Trump Pushes a Conspiracy Theory That Falsely Accuses a TV Host of Murder

WASHINGTON — President Trump smeared a prominent television host on Tuesday from the lectern in the Rose Garden with an unfounded allegation of murder, taking the politics of rage and conspiracy theory to a new level even as much of the political world barely took notice.

In an attack that once would have been unthinkable for a sitting president, Mr. Trump all but accused Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman who now hosts the MSNBC show “Morning Joe,” of killing a staff member in 2001 even though he was 800 miles away at the time and the police ruled her death an accident.

The president’s charge amplified a series of Twitter messages in recent days that have drawn almost no rebukes from fellow Republicans eager to look the other way but have anguished the family of Lori Klausutis, who died when she suffered a heart condition that caused her to fall and hit her head on a desk. Mr. Trump doubled down on the false accusation even after Timothy Klausutis pleaded unsuccessfully with Twitter to take down the posts about his late wife because they were causing her family such deep pain.

“A lot of people suggest that and hopefully someday people are going to find out,” the president said when asked by reporters about his tweets suggesting that Mr. Scarborough had committed murder perhaps because of an affair with Ms. Klausutis. “It’s certainly a very suspicious situation. Very sad, very sad and very suspicious.”

Mr. Trump brushed aside the widower’s letter asking that the family be left alone. “I’m sure that, ultimately, they want to get to the bottom of it and it’s a very serious situation,” the president said of Ms. Klausutis’s relatives, calling on law enforcement to investigate. “As you know, there’s no statute of limitations. So, it would be a very good, very good thing to do.”

Mr. Scarborough said the president was being “cruel and callous” by making an innocent family the collateral damage of his war against critics. “The widower of a woman who died 19 years ago begged the president of the United States to stop torturing him and his family,” Mr. Scarborough said in an interview. “And yet he continues to torment this family and even went to Twitter accusing Lori of having an affair that resulted in her death.”

Mr. Scarborough was in Washington when Ms. Klausutis, who was 28, died at a district office in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. The police found no sign of foul play, and the coroner concluded she had an undiagnosed heart condition that caused her fall.

The latest burst of wild allegations and fact-free innuendo came at a time when Mr. Trump has appeared eager to redirect attention away from the continuing coronavirus pandemic that has claimed the lives of nearly 100,000 people in the United States and cratered the American economy. Among other things on Tuesday, he boasted about the rising stock market and tried to sow doubt about the results of the coming fall election that polls currently show he would lose, saying, “This will be a Rigged Election.”

In a first, Twitter late Tuesday attached “get the facts” warnings to two tweets in which Mr. Trump made false claims about voter fraud in California, and directed readers to fact-checking notes, a remarkable declaration by one of the nation’s leading technology companies that the president cannot be trusted. But Twitter did not take down the tweets about Mr. Scarborough despite the request from Mr. Klausutis.

“I’m asking you to intervene in this instance because the president of the United States has taken something that does not belong to him — the memory of my dead wife — and perverted it for perceived political gain,” Mr. Klausutis, 52, wrote in a letter to Jack Dorsey, the company’s chief executive. “My wife deserves better.”

In the letter, Mr. Klausutis said Mr. Trump had violated Twitter’s terms of service by falsely suggesting that Mr. Scarborough killed Ms. Klausutis in 2001 when he was a Florida congressman and she was a constituent services staff member in one of his district offices.

“An ordinary user like me would be banished from the platform for such a tweet,” Mr. Klausutis wrote in the letter, which was written last week and published on Tuesday by Kara Swisher, a New York Times opinion writer, “but I am only asking that these tweets be removed.”

Twitter said Mr. Trump’s tweets did not violate the company’s terms of service, even though its policies say users “may not engage in the targeted harassment of someone, or incite other people to do so.” Instead, it offered words of sympathy for Mr. Klausutis.

“We are deeply sorry about the pain these statements, and the attention they are drawing, are causing the family,” Nick Pacilio, a Twitter spokesman, said in a statement. “We’ve been working to expand existing product features and policies so we can more effectively address things like this going forward, and we hope to have those changes in place shortly.”

But raising murder allegations against a television host who has angered him once again gave the impression of a president willing to say almost anything no matter how inflammatory or untrue, even at the cost of reopening old wounds of a family uninterested in being used as a weapon in his political battles.

While once friendly with Mr. Scarborough and his fellow host and wife, Mika Brzezinski, Mr. Trump has long been exercised by their on-air criticisms and regularly attacked them. He raised Ms. Klausutis’s death as far back as 2017 but in recent days has repeatedly and relentlessly hammered at it even as Mr. Scarborough and Ms. Brzezinski have been criticizing his handling of the pandemic.

“So a young marathon runner just happened to faint in his office, hit her head on his desk, & die?” he wrote on Sunday. “I would think there is a lot more to this story than that? An affair? What about the so-called investigator?”

Mr. Trump persisted on Tuesday. “In 2016 when Joe & his wacky future ex-wife, Mika, would endlessly interview me, I would always be thinking about whether or not Joe could have done such a horrible thing?” he wrote. “Maybe or maybe not, but I find Joe to be a total Nut Job, and I knew him well, far better than most. So many unanswered & obvious questions, but I won’t bring them up now! Law enforcement eventually will?”

Other Republicans have largely kept quiet about the matter. Spokespeople for Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leaders in Congress, did not respond to requests for comments. Neither did spokespeople for Florida’s Republican leaders, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, Senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio and Representative Matt Gaetz.

One of the only Republicans to object has been Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who responded to one of the president’s tweets over the weekend. “Completely unfounded conspiracy,” Mr. Kinzinger wrote. “Just stop. Stop spreading it, stop creating paranoia. It will destroy us.”

In the interview, Mr. Scarborough compared the attacks on him to how authoritarian leaders like President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary try to silence dissenting journalists through made-up criminal investigations.

“It’s remarkable that we have a president who is trying to have someone prosecute the person he considers to be his chief critic in the media,” Mr. Scarborough said. “That’s what Putin does. That’s what Orban does. That’s what autocrats have been doing for centuries.”

At a briefing, Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, pressed by reporters, offered no evidence to back up the president’s insinuations. Instead, she essentially justified them by saying that Mr. Scarborough had been critical of Mr. Trump.

“If we want to start talking about false accusations, we have quite a few we can go through,” she said. “Mika accused the president of being responsible for 100,000 deaths in this country. That’s incredibly irresponsible. They’ve dragged his family through the mud. They’ve made false accusations that I won’t go through that I would not say from this podium against the president of the United States and they should be held to account for their falsehoods.”

Among the other “falsehoods” she mentioned was Mr. Scarborough saying that people could die by taking hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug Mr. Trump has promoted as a remedy for the coronavirus that in fact doctors say could kill patients with heart conditions.

Ms. McEnany also accused Mr. Scarborough of having “joked about killing an intern” during an appearance years ago on Don Imus’s radio show in 2003. (Ms. Klausutis was not an intern, nor was she a marathon runner.) In fact, it was Mr. Imus who made a joke about having sex with an intern and killing her. Mr. Scarborough did not engage on the subject, but laughed and said, “Exactly. What are you going to do?”

Ms. Brzezinski, responding on Twitter, said that Ms. McEnany was “lying” about the nature of the 2003 clip, and that Mr. Scarborough “was embarrassed” by Mr. Imus’s “callous joke” and was trying to move the conversation along.

Like Mr. Klausutis, Mr. Scarborough and Ms. Brzezinski have been in touch with Twitter officials about the president’s tweets.

Mr. Dorsey did not personally respond to Mr. Klausutis’s letter on Tuesday. But Twitter has long been hesitant to remove posts from world leaders, even when they contain disinformation, on the grounds that posts from leaders are newsworthy.

There have been exceptions, especially during the coronavirus pandemic: In March, Twitter deleted posts by Presidents Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil in which they promoted unproven cures for the coronavirus. But it has not deleted any of Mr. Trump’s posts.

Mr. Dorsey has faced multiple calls over the years to remove Mr. Trump’s misleading or false statements from the platform, including the president’s suggestion during a White House briefing last month that injecting disinfectant or using ultraviolet light could combat the coronavirus. Although Mr. Trump did not write about those subjects on Twitter himself, his statements led to a flood of other posts, videos and comments about false virus cures, which Twitter and other social media companies largely left standing.

Twitter clarified its policy this month, stating that it would label tweets containing misinformation about the virus, including those posted by world leaders, with three broad categories: “misleading information,” “disputed claim” and “unverified claim.”

In his letter, Mr. Klausutis said that nearly two decades after his wife’s death, his family had been deeply hurt by the persistence of the conspiracy theory, which originated on the political left when Mr. Scarborough was a Republican and then migrated to the political right when he began to shift politically.

“As her husband, I feel that one of my marital obligations is to protect her memory as I would have protected her in life,” he wrote. “There has been a constant barrage of falsehoods, half-truths, innuendo and conspiracy theories since the day she died. I realize that may sound like an exaggeration, unfortunately it is the verifiable truth. Because of this, I have struggled to move forward with my life.”

Peter Baker reported from Washington, and Maggie Astor from New York. Davey Alba contributed reporting from New York.

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