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Trump’s no excuse for criminal acts or sloppy facts

The mysterious case of the reported racial attack on actor Jusse Smollett has gone through a dizzying array of revisions in the past 24 hours. It remains the subject of heated speculation and debate.

Whatever the outcome, it seems that in the past few years we’ve heard a lot more about political or racist attacks attributed to specific politicians. Two of the more notorious incidents happened in 2017. In one instance, some faulted Trump’s rhetoric in the murder of a protester by a white nationalist in Charlottesville, Va.; in the other, the man who shot four people, including a Republican member of Congress, was a Trump-hating supporter of Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSenate Democrats nix 'Plan B' on minimum wage hike Senate mulls changes to .9 trillion coronavirus bill NFL's Justin Jackson praises Sanders for opposing Biden's USDA nominee MORE (I-Vt.).

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There are countless reports of less serious, but still troubling, incidents of politically motivated violence. Journalists were shoved at a recent Trump rally in El Paso. Numerous Trump supporters have been assaulted for wearing “Make America Great Again” or “MAGA” hats.

As a polarizing figure, Trump magnifies the passions of those who would use him as an excuse to act out. It’s easy or satisfying to blame him. And, to them, it’s reasonable to excuse or ignore the anti-Trump crowd doing bad things because “Trump is so bad.”

But there are also those who would use the politically charged atmosphere to advance false accusations for their own purposes.

For example, last August a New York firefighter’s home was burned. The firefighter, who is white, appeared to blame Black Lives Matter supporters because he had flown a Blue Lives Matter flag in support of police. That firefighter later was arrested for allegedly setting his own house on fire.

But the need for caution when accusations are made isn’t a political one-way street.

Here are six examples of high-profile hate crimes, supposedly committed by Trump supporters, that actually turned out to be staged by the so-called victims:

  1. A week before Trump was elected, Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Mississippi was torched and the words “Vote Trump” found painted on the outside. The mayor condemned the incident as a hate crime and stated it was “an attack on the black church and the black community.” However, police later arrested a black church member for the arson. They say the man staged the fire to look like an attack by Trump supporters. Even today, some of the corrected news reports retain headlines seeming to blame Trump.
  1. The day after Trump was elected, an incident at Elon University in North Carolina made national news. Hispanic students found a “hateful note” written on a classroom whiteboard reading, “Bye Bye Latinos.” After the story made news, it was learned that the message was written by “a Latino student who was upset about the results of the election.”
  1. Also the day after Trump was elected, a gay man — reportedly a filmmaker — claimed that homophobic Trump supporters smashed his face with a bottle outside a bar in Santa Monica, Calif. A bloody photo was posted on Twitter, and he was said to have been treated at a local hospital. Police investigated the media reports. They said no complaint was ever filed, there was no evidence of a crime, and a check of local hospitals showed no victim in such an incident.
  1. The week after Trump’s election, a Muslim student at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, claimed Trump supporters pulled off her head covering, and assaulted and robbed her. She later admitted fabricating the story.
  1. A month after Trump’s election, a Muslim-American woman claimed Trump supporters tried to steal her headwear and harassed her on the New York City subway. She ultimately was arrested after confessing she made up the whole story.
  1. A news reporter in Springfield, Mass., tweeted a false message after last June’s mass shooting at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md. His tweet claimed the killer left behind a Trump “Make America Great Again” hat after killing five newspaper employees. The reporter later was fired and apologized.

Social media and quasi-news outlets may run wild upon the first rumors of politically-charged violence. But as for the news, we have a responsibility to follow basic rules of journalism. Those rules include reporting allegations as claims that have not been proven — no matter how true the victim’s claims may seem, how sympathetic their cause may be, or how much we wish to believe them.

Sharyl Attkisson is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist, author of The New York Times best-sellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and host of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program, “Full Measure.” Follow her on Twitter @SharylAttkisson.