A favorite tool of Republican politicians and far-right pundits like Glenn Beck, Alex Jones, Michael Savage, Bryan Fischer and others is to float wild conspiracy theories with the qualifier that they are “just asking the question.”
Take the outlet WorldNetDaily, which regularly runs stories with headlines like, “Is This A ‘Demon’ Racing In Front Of Obama?,” “Will Obama Build A Death Star Next?” and “‘Manchurian President’ Ushering In Islamic Caliphate?”
At Fox News, anchors often push personal theories by prefacing their remarks with the line, “some people say,” in order not to take any responsibility for their outlandish claims. Fox host Andrea Tantaros, for example, said of Obama last month, “Some people are asking the question, is he covering for ISIS?”
Donald Trump has taken to using the same lines in order to defend his own conspiracy theories.
When asked by ABC News’ Jonathan Karl in 2013 if he believed Obama “was born in the United States,” Trump replied: “I have no idea. Was there a birth certificate? You tell me. You know, some people say that was not his birth certificate. I'm saying I don't know. Nobody knows and you don't know either, Jonathan.”
He once issued a tweet hinting that Obama murdered someone to cover up the truth about his birth certificate:
Trump made a similar move when Michael Savage asked him if he thinks Justice Antonin Scalia was “murdered.”
“I just heard today, just a little while ago actually, 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 a pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow, I can’t tell you — I can’t give you an answer,” Trump said.
Trump also deflected criticism he received after he tweeted that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who was born in the U.S., is ineligible to be president, by insisting that he was merely trying to “start dialogue” and “let people make their own determination.”
After Trump tweeted a racist image of fabricated crime statistics from a neo-Nazi site, he said it came from “an expert” and asked, “Am I gonna check every statistic?” When Trump was called out for falsely claiming that a man who rushed the stage at one of his rallies was working for ISIS, he cited a fake online video and explained, “All I know is what’s on the internet.”
Trump wants to say things without saying things, but anyone watching knows exactly what he is trying to say.
Just take what happened this week when he suggested on “Fox & Friends” that Rafael Cruz, the father of his then-rival, Sen. Ted Cruz, was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
You know, his father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald [sic] being, you know, shot, I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous, what is this? Right prior to his being shot and nobody even brings it up. They don’t even talk about that. That was reported and nobody talks about it…. What was he doing with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the death? Before the shooting? It’s horrible.
The reason nobody was talking about it was because it was a bogus theory generated by online rumor sites and the tabloid National Enquirer.
But rather than say that Cruz was involved in the Kennedy assassination, Trump only asked, “What was he doing with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the death?”
Trump was just asking the question later that day while talking to Sean Hannity:
It was a picture put in and [the Enquirer] wouldn’t put it in if they could be sued, that I can tell you, they are very big professionals. It was put in. And by the way, Ted Cruz, I don’t think denied it at the news conference, but they don’t do things unless it could be verified. But if that were true, what was he doing having breakfast or whatever they were doing three months before the JFK assassination? Why are they doing that? Why is the father meeting with Lee Harvey Oswald?
Both Cruzes, for the record, did deny it, but that didn’t stop Trump from repeating the line the next day on “Good Morning America,” where he again refused to take any responsibility for his conspiracy theory. He also added a new and equally fallacious twist, claiming that newspapers other than the Enquirer had picked up the story:
All I was referring to was a picture that was reported in a magazine, and I think they didn’t deny it. I don’t think anybody denied it. I don’t know what it was exactly but it was a major story in a major publication, and it was picked up by many other publications…. The National Enquirer gave you John Edwards, it gave you O.J. Simpson, it gave you many, many things. You can’t knock the National Enquirer, it brought many things to light, not all of them pleasant. The fact is that it was a cover story on the National Enquirer. It was picked up by many other people and magazines and periodicals and newspapers and all I did was refer to it…. I’m just referring to an article that appeared, it has nothing to do with me.
Finally, Trump told Wolf Blitzer that he never even believed the theory that he had parroted.
Blitzer: You don’t really believe that Ted Cruz’s—
Trump: I didn’t say.
Blitzer: —father had anything to do with the assassination of President Kennedy.
Trump: No, I don’t. Of course I don’t.
Trump went on to falsely claim that Rafael Cruz was “praying for bad things to happen to me,” saying that in response he wanted people to “read the various magazines, because it’s not only there, it was put in numerous — where he has a picture of himself with Lee Harvey Oswald. I’m not saying they conspired…. I’m just saying it was all over the place…. Of course I don’t believe that, I didn’t believe it, but I did say let people to read it.”
“It’s like a walking, talking Enquirer magazine,” RedState founder Erick Erickson said of Trump back in March.
As Maggie Haberman of the New York Times wrote, “It is not a total surprise that Mr. Trump is the candidate most likely to use the phrase ‘I hear’ before stating something as fact, no matter how flimsy the information he passes along.”
The GOP is now on the verge of nominating for president someone who cites completely bogus stories he finds on the internet and embraces the likes of Alex Jones, one of the most bizarre conspiracy theorists out there.
But conservative talk radio and outlets like Fox News have shown the effectiveness of spreading unsubstantiated rumors and fictitious stories by insisting that they are just asking the question.