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After Epstein's suicide, Trump boosts conspiracy theories flourishing online

Many of the theories ventured into the realm of outlandish conjecture, amplified by conservative commentators and President Donald Trump himself.
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The world of social media — already awash in conspiracy thinking in the Trump era — erupted with new theories Saturday after the news broke that Jeffrey Epstein had died by suicide under mysterious circumstances in his jail cell.

One of the prime movers was President Donald Trump, who retweeted a post by the conservative comedian Terrence K. Williams suggesting that Epstein was dead because he "had information on Bill Clinton."

"I see #TrumpBodyCount trending but we know who did this!" wrote Williams, who is a headliner on the Deplorables Comedy Tour, which promises to "unleash the conservative mindset, transcending politics and unabashedly mocking liberals."

"RT if you're not Surprised," Williams wrote.

And the president did, giving a boost to one of many theories that ventured into the realm of outlandish conjecture, amplified by other conservative commentators and at least two other Republican officials.

Many people who have spent the last few years blaming the nation's problems on either the Clinton or the Trump administrations found new reasons to pin Epstein's death on their favorite targets — despite a complete lack of evidence at this point explaining how Epstein was able to kill himself.

The conspiracies spanned a wide range of topics from Epstein's connections to Trump and the Clinton family to fringe theories including QAnon. Others simply questioned the circumstances around Epstein's death.

Travis View, an independent conspiracy theory researcher, said Saturday's news sparked a significant wave of activity from various conspiracy threads — and offered evidence of just how widely embraced conspiracy theories have become.

"There's an outpouring of conspiracy theories as a consequence of his suicide," View said. "The fringe conspiracies of two decades ago are touching the mainstream now, where even lawyers and people who are otherwise close to the Republican Party feel very comfortable asserting these types of theories."

By midmorning on the East Coast, a hashtag related to a conspiracy about the Clinton family had begun to trend on Twitter. Similar topics are well known by disinformation researchers to get promotion from foreign influence campaigns that seek to promote misinformation and to elevate divisive topics. A spokesperson for Twitter told NBC News that the trends were due to organic conversation and that the company was monitoring the situation.

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Epstein's arrest for federal sex trafficking had already provided a boost to conspiracy theories that had at times waned after other theories related to former special counsel Robert Mueller had failed to materialize.

Epstein's death was quickly seized on by an editor for conservative news website The Blaze, conservative radio hosts, a Florida Republican Party official and a Trump appointee, all of whom sought to connect the suicide to the Clinton family. Lynne Patton, a regional administrator for the Department of Housing and Urban Development appointed by Trump, referred to the Clinton-based conspiracy theory on her Instagram account.

Epstein is known to have had a relationship with politicians including former President Bill Clinton, who flew on Epstein's planes numerous times, according to flight records. Trump has also been found to have flown on one of Epstein's planes at least once, and video has emerged of Epstein and Trump partying together at Mar-a-Lago, Trump's Florida mansion.

Conspiracy theories related to the Clintons have flourished on the far right for years and received some promotion from mainstream conservatives.

On Saturday, even some non-political public figures, mainstream journalists and media figures voiced doubt as to whether Epstein had killed himself or suggested that he was allowed to do so. MSNBC host Joe Scarborough called the news "bulls---" and invoked the possibility of Russian involvement. Vanity Fair special correspondent Gabe Sherman tweeted that an investigation would need to determine whether Epstein's death was a suicide or "a hit."

Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, tweeted that Epstein's suicide was an "impossibility."

That trend was lamented by other journalists.

"Is it just me? Or are a lot of very respectable journalists publicly jumping to conclusions based on no actual information," tweeted Vivian Schiller, former chief executive of National Public Radio. Schiller was also previously chief digital officer for NBC News.

Some conservatives who have been staunch critics of the Clintons pushed back against the conspiracy narrative. Conservative commentator and author Ann Coulter mocked the conspiracy attempt.

The FBI's Phoenix field office recently warned about the risk of violence perpetrated by people motivated in part by conspiracy theories.