After pipe bombs were reportedly mailed to a number of Democratic leaders and CNN's New York office this week, the FBI announced it was launching an investigation into the situation. But that hasn't stopped Republicans, or in this case, members of the president's own family, from promoting false theories. On Thursday afternoon, Donald Trump Jr. like a "false flag" conspiracy tweet that claimed the pipe bombs were a fake ploy to garner "sympathy vote[s]" from Democrats.
"BREAKING: WHITE POWDER IN BOMBS NOT BIOLOGICAL OR DANGEROUS. LIKELY BABY POWDER," the tweet, from a user called "USA NEWS" reads. "FAKE BOMBS MADE TO SCARE AND PICK UP BLUE SYMPATHY VOTE." The tweet also featured a Fox News clip of FBI Assistant Director in Charge William Sweeney announcing that the powder inside the mailed envelopes "did not pose a biological threat," and that "other analysis is ongoing."
Even so, Sweeney cautioned, "it is worth repeating that any device could be considered potentially dangerous and treated as such until proven otherwise." The Fox News host cuts in at that point to say that law enforcement have noted that talcum powder is sometimes added to such packages to "amplify the fear factor." That's presumably where the Twitter user got the idea that the pipe bomb contained baby powder, since the FBI has not said anything specifying the type of powder.
Other Republicans have also hopped on the "false flag" bandwagon in the last 24 hours, including Ann Coulter, talk show radio host Rush Limbaugh, and Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs. Repeatedly referring to Democrats as an "angry mob" without a successful political strategy, Limbaugh called the pipe bomb scare a perfect setup to "make it look like the Republicans are a bunch of insane lunatics and have some mobsters on their side as well."
"That’s not the kind of thing Republicans do," Limbaugh added. He was quickly met with counterexamples from critics, citing abortion clinics bombed by conservative extremists.
As similar pipe bomb packages were found addressed to former Vice President Joe Biden, Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters, and former Attorney General Eric Holder, the "false flag" theory quickly escalated from fringe right-wing conspiracy to mainstream talking point, as The New York Times reported. All the backlash seemed to paint Democrats as trying to garner support using fake bombs and the mouthpiece of "liberal media."
Trump Jr. has himself played into false flag narratives in the past, and in a similar fashion to Thursday's pipe bomb conspiracy tweet. In February, he liked tweets alleging that David Hogg, a gun reform activist and survivor of the Parkland shooting, was coached by his father, a former FBI agent, prior to speaking out about gun violence. Earlier this month, Trump Jr. retweeted a conspiracy theory that then-missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi was friends with Osama bin Laden. (There have since been reports that Khashoggi was killed, allegedly by operatives from his home country of Saudi Arabia.)
"The process by which something gets called a false flag has accelerated," Anna Merlan, the author of a new book studying conspiracy theories told The Times. "People who make a living conspiracy-peddling are in an arms race with each other, so there’s a rush to stake out that territory and start spinning their narratives about what happened."