On Tuesday, Donald Trump further solidified his credentials among the tinfoil hat electorate when he gave credence to the suggestion that there is something…fishy…about the death of Antonin Scalia at a ranch in Texas on Saturday.
In an interview with Michael Savage, the right-wing radio host and “nutritionist,” Trump was asked about the possibility that foul play was involved in the 79-year-old U.S. Supreme Court justice’s demise.
“Donald, I need to come back to the topic we’ve been all screaming about here, which is, Scalia—was he murdered?” Savage said.
“Well, I just heard today, just a little while ago actually,” Trump replied. “You know, I just landed and I’m hearing it’s a big topic, the question. And it’s a horrible topic, but they say they found the pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow.”
For any other presidential candidate, wandering into the realm of kooks and crackpots who push such conspiracy theories would be pretty unusual, but for Trump it’s just business as usual. And his fans don’t like him in spite of these associations and beliefs, but because of them.
Trump’s entire career in politics has been spent batting around the sort of nutty ideas that you previously had to get lost in the wrong part of the Internet to even come across. And due to his popularity, he has elevated those ideas and made them a part of the mainstream discourse. In previous elections, the types of people who yell at you about the end of days on the subway platform were given dismissive monikers like “truthers” and “birthers”—in this election, they’re given center stage at the Republican National Committee’s sanctioned debates.
It only took a few hours for conspiracy theorists to begin questioning the circumstances of Scalia’s death after the news broke on Saturday afternoon.
And although Scalia’s own family didn’t request an autopsy, Trump was perfectly happy to treat wild speculation about a murder that didn’t happen as if it was perfectly legitimate.
After quail hunting at Cibolo Creek Ranch, a five-star hotel near Marfa, Scalia was found dead in his room by the owner of the ranch and one of his friends from Washington. According to the San Antonio Express-News, the owner said Scalia had “a pillow over his head,” which conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones took as an obvious sign of foul play. Trump didn’t think they were wrong. (It was later clarified that the pillow was above his head, not on top of his face as though he had just been smothered).
He told Savage, “I can’t give you answers. Usually, I like to give answers, but I literally just heard it a little while ago. It’s just starting to come out now, Michael.”
Savage then informed Trump of the circumstances of the death, which he agreed were “unusual,” as Trump had described it, and implied that President Obama might be involved.
“There was no medical examiner present,” Savage said, “there was no one who declared the death that was there—it was done by telephone by a U.S. marshall, appointed by Obama himself.”
It’s not an accident that as he runs for the Republican nomination, Trump continues to find himself in conversation with people who hoard iodine droplets and canned goods. It’s a feature of his candidacy, not a bug. If you listen closely during his speeches, he is constantly signaling to the paranoid among us. “There’s something going on, and it’s bad,” he often says, cryptically.
In 2011, 11 years after he had first teased that he might run for president, Trump created a media spectacle surrounding his search for Obama’s “real” birth certificate. He went as far as to claim he had hired private investigators and sent them to Hawaii to look for it. And after Obama released his birth certificate to the public, Trump held a press conference in New Hampshire to take full credit. “Today, I’m very proud of myself,” he said.
On Jan. 2 of this year in Biloxi, Mississippi, I talked to a Trump supporter named Danny who said he was 60 years old and had traveled 2½ hours from Brookhaven to see him. He told me he believed it was “highly possible” that Obama was a Muslim and that it was “highly possible also” that he wasn’t from America. “If he was, it wouldn’t be such a big secret about his birth certificate,” he said.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said when I asked if he remembered Trump’s pursuit of Obama’s birth certificate. “Well, like I said, for some reason it’s very well-hidden. For the money that Mr. Trump offered to find it and it never came up? It’s been hidden for some reason.”
But, I said, Obama did release it—it’s not hidden.
He looked at me like I was an idiot.
“Did he really release it,” he said, “or was it doctored?”
Trump never let go of the birther issue, though he’s now more focused on questioning the legitimacy of his rival Ted Cruz’s citizenship—even threatening to sue him, on Monday, over the issue. (While not unanimously, most legal scholars seem to agree that Cruz, who was born in Canada to an American mother and Cuban father, is a citizen and thus is eligible to run for president here.)
And while Trump, who frequently lays blame for the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center at the feet of George W. Bush, who was president at the time, has not yet gone as far as to declare “Bush did 9/11” or “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams,” he has toyed with 9/11 trutherism during his campaign.
At a November rally in Birmingham, Alabama, Trump claimed that, as the towers fell in New York City, he “watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering.” The claim was unequivocally false, but Trump repeated it over and over again, even in the face of evidence that he was wrong.
In early December, he appeared on The Alex Jones Show to commiserate with his fellow putty-faced whack job via Skype from his office in Trump Tower.
“You are vindicated!” Jones told Trump.
It’s no surprise, then, that classic 9/11 truthers—those who think Dick Cheney was controlling the planes from a White House bunker—seem to support Trump in droves. Reporters stumble upon them at Trump rallies all the time, and I’m no exception.
In December I talked to James “Owen” Greeson, a nice older man from Georgia who’d sent Trump $2,700 for his campaign and who told me Trump’s biggest concern should be that the elites might murder him. That wasn’t a stretch, he said, because of 9/11.
“It looked like a false flag to me, come on!” he said. “Two buildings burn like that? There’s been fires in other countries that burned for 15 hours and the buildings didn’t collapse.”
Rick Shaddock, who helps run the Association for Nine Eleven Truth Awareness, told The Daily Beast that he “drove around Iowa to meet Donald Trump as much as possible.” He proudly tweeted “TRUMP tells the TRUTH! :)” when the real estate mogul suggested in the most recent Republican debate that Bush lied about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
“I don’t agree with everything he says, but do agree with him, more than any other candidate, and he is our hope for getting the truth out on many issues,” Shaddock wrote in an email before informing The Daily Beast that thanks to real estate tips from Trump University, he now owns houses in both Washington, D.C., and Iowa.
Shaddock, who was reprimanded for talking to Iowa voters about his 9/11 conspiracies when phone-banking for Trump, had previously bombarded the candidate at an event in July of last year.
“As a builder of many skyscrapers, you know they’re built to be strong,” Shaddock said to Trump at an event in Oskaloosa. “Many people have questions about how those towers came down.”
Trump ended up being dismissive in response, saying, “Is this guy some kind of conspiracy guy?”
But Trump didn’t similarly brush off Richard Gage, who works at the same organization as Shaddock. Gage once sent Trump a set of DVDs and a book about his truther beliefs. “Thank you for your books and DVDs,” Trump said in an email in response. “Our advisors will investigate the claims made by the architects and engineers more thoroughly and draw their own conclusions from there. We appreciate your continued support. Sincerely, The Trump Campaign.”
— With additional reporting by Gideon Resnick