In a shocking abdication of duty, President Donald Trump has abandoned concrete action to fight the coronavirus, instead focusing on a conspiracy theory about former President Barack Obama. While America approaches 100,000 deaths, with tens of millions of people out of work because of the virus, Trump has concentrated on blaming Obama for Mike Flynn’s lies to the FBI and Vice President Mike Pence, as well as his subsequent guilty pleas. Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, lied about a series of phone calls with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in which they coordinated a response that undermined the Obama administration’s efforts to sanction Russia for its attack on the 2016 election. Flynn pleaded guilty twice, only for the Department of Justice to suddenly move to drop the case for reasons that, as law professors Neal Katyal and Joshua Geltzer wrote, “don’t pass the laugh test.”
Trump’s public attempt at assigning blame should be recognized for what it is—the latest in a constant stream of baseless conspiracy theories meant to foster short-term appeal among his political base. The current conspiracy theory is no exception: Trump is pushing for an investigation into his predecessor without even being able to identify what wrongdoing he believes occurred, other than the fact that the Obama administration’s actions ultimately led to Trump and his cronies getting caught.
This column takes a look at 20 other evidence-free conspiracy theories Trump has pushed before and during his presidency.
- Birtherism: President Trump rose to political prominence peddling the racist conspiracy theory that former President Obama wasn’t born in the United States. He clung to the lie for years, at various points claiming that Obama “doesn’t have a birth certificate” and to have seen footage of one of Obama’s grandmothers saying he was born in Kenya. Trump once tweeted that, “An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud.” He only renounced the conspiracy theory late in the 2016 election.
- Joe Scarborough: More recently, Trump has repeatedly dredged up a conspiracy theory that MSNBC host and former Republican Rep. Joe Scarborough (FL) may have murdered one of his interns, tweeting, “When will they open a Cold Case on the Psycho Joe Scarborough matter in Florida. Did he get away with murder? Some people think so.” Not only is there no evidence that Scarborough had any connection to the death in question, Florida police concluded that the intern’s death was not a murder. Scarborough has denied Trump’s allegation, calling it “extraordinarily cruel.”
- CrowdStrike: Trump tried to pressure Ukraine into investigating the conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked into the Democratic National Committee as part of a convoluted effort to frame Trump for colluding with the Russian government in 2016. Trump has specifically alleged that the California-based cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, which he falsely claimed was based in Ukraine, spirited the committee’s server away to hide the evidence. According to Trump, “The Democrats, a lot of it had to do, they say, with Ukraine. It’s very interesting. It’s very interesting. They have this server, right?” These claims go against the conclusion of every U.S. intelligence agency, special counsel Robert Mueller, and the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee.
- Unemployment numbers: During the 2016 election, Trump repeatedly asserted, without evidence, that the Obama administration was releasing “phony” unemployment data and suggested that unemployment may have been as high as 42 percent during the previous administration. Once Trump became president and began routinely citing the unemployment rate as a barometer of his success, former press secretary Sean Spicer told the press that the figure “may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.”
- Ted Cruz and the JFK assassination: When Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) emerged as his main rival for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, Trump parroted the conspiracy theory that Cruz’s father may have been involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Trump falsely claimed that a picture showed Cruz’s father with Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas: “His father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald’s being—you know, shot. … They don’t even talk about that. That was reported, and nobody talks about it. I mean, what was he doing—what was he doing with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the death? Before the shooting?” The Cruz campaign responded by pointing out numerous inconsistencies in the story, which originated in the National Enquirer, including the fact that the picture in question did not actually show Cruz’s father, who at the time lived in New Orleans.
- “Wires tapped”: In March 2017, Trump claimed that Obama “had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” He later added, “How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate.” After Obama administration officials denied the claim and the Trump administration produced no evidence, Trump asserted he meant “wiretap” in a colloquial sense and claimed vindication when news reports revealed unrelated surveillance of campaign officials.
- Windmills: Trump’s aversion to attempting to combat or even acknowledge climate change includes a bizarre belief that wind turbines cause cancer. In a December 23, 2019, speech, Trump said, “They say the noise [of wind turbines] causes cancer. You told me that one, OK.” He never clarified who—other than he—had ever said so, and there is no scientific evidence to back up the claim.
- Voter fraud: Trump routinely propagates debunked myths about rampant voter fraud influencing elections in favor of the Democratic Party. He has done so for a variety of reasons, including casting doubt on the results of the 2016 election before voting occurred; saying he “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally” in 2016; disputing massive Republican losses in the 2018 midterms; and attempting to crack down on voting rights in the 2020 election.
- South Africa: In August 2018, Trump tweeted to say that he had “asked Secretary of State @SecPompeo to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers.” The tweet referred to a conspiracy theory that originated in white nationalist forums before reaching Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News. The conspiracy theory claims that the South African government is perpetrating “white genocide” by passing measures to take land from white farmers while ignoring or covering up widespread murders of white farmers by black residents. There is no evidence to support the claim, and murder rates in South Africa have actually dropped significantly in the past 20 years.
- Climate change: Trump has claimed that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
- Vaccines: Trump has repeatedly suggested that he believes vaccines cause autism—despite the fact that these claims have been thoroughly debunked. During one 2016 presidential primary debate, he claimed to have had several employees whose children developed autism due to vaccination and said that if vaccination schedules were more spread out, “I think you’re going to see a big impact on autism,” suggesting there would be fewer cases if vaccine dosages were changed. He even tapped prominent anti-vaccination conspiracy theorist Robert Kennedy Jr. to lead a national committee on vaccine safety. As of February 2018, the committee appears to no longer be performing any work.
- 2018 migrant caravan: In the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, Trump embraced multiple conspiracy theories about a caravan of migrants from Mexico that he called “an invasion of our Country,” speculating that it was full of “Gang Members and some very bad people.” Trump perpetuated the conspiracy theory that the caravan was providing cover for terrorists to enter the United States, saying, “Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in.” He suggested that Democrats may have been funding or otherwise organizing the caravan: “They wanted that caravan. And there are those who say that caravan didn’t just happen.” No evidence has ever emerged for any of these claims, and Trump himself later admitted “there’s no proof of anything,” though he also said he had “very good information” that the allegations “could very well be” true. In July 2019, Trump tweeted an unsubstantiated allegation that a rancher had “found prayer rugs” on the border. The lack of evidence for this conspiracy theory led to speculation that either Trump or the rancher in question had conflated the real-life caravan with the plot of the 2018 movie “Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado.”
- American Muslims celebrating 9/11: During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly claimed to have personally seen “Arabs” in New Jersey celebrating the destruction of the World Trade Center: “I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down.” Not only has no evidence of Trump’s claim ever emerged, but he has also separately claimed to have been in Manhattan at the time.
- “The real collusion”: Despite overwhelming evidence that the Trump campaign welcomed and encouraged interference by the Russian government in the 2016 elections, Trump has repeatedly accused Democrats of “the real collusion,” at various points suggesting that they conspired with Russia or Ukraine during the elections.
- Bill and Hillary Clinton’s involvement in assassinations: Trump has accused former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of multiple murders, rehashing old conspiracy theories about Vince Foster, deputy White House counsel during the Clinton administration. Trump called Foster’s suicide “very fishy” and said that the long discredited possibility he was murdered was “very serious.” In 2019, he shared a story speculating that the Clintons may have killed billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein to prevent him from testifying about the extent of his relationship with the Clintons. A Clinton spokesman denied the allegation, adding that “President Clinton knows nothing about the terrible crimes Jeffrey Epstein pleaded guilty to in Florida some years ago, or those with which he has been recently charged in New York.” Also during the 2016 election, Trump speculated that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered, falsely claiming that “they found a pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow,” though he didn’t specifically claim a connection to the Clintons.
- Death tolls: Multiple news outlets have reported that Trump intends, without any evidence, to cast doubts on the overall U.S. death toll from the coronavirus. He’s already done so for Hurricane Maria: “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. … This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico.”
- Google: Trump has claimed on multiple occasions that Google is undermining him. In August 2018, Trump tweeted, “Google search results for ‘Trump News’ shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake New Media. In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD. … Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good.” Google responded that political considerations do not factor into its search algorithms, and Trump has not offered any evidence for his claims. He has also falsely alleged the website chose not to advertise his State of the Union address for political reasons. Google later confirmed that it did display a link to his speech on its homepage, as the search engine typically does for every State of the Union.
- “Large sacks of drugs”: Before reportedly deciding his proposed border wall should be painted black, which would significantly drive up costs, Trump said he believed it should be transparent based on a conspiracy theory that drug smugglers would otherwise “throw the large sacks of drugs over, and if you have people on the other side of the wall, you don’t see them—they hit you on the head with 60 pounds of stuff? It’s over … As crazy as that sounds, you need transparency through that wall.”
- Montenegro: In July 2018, days after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, Trump responded to a question from Fox News host Tucker Carlson about NATO’s common-defense clause by suggesting that Montenegro was somehow on the road to provoking World War III: “Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people … They’re very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in world war three.” There is no evidence of violence or aggression in Montenegro that could lead to war. Trump’s statement drew criticism for being “a gift to Putin,” both because it continued his pattern of undermining NATO and because alleged Russian military intelligence agents attempted to organize a coup in Montenegro in 2016.
- Fake terrorist attacks: Trump has repeatedly described terrorist attacks that never happened, including retweeting a propaganda video from a far-right British propagandist who claimed the video showed Muslim migrants attacking a young white person. After the video was debunked, Trump’s former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the retweets, saying, “Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real.” (Trump also retweeted two tweets from the propagandist that included videos of violence occurring in the Middle East in 2013.) Trump has also repeatedly described a terrorist attack in Sweden that never happened, which he claimed occurred after “they took in large numbers” of refugees. When pressed about the statement later, Trump claimed to have been referring to a riot in a migrant-heavy community that actually occurred after his initial statement.
Trump has built his entire political career on conspiracy theories, from racist lies about Obama’s birth certificate to fake terrorist attacks to accusations that his political opponents have committed horrific crimes. His latest push is no exception, a desperate effort to use another baseless conspiracy theory to distract from his failings, which have led to tens of thousands of deaths.
Jeremy Venook is a research associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.