Trump runs with absurd right-wing media lie about terrorists infiltrating the migrant caravan

How the baseless claim moved from fringe right websites to the president

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

The conspiracy theory that ISIS terrorists had infiltrated a caravan of migrants moving through Central America toward the U.S.-Mexican border has spread from fringe right-wing media outlets to Fox News to President Donald Trump, who tweeted this morning that “unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in” to the group. This is a case of the Trump-Fox feedback loop in action, with the president following the conservative network’s lead in fearmongering with lie-filled rants about the caravan in hopes of bolstering Republican electoral chances in the midterms.

The conspiracy theory has its origins in remarks President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala made before the caravan even formed in Honduras. During October 11 comments at the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America, Morales said that over an unspecified period of time, “We have arrested almost 100 people highly linked to terrorist groups, specifically ISIS. We have not only detained them in our territory, they have also been deported to their countries of origin.” His statement received little attention at the time, but it was reported in the Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre.

But the next week, as the caravan of migrants entered Guatemala and Trump followed Fox in trying to turn it into an election issue, Judicial Watch, a conservative organization that produces investigations geared to benefit the president, seized on the Prensa Libre article. “In a startling revelation, Guatemala’s president announced in the country’s largest newspaper that nearly 100 ISIS terrorists have been apprehended in the impoverished Central American nation,” the group reported on October 18. “Why should Americans care about this? A caravan of Central American migrants is making its way north.” Their report came as conservatives were fixating on the caravan -- that morning Trump had tweeted that the caravan was a “Democrat Party led … assault on our country” that would allow “CRIMINALS” to enter the U.S.

Judicial Watch had similarly stoked fears of ISIS terrorists entering the U.S. leading up to the 2014 midterms, when the group originated the myth that ISIS fighters had been caught crossing the Mexican border into Texas -- a conspiracy theory that was promoted at the time by Fox and Trump.

Conservative media outlets -- particularly fringy pro-Trump ones like Infowars, WND, and Gateway Pundit -- picked up the Judicial Watch report about Morales’ remarks late last week and adopted the group’s framing, highlighting the potential danger to Americans if ISIS had infiltrated the caravan.

Then on Monday morning, the story jumped from fringe websites to Fox & Friends, the morning broadcast on the nation’s most-watched cable news network, as the program's commentators repeatedly stoked fears about ISIS potentially infiltrating the caravan. Co-host Pete Hegseth, who had been considered for a cabinet slot in the Trump administration, embellished the story by falsely claiming that Morales had said the ISIS members had been arrested while trying to join the caravan.

“You got the president of Guatemala saying to a local newspaper down there just last week, they caught over a hundred ISIS fighters in Guatemala trying to use this caravan or other processes,” he said. At that point, co-host Steve Doocy interrupted, asking, “Are we sure that’s true?” Hegseth replied, “He talked to their local newspaper, we don't know it, it hasn't been verified. But even one poison pill is too many in a caravan.”

Virtually the only true thing Hegseth said was that Fox hadn’t verified the story. Morales' comments had nothing to do with the caravan, which did not form until the next day. He did not even talk to a local newspaper, as Hegseth claimed, but rather made the comments in a public speech on which the newspaper reported.

But the president of the United States regularly watches Fox & Friends, and a few hours later, he chimed in, going even further than Hegseth’s falsehood in claiming that “unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in” to the caravan and falsely blaming Democrats for the migrants:

The president’s casual lie that terrorists have infiltrated the caravan will likely become a regular talking point as Trump attempts to weaponize racist fears of migrants in order to get his voters to the polls. Fox and the president are teaming up, terrorizing his voters in an effort to prevent a historic wipeout in the midterms and preserve the Republican congressional majorities.