fraud, Jones said Trump called him to thank him after he won. “He was just thanking me for fighting so hard for Americans, and for Americanism, and thanking my listeners and supporters and to let me know that he was working really hard around the clock,” he told The New York Times. Jones has also apparently developed a close relationship with Stone, who has appeared on and even guest hosted his radio program. The two men traveled together during the Republican National Convention, sporting t-shirts with Bill Clinton’s face and the word, “RAPIST.” They also appeared together at a Citizens for Trump event where bikers arrived en masse, some of whom carried guns on their backs. By that point, Stone no longer officially worked for Trump, but, as he has for decades, remained in his ear.
Infowars has been highly engaged with the Pizzagate story to say the least. The website has published, among other things, videos alleging that “Pizzagate is global,” calling the “pedophile scandal” a “worldwide network.” Jones himself has tweeted about it to his nearly 500,000 followers as recently as Sunday. A Google search with the words “Alex Jones pizzagate” returns about 190,000 results.
“The FBI has long known the symbols pedophiles are using to operate,” a November 23 video report alleged. “An FBI Unclassified document from wikileaks reveals "Symbols and Logos Used by Pedophiles to Identify Sexual Preferences.... to include those who sexually abuse children as well as those who produce, distribute, and trade child pornography, are using various types of identification logos or symbols to recognize one another and distinguish their sexual preferences.”
The report claims that the restaurant, Comet Ping Pong Pizza, was using ping pong paddles as symbols that referenced “child love,” which they claim is an image recognized by the FBI. It’s all there if you look hard enough!
Jones did not respond to a phone call late Sunday night, or a text message asking if he thought he might be somewhat culpable for the armed man’s actions.
And Trump himself hasn’t (yet) said or tweeted anything directly relating to a child sex crime ring involving the Clintons—but his new national security adviser, Michael Flynn, did.
On November 2, a week before the country narrowly chose Trump as the next president, Flynn linked to a story from “True Pundit,” which alleged that emails discovered on disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner’s laptop implicated Hillary Clinton herself in a number of crimes including “sex crimes with minors.”
“U decide - NYPD Blows Whistle on New Hillary Emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes w Children, etc...MUST READ!” he said. The linked article referred to Bill Clinton’s relationship with Epstein, which served as a jumping off point for the Pizzagate “probers.”
Flynn did not respond to a direct message about the tweet and whether it was related to Pizzagate.
Meanwhile, his son Michael Flynn Jr.—who served as his father’s chief of staff—continued to suggest on Sunday night that Pizzagate would remain a story until it is “proven to be false.” Flynn Jr. maintains an email address associated with the presidential transition, according to CNN, although it's not clear why.
Asked on Sunday night if Trump planned on taking time out of his busy schedule of fighting with Saturday Night Live cast members to condemn Jones and caution his supporters against violence, officials for the transition did not respond.
This is far from the first time that Jones has baselessly pushed false narratives with real-world consequences.
And in many cases, Trump has interacted with and popularized the theories.
In February, following the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, (who passed away at the age of 79 from natural causes), Jones speculated that it was a murder orchestrated by the Obama administration and that Clarence Thomas and even (gasp!) Trump himself could be next.
“I wonder if Clarence Thomas will die of a heart attack next week,” Jones said in an “emergency transmission” that day. “If this is an assassination, it signifies that they’re dropping the hammer, that’s the canary in the coal mine.”
In an interview with radio host Michael Savage just a few days later, Trump said that he found the circumstances of the death “pretty unusual.”
Stone seemed to enjoy the fact that he had connected Trump and the nation’s foremost conspiracy monger.
“He’s a valuable asset — somebody has to rally the people around President Trump’s legislative program,” Stone told The Washington Post.
And someone who can rally people in the post-truth era where Trump now reigns; one which can result in violent ends.