President Donald Trump tweeted a conspiracy theory Tuesday about a Buffalo man injured by police that has circulated around fringe, far-right online media in recent days, adding to efforts from the president and other conservatives to cast protesters as part of a shadowy "antifa" movement.
Trump suggested that Martin Gugino, 75, who is in serious but stable condition in a Buffalo hospital after being pushed by two police officers at a protest, may be an "ANTIFA provocateur" who was "scanning" police equipment when he was pushed.
The video of Gugino became one of the most-viewed examples of police violence related to the recent protests.
"Buffalo protester shoved by Police could be an ANTIFA provocateur. 75 year old Martin Gugino was pushed away after appearing to scan police communications in order to black out the equipment. @OANN I watched, he fell harder than was pushed. Was aiming scanner. Could be a set up?" the president tweeted.
Trump's claims appeared to have been ripped from a conspiracy theory that aired Tuesday morning on One America News Network, a far-right cable news channel. The theory was originally posted to an anonymous conservative blog.
One America News Network claimed that Gugino, an activist from a Buffalo suburb, was using "common antifa tactics" when he was pushed by police. OANN reporter Kristian Rouz said the incident "could be the result of a false flag provocation by far-left group antifa."
Rouz claimed that "newly released video" showed Gugino "using a police tracker on his phone." The video is not newly released — merely slowed down — and it does not show Gugino using a "police tracker." Rouz called it an "old trick used by antifa" without providing evidence or other examples.
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Trump and many of his supporters have claimed with little evidence that antifa has been executing plans to cause unrest and spark violence during recent protests. Antifa, a loosely organized network of groups that use direct action to confront far-right and fascist groups, in reality has been found to have little involvement with the protests despite rumors circulating online and claims from some law enforcement officials.
Rouz, who previously worked for the Russian state media organization Sputnik, has a record of pushing baseless conspiracy theories on OANN. Last month, Rouz claimed that the coronavirus was a plot for "population control" by George Soros, Bill Gates, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Bill and Hillary Clinton and China.
Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA officer whose portfolio included Russia, said Trump was "giving a gift to the Russians."
"It's bad enough what he said," Polymeropoulos said. "But it's pretty shocking that he would quote from a known propaganda arm of Russian intelligence."
Rouz's report about Gugino cited an article from Conservative Treehouse, a far-right blog that frequently posts conspiracy theories. The blog post claims without evidence that Gugino is a "75-year-old professional agitator and Antifa provocateur" who "was attempting to capture the radio communications signature of Buffalo police officers." The Conservative Treehouse post is written by a user named "Sundance," who cites their own Twitter thread as proof of the conspiracy theory.
Gugino was pushed by two Buffalo police officers and fell, appearing to hit his head hard enough to bleed from the ears as officers passed by. The two officers seen pushing Gugino, Aaron Torgalski and Robert McCabe, were suspended without pay and charged with second-degree assault. They have pleaded not guilty.
Gugino's attorney released a statement Friday requesting "privacy for himself and his family as he recovers."
Despite repeated claims by the president, Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray, "antifa" was not mentioned in the first 22 criminal cases brought against protesters nationwide. False rumors of buses full of antifa members marauding through towns have, however, flooded community groups on Facebook, police tip lines and group text messages throughout the country. One of the most widespread rumors was created by a white nationalist group posing as antifa, Twitter told NBC News.
Shortly after the president's tweet, Republican National Committee spokesperson Elizabeth Harrington posted an even more elaborate conspiracy theory about Gugino's fall on her Twitter account, linking to a baseless article claiming that Gugino was using prop blood attached to an elaborate device. She later deleted the tweet.
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown responded to Trump on Twitter, saying that "the City of Buffalo is laser focused on healing, taking action against racial injustice and building a good future for our residents. We pray for a full recovery for Mr. Gugino and as I have repeatedly said, the two officers deserve due process."
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also weighed in, saying that there was no factual basis for the tweet and that Trump should apologize.
"How reckless. How irresponsible. How mean. How crude. I mean, if there was ever a reprehensible, dumb comment," Cuomo said. "And from the president of the United States."