Donald Trump has always had a thing for conspiracy theories, but the one he promoted overnight was far-fetched even by his standards.
In a tweet that seemingly came out of nowhere, the US President suggested shocking footage of a 75-year-old protester being shoved over by police during demonstrations in Buffalo, New York, was “a set-up”.
Mr Trump cast suspicion on the man, saying he “could be an Antifa provocateur”, had appeared to “scan police communications in order to black out the equipment”, and “fell harder than he was pushed”.
Antifa – an abbreviation for anti-fascist – is a loosely defined far-left group the President has blamed for much of the violence during Americans’ protests against racial discrimination and police brutality.
“Our nation has been gripped by professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, Antifa and others,” Mr Trump said during a controversial address at the White House last week.
“I want the organisers of this terror to be on notice that you will face severe criminal penalties and lengthy sentences in jail. This includes Antifa and others who are leading instigators of this violence.
“The violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly.”
Since then, the media has got its hands on an internal FBI report which found there was no intelligence indicating Antifa’s involvement in the violence.
There is certainly nothing linking the protester in question here, Martin Gugino, to the group.
Mr Gugino is a reasonably well known peace activist. He’s affiliated with PUSH Buffalo, an organisation which offers affordable housing, and the Western New York Peace Centre, which is a human rights group. He is also a Catholic volunteer.
The footage of police pushing him over, then leaving him to bleed onto the pavement from a head wound, caused widespread outrage late last week.
Mr Gugino is still in hospital, though he’s out of intensive care. His lawyer Kelly Zarcone issued a statement in response to Mr Trump’s theorising today.
“Martin is out of ICU but still hospitalised and truly needs to rest,” Ms Zarcone told TMZ.
“Martin has always been a peaceful protester because he cares about today’s society. (Martin) is also a typical western New Yorker who loves his family.
“No one from law enforcement has even suggested anything otherwise, so we are at a loss to understand why the President of the United States would make such dark, dangerous, and untrue accusations against him.”
Others were not so measured in their response. Among them was the Democratic Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo.
“You read his tweets, you get a point where you say, ‘Nothing could surprise me. I have seen it all.’ And then you get surprised again. You get shocked again. You get disgusted again,” Mr Cuomo said.
“President of the United States is supposed to be a responsible position, and a responsible person.
“What do you think, it was staged? Do you think the blood coming out of his head was staged? Is that what you’re saying?” he asked.
“You saw his head hit the pavement. You see blood on the pavement. ‘Maybe he fell harder than he was pushed?’ How reckless, how irresponsible, how mean, how crude. I mean, if there was ever a reprehensible, dumb comment.
“If he ever feels a moment of decency, he should apologise for that tweet, because it is wholly unacceptable. Not a piece of proof; totally, personally disparaging; and in a moment when the man is still in hospital.
“Show some decency, show some humanity.”
So, the immediate question is obvious – where the heck did Mr Trump’s conspiracy theory come from, given there was no evidence to back it up? Reporters in the United States have tracked it to its source.
The President appears to have picked it up from a report by the One America News Network, an ultra right-wing TV channel known for being pro-Trump – and for spreading bizarre conspiracy theories.
His tweet came immediately on the heels of a broadcast by OANN, which speculated Mr Gugino had been trying to “blackout police communications” with his phone when he approached the officers.
“A new report finds the latest tensions at the Buffalo Police Department could be a result of a false flag provocation by far-left group Antifa,” OANN said.
“According to The Conservative Treehouse (on) Saturday, 75-year-old protester Martin Gugino, shoved by the Buffalo police at last week’s protest, is a well known activist, bragging on social media about far-left views.”
OANN said Mr Gugino had been “referred to as an agitator”. Then its report got even wilder.
“Newly released videos appear to show Gugino using a police tracker on his phone, trying to scan police communications during the protest. The tactic, known as skimming, is an old trick used by Antifa to locate police officers and plan violent activities, bypassing the police response,” it said.
“In addition, the 75-year-old, who’s been referred to as an agitator, was supposedly using the technology to blackout police communications.”
If you watch the footage of the incident closely you will see Mr Gugino holding his phone while speaking and gesturing at police. There is nothing to suggest he’s “skimming” them.
We should also note that, in the US, anyone with a police scanner app on their phone is able to listen to police communications without any need to approach the cops in person.
Concluding its report, OANN accused the mainstream media of failing to “acknowledge the controversy” and continuing to “push the narrative of so-called police brutality”.
The story was narrated by Kristian Rouz, a Russian national who used to be employed by Sputnik, which has been described as “the Kremlin’s official propaganda outlet”.
Mr Trump frequently praises and promotes OANN on his Twitter feed, and this isn’t the first time he has shared one of its more outlandish theories.
The network has frequently boosted the idea that officials in the outgoing Obama administration “spied” on Mr Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 in an attempt to sabotage him. In recent months, the President himself has fully seized on that theory, labelling it “Obamagate”.
It’s also worth noting that Mr Trump already had a long history of spreading conspiracy theories before OANN rose to prominence.
During Barack Obama’s presidency, he was a leading proponent of the theory that Mr Obama was not an American citizen. He claimed to have hired private investigators to look into the matter, and at one point said they “could not believe what they’re finding”.
Mr Obama eventually released his long-form birth certificate to put the theory to bed. Mr Trump reacted by questioning its authenticity.
When he was competing for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, Mr Trump suggested the father of one of his opponents, Ted Cruz, had been involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. As we mentioned earlier, that claim was echoed by The Enquirer.
The Cruz campaign denounced the claim as “garbage”.
During the general election campaign, Mr Trump fomented false rumours the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, was suffering from a debilitating illness. Four years later, she is still alive and seemingly well.
And he rehashed an old conspiracy theory about the death of former Clinton aide Vince Foster, who took his own life in 1993, saying it was “very fishy”.
In the wake of billionaire paedophile Jeffrey Epstein’s death in prison, Mr Trump spread the theory that the Clintons were involved.
And he has spent much of his presidency dabbling in the repeatedly debunked theory that a Democratic National Committee server, supposedly containing evidence that Russia was framed for interfering in the 2016 election, is hidden somewhere in Ukraine.
Republican politicians spent most of today trying to avoid commenting on Mr Trump’s latest theory. Only a handful agreed to speak to reporters.
“I saw the tweet. It was a shocking thing to say, and I won’t dignify it with any further comment,” said Senator Mitt Romney, a frequent critic of the President.
“Oh lord. Ugh. Again, why would you fan the flames? That’s all I’m going to say,” said his colleague Lisa Murkowski.
“I think it would be best if the President did not comment on issues that are before the courts,” said Susan Collins.
“Most of us up here would rather not be political commentators on the President’s tweets,” said John Thune, though he did acknowledge Mr Trump had made a “serious accusation”.
“Voters can evaluate that. I’m not going to give a running commentary on the President’s tweets,” said Lamar Alexander.
Others claimed they had not seen the tweet.
“I didn’t see it. I saw that he did fall and my heart goes out to anybody who gets hurt. Right now this is a tough time. I hope everybody understands that we can peacefully protest but we can’t riot,” said Florida’s Rick Scott.
“I didn’t see it. You’re telling me about it. I don’t read Twitter, I only write on it,” said fellow Floridian Marco Rubio.
Still more Republicans, among them senators Kelly Loeffler and Cory Gardner, refused to comment at all.