Media Highlight Trump's Role In Mainstreaming Conspiracy Theories Surrounding Scalia's Death

Media Highlight Trump's Role In Mainstreaming Conspiracy Theories Surrounding Scalia's Death

››› ››› JULIE ALDERMAN

Media are pointing out and criticizing Donald Trump's role in mainstreaming conspiracy theories that Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered, saying Trump "has elevated those ideas and made them a part of the mainstream discourse" and is "engag[ing] with the ugly, irrational underbelly of far right-wing politics."

Trump Entertains Right-Wing Media Conspiracy Theories About Scalia's Death

Radio Host Michael Savage And Donald Trump Hype Theories Over The Placement Of Scalia's Pillow And His Death. On the February 15 edition of The Savage Nation, Donald Trump and Michael Savage fueled conspiracy theories that Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered. Trump pointed to a report that said a pillow was found on Scalia's face, saying that "is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow":

MICHAEL SAVAGE (HOST): Donald I need to come back to the topic we've been all screaming about here which is Scalia, was he murdered? I know it's pretty brutal to say that and I'm not wanting to drag you into this but this is going to get bigger and bigger and bigger. I went on the air and said we need the equivalent of a Warren Commission, we need an immediate autopsy before the body is disposed of. What do you think of that? 

DONALD TRUMP: Well I just heard today and that just a little while ago actually -- you know I just landed and I'm hearing it's a big topic -- that's 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 what -- I can't give you an answer. You know usually I like to give you answers but I literally just heard it a little while ago. It's just starting to come out now, as you know, Michael.

SAVAGE: Well I've been covering it for an hour and a half, there's a lot more to it than that. There was no medical examiner present, there was no one who declared the death who was there, it was done by telephone from a U.S. marshal, appointed by Obama himself. So let me not try to drag you into something you haven't studied because I don't think it would be fair to you and to the audience. I think after you look into these facts, Donald, you yourself will have to come to some different conclusions than you may think. [Cumulus Media Networks, The Savage Nation2/15/16]

Trump Calls Michael Gallagher's Concerns About The Lack Of An Autopsy In Scalia's Death "Big Stuff." On the February 15 edition of The Mike Gallagher Show, Gallagher stated that neither he nor Trump were a "conspiracy theorist," but then speculated that it was "peculiar that there doesn't seem to be an autopsy planned" for Justice Scalia. Trump did not refute Gallagher, saying it was "interesting" and "big stuff":

MIKE GALLAGHER (HOST): I have to say, and my audience, the phone lines are burning up and people are questioning the circumstances behind Justice Scalia's death and you know, this is a beloved man -- a husband, father, grandfather, found lying in bed with a pillow over his head. It's all over the Drudge Report. I'm not a conspiracy theorist, I don't think you are either, but boy it seems peculiar that there doesn't seem to be an autopsy planned --

DONALD TRUMP: Wow.

GALLAGHER: -- for the death of such an important person. I mean -- this is, like, pretty shocking stuff, don't you think?

TRUMP: Well I had just heard this from you, Mike, that's interesting. This is the new theory that came out as of this morning.

GALLAGHER: Well it is and the owner of the ranch, he was quoted as having found Justice Scalia in bed. There were no marshals, he had no protection, and he was found according to the owner of the ranch with a pillow over his head, looking like peaceful repose. He was declared dead over the phone by a justice of the peace who was not even there in person. There's just -- it just seems to me that if there was a liberal Supreme Court justice who passed away and we would have this debate on the other side, there would be cries for an investigation --

TRUMP: Wow.

GALLAGHER: -- an autopsy. I mean no autopsy being planned?

TRUMP: That's big stuff. Especially since it's really the turn of the court. You know, you're really talking about the balance of the court, that's big stuff. Wow.

GALLAGHER: This is history, this is history, it's huge.

TRUMP: That'll be a new topic. That'll be a new topic --

GALLAGHER: Well, yeah, I hope you have a chance to look into it.

TRUMP: -- to increase your ratings even further.

GALLAGHER: Yeah, and maybe spend some time on it as you delve into that. [Salem Radio Network, The Mike Gallagher Show2/15/16]

Media Highlight Trump's Role In Mainstreaming The Conspiracy Theories

MSNBC's Chris Hayes: Spreading Scalia Conspiracy Theories Is "The Latest Sign Of Trump's Willingness To Engage With The Ugly, Irrational Underbelly Of Far Right-Wing Politics." On the February 16 edition of MSNBC's All In, host Chris Hayes criticized Trump for entertaining the conspiracy theories about Scalia's death, pointing out "there's reason to believe the Scalia family, as you might expect, might find the conspiracy theory pretty offensive." Hayes said Trump's openness to this conspiracy theory is "the latest sign of Trump's willingness to engage with the ugly, irrational underbelly for far right-wing politics":

CHRIS HAYES: There`s a new conspiracy theory going around in the furthest recesses of the right-wing fever swamp popularized by the likes of InfoWars and even the Drudge Report, suggesting that because Antonin Scalia was reportedly found dead with a pillow over his face, because he wasn`t pronounced dead and had no autopsy performed, the only logical conclusion is foul play. Let`s be clear here, there`s zero evidence to substantiate this theory. And according to Matt Pierce of the LA Times, the man who found Scalia said the pillow was not actually on his face, but between his head and the headboard. On top of that, there`s reason to believe the Scalia family, as you might expect, might find the conspiracy theory pretty offensive. That didn`t stop the Republican presidential front-runner from doing an interview with one of the theory`s most high profile proponents, talk radio host Michael Savage. It`s the latest sign of Trump`s willingness to engage with the ugly, irrational underbelly of far right-wing politics. And America`s most famous birther is open to questions about what befell the Supreme Court justice. [MSNBC, All In with Chris Hayes2/16/16]

The Daily Beast: By Giving Credence To Conspiracy Theories, Trump "Has Elevated Those Ideas And Made Them A Part Of The Mainstream Discourse." A February 17 Daily Beast article stated "Trump further solidified his credentials among the tinfoil hat electorate" by giving credence to conspiracy theories surrounding Scalia's death. The Daily Beast pointed out that "Trump's entire career in politics has been spent batting around" conspiracy theories, and "due to his popularity, he has elevated those ideas and made them a part of the mainstream discourse":

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.

[...]

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. [The Daily Beast, 2/17/16]

LA Times: "Trump Seized OnAmbiguous Comment In Reporting On Scalia's Death To Hype Conspiracy Theories. In a February 17 article, LA Times national reporter Matt Pearce explained that "Trump seized on" an "ambiguous remark" from the owner of the ranch in Texas where Scalia died to hype conspiracy theories surrounding his death. Pearce pointed out that it was no matter that the owner of the ranch "later clarified his remark":

He was 79 with high blood pressure, and his health was deemed too precarious for shoulder surgery.

Yet the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is getting the full conspiracy theory treatment. For that, the blame starts with a Texas law that allows presiding judges without medical expertise to determine a cause of death and decide whether an autopsy is needed -- even without viewing a body.

Add to the mix an ambiguous remark from the Texas millionaire who found the justice dead, a comment from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and speculation from conservative media figures.

Scalia was staying near the Mexican border at a remote Presidio County ranch owned by John Poindexter, who went looking for the justice when he didn't show up for breakfast Saturdaymorning. He found Scalia dead in his room.

"We discovered the judge in bed, a pillow over his head," Poindexter told the San Antonio Express-News.

Trump seized on the comment, taking it to mean that a pillow had been found over Scalia's face.

"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," Trump said in an interview Monday with conservative radio host Michael Savage.

[...]

No matter that Poindexter later clarified his remark. The pillow was between Scalia's head and the headboard, the Texas businessman told The Times on Tuesday.

Scalia looked peaceful, "almost as if a model had been put in the bed," he said.  [Los Angeles Times2/17/16]

Wash. Post's The Fix: "Confusion Over The Exact Circumstances" Of Scalia's Death "Quickly Developed Into A Full-Fledged Conspiracy Theory," Which Was Hyped By Trump. A February 17 article for the Washington Post blog The Fix, explained that "some confusion over the exact circumstances" of Scalia's death "quickly developed into a full-fledged conspiracy theory" which "jump[ed] quickly ... to the Republican front-runner for the party's presidential nomination":

Justice Antonin Scalia was found dead in a bed at a resort in Texas on Saturday morning. As The Washington Post reported on Sunday, there was some confusion over the exact circumstances of his death, although his doctor indicated that he "suffered from a host of chronic conditions."

That gauziness quickly developed into a full-fledged conspiracy theory over the cause of Scalia's death, jumping quickly from the expected vector of universal conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to conservative talk radio to the Republican front-runner for the party's presidential nomination. Asked about Scalia by Michael Savage on Monday, Donald Trump replied that "they say they found a pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow."

The pillow is integral to this plot, whatever the plot happens to be. It appears to stem from a quote from the resort's owner reported by the San Antonio Express-News. "We discovered the judge in bed, a pillow over his head," owner John Poindexter told the paper. "His bed clothes were unwrinkled."

A pillow over his head -- but no autopsy, as The Post reported? A judge who declared Scalia dead without seeing the body?

First of all, the pillow thing appears to have been a misunderstanding. The sheriff of Presidio County, Danny Dominguez, clarified in an interview with the Daily Mail. (Calls to Dominguez from The Post were not returned by deadline.) "[Scalia] was just lying on the bed with a pillow above his head," Dominguez said, with our added emphasis. "Everything seemed normal and he was just there lying down. There was no sign of a struggle, no wrinkles in the cover or on the pillow either."

But, second: Doctors we spoke with suggested that finding a 79-year-old man dead in bed was hardly abnormal -- even if there were a pillow over his head. [The Washington Post, The Fix, 2/17/16]

Mother Jones: Trump "Fanned The Flames Of The Scalia Assassination Theory." In a February 16 article, Mother Jones pointed out that Donald Trump "fanned the flames of the Scalia assassination conspiracy theory" that was propelled in right-wing media. After stating the percentage of elderly men that suffer from heart disease each year, Mother Jones explained that since "Trump has weighed in, it's clear that an alternate explanation for Scalia's death -- one where the US government assassinated a Supreme Court justice and left the murder weapon on his face -- will be playing a role in the political conversation in the days and weeks to come":

On Monday, the Republican presidential front-runner fanned the flames of the Scalia assassination theory. Trump, who heads into the upcoming South Carolina primary and Nevada caucus with leads of 18.5 and 13 points, respectively, called Scalia's death "pretty unusual" during a broadcast of The Savage Nation with host and conservative commentator Michael Savage. Savage raised the possibility that Scalia had been murdered, and asked Trump whether an immediate autopsy was necessary.

"Well, I just heard today and that was just a little while ago actually--you know I just landed and I'm hearing it's a big topic--that's the question," Trump said. "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."

Twelve percent of men between the ages of 75 and 84 are diagnosed with coronary heart disease or experience a heart attack every year. But now that Trump has weighed in, it's clear that an alternate explanation for Scalia's death--one in which the US government assassinated a Supreme Court justice and left the murder weapon on his face--will be playing a role in the political conversation in the days and weeks to come. [Mother Jones2/16/16]

Vox: "Conspiracy Theory Aficionado" Donald Trump "Didn't Exactly Shut Down" Conspiracy Theories About Scalia's Death. In a February 16 article, Vox explained that when Trump was asked about conspiracy theories concerning Scalia's death, which were "swirling around" right-wing media, Trump, "a conspiracy theory aficionado," "didn't exactly shut down the speculation":

Republican frontrunner Donald Trump was asked about the conspiracy theories swirling around Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's death. And he didn't exactly shut down the speculation.

[...]

While the circumstances of Scalia's death were somewhat unusual -- he was pronounced dead over the phone -- there's little out of the ordinary about a 79-year-old man whose doctor reportedly said he had "several chronic conditions" dying in his sleep.

But we've known for a long time that Trump is a conspiracy theory aficionado. After all, the only reason he's a prominent Republican in the first place was his vocal affiliation with the "birther" movement during President Barack Obama's first term -- a view he espoused as recently as July. [Vox, 2/16/16]

San Diego Union-Tribune: Trump "Is Stoking The Fires" Of Conspiracy Theories Surrounding Scalia's Death. In a February 16 article, the San Diego Union-Tribune pointed out that Donald Trump "is stoking the fires of another controversy after he advanced the notion that ... Scalia was murdered":

Donald Trump, the famous birther and flag bearer of the failed "President-Obama-wasn't-born-in-the-United-States-so-he-can't-be-president" movement is stoking the fires of another controversy after he advanced the notion that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered.

[...]

Trump was a guest Monday on "The Savage Nation" radio show on which host Michael Savage had already declared that U.S. government officials were "corrupt enough" to kill Scalia whose death "stinks to high heaven."

Savage asked the GOP frontrunner if he would support a "Warren Commission" type investigation into Scalia's death.

Trump replied that he was just hearing about the pillow thing, but that "it was pretty unusual." [The San Diego Union-Tribune2/16/16]

CBS' Charlie Rose: Some Of The Conspiracy Theories "Have Been Fueled By Comments From Donald Trump." In a report on the February 17 edition of CBS This Morning, host Charlie Rose explained that some of the conspiracy theories about Scalia's death "have been fueled by comments from Donald Trump." Correspondent Jan Crawford pointed out that twice this week "Trump expressed skepticism about how Justice Scalia died":

CHARLIE ROSE: The Los Angeles Times is looking at conspiracy theories about the circumstances of Justice Antonin Scalia's death. Some of them have been fueled by comments from Donald Trump. Jan Crawford is at the Supreme Court showing how confusion and lingering doubts got Trump's attention. Jan, good morning.

JAN CRAWFORD: Well, yeah, these theories, Charlie, really started shortly after Scalia's death. And, you know, despite clarifications from the owner of the ranch and the judge that declared Scalia dead, they are still getting traction.

[BEGIN VIDEO]

DONALD TRUMP: They say they found a pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow.

[END VIDEO]

CRAWFORD: For the second time this week, Donald Trump expressed skepticism about how Justice Scalia died.

[BEGIN VIDEO]

MIKE GALLAGHER: I mean, no autopsy being planned.

DONALD TRUMP: You know, you're really talking about the balance of the court. That's big stuff. Wow.

GALLAGHER: This is history.

[END VIDEO] [CBS, CBS This Morning2/17/16]

CNN's Pamela Brown: Even Though Scalia's Cause Of Death Was Determined "That Didn't Stop ... Trump From Weighing In On The Conspiracy Theories." On the February 16 edition of The Lead, CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown pointed out that "even though it was determined that he died of natural causes, that didn't stop ... Donald Trump from weighing in on the conspiracy theories."  Brown explained that "any conspiracy theories are just baseless, bottom line":

PAMELA BROWN: And some questions have been raised about Justice Scalia's death, in part, because there was no autopsy done, as requested by the family. And even though it was determined that he died of natural causes, that didn't stop Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump from weighing in on the conspiracy theories.

[...]

BROWN: So, Donald Trump sort of fueling the fire there. But the owner of the ranch tells CNN that when he found Scalia, he looked like he had a restful night's sleep, there was nothing out of the ordinary. We also spoke to a law enforcement official familiar with the situation, and we've learned that there were no signs of foul play in Justice Scalia's room and, any conspiracy theories are just baseless, bottom line.

JAKE TAPPER (HOST): Yes, the owner said that the pillow was on his head, up here, not on his face.

BROWN: Yes.

TAPPER: A little different.

BROWN: That's a big detail to correct.

TAPPER: A little different. Yes. Pamela Brown, thank you. [CNN, The Lead with Jake Tapper2/16/16]

NY Times' Mark Leibovich: Trump "Propelled The Notion That" Scalia "Didn't Die By Natural Causes Entirely." On the February 17 edition of Morning JoeNew York Times Magazine chief national correspondent Mark Leibovich explained that Trump "essentially sort of propelled the notion that" Scalia "didn't die by natural causes entirely":

JOE SCARBOROUGH (HOST): Mark Leibovich, thank you for being with us. This comes in many forms, with Barack Obama and this year, let's say, Marco Rubio, you've got candidates who have a more carefully crafted image publicly. Barack Obama, I remember a lot of press people being upset that he wasn't as available for interviews when he first ran in 2008. But with Donald Trump you have a guy who's hiding in plain sight. There's hardly a TV show or a radio interviewer that he won't go before.

MARK LEIBOVICH: It's true. And it does sort of build up, I mean, again, a certain immunity and a kind of just a level of antibody where you can just keep saying things. And I think this has been an extraordinary week for Donald Trump. I mean, if you started, you know, Saturday or Sunday, over the weekend, with the debate, when everyone said, you know look, finally he's touched the third rail. He's gone to 9/11. He's gone to Iraq.

SCARBOROUGH: I mean, that's what we said, Mark.

LEIBOVICH: Right, it's unbelievable, I mean. And then you have a president coming down, campaigning against him, or the former president. Now you have the current president basically calling him out yesterday. And yet the guy keeps surviving. And missed in all of this, is we're talking about Supreme Court vacancy, and yesterday Trump essentially sort of propelled the notion that, you know, maybe Antonin Scalia was, you know, maybe he didn't die by natural causes entirely and no one's even talking about that now. So that's sort of where he has gone and where the conversation has gone at this point. [MSNBC, Morning Joe2/17/16]

CNN's Kyung Lah: Trump "Fanned Flames Of Conspiracy" About Scalia's Death. On the February 16 edition of OutFront, CNN correspondent Kyung Lah explained that Trump "fanned flames of conspiracy" that were pushed by right-wing media. Lah pointed out that "even if an independent investigation were done ... it might not still satisfy the conspiracy theorists":

KYUNG LAH: Donald Trump, heating up the latest South Carolina polls, fanned flames of conspiracy on a talk radio show, The Savage Nation.

[BEGIN VIDEO]

MICHAEL SAVAGE: We need an immediate autopsy before the body is disposed of. What do you think about that?

DONALD TRUMP: 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.

[END VIDEO]

LAH: But a pillow wasn't found on Justice Scalia's face, the owner of the ranch where Scalia died tells CNN. It was over his head. A U.S. law enforcement official tells CNN the pillow question is absolutely ridiculous.

[...]

LAH: But here's something important to remember. We live in an Internet age that questions the validity of every single major news event. So even if an independent investigation were done, even if it were completely transparent, Erin, it might still not satisfy the conspiracy theorists -- Erin.

ERIN BURNETT (HOST): Nothing ever seems to satisfy people in that camp. [CNN, Erin Burnett OutFront2/16/16]

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