Trump digs in on conspiracy theory over bin Laden raid
President Trump is doubling down on his decision to retweet an unfounded QAnon conspiracy theory that Osama bin Laden is still alive, a move that threatens to alienate members of the military with the election less than three weeks away.
Trump’s amplification of conspiracy theories that bin Laden’s death was faked and that a body double was killed instead comes on the heels of reports that disparaged soldiers and his suggestion that he may have contracted the coronavirus from Gold Star families.
Military observers say the president’s propensity to retweet suspect material about a military operation isn’t likely to help win back any support.
“It’s certainly not going to help him,” Gary Schmitt, a national security expert with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said of the retweets.
“Most of the folks in the military are there voluntarily. They’re career. They’re not just there for during the term of one president,” he added. “They have a good sense that they’ve dedicated themselves to a certain life, and the president seems to be suggesting that, outside anything else, they’ve been fooled.”
“It can’t help but shake the military’s judgement about his judgment,” Schmitt said.
Trump on Tuesday retweeted an account linked to the QAnon conspiracy theory that promoted the unfounded allegation that bin Laden is still alive. The account has since been suspended, but the following day, Trump retweeted a video pushing baseless claims about bin Laden’s death.
“That was an opinion of somebody, and that was a retweet. I’ll put it out there. People can decide for themselves,” Trump said of his retweets during his town hall appearance on NBC on Thursday night.
Pressed on his decision by NBC moderator Savannah Guthrie, Trump would not disavow QAnon and only replied, “That was a retweet, and I do a lot of retweets.”
But pushing the hoax, which also attempts to undermine a major military achievement that took place when his Democratic rival was in the White House, is not sitting well with some former members of the military who previously backed Trump.
Robert O’Neill — a former Navy SEAL who has publicly said he killed bin Laden in the 2011 raid ordered by former President Obama — chastised the president this week for promoting the unfounded claims.
“Very brave men said goodby to their kids to go kill Osama bin Laden. We were given the order by President Obama. It was not a body double. Thank you Mr. President,” O’Neill, who has publicly supported Trump in the past, tweeted on Tuesday.
“I know who I killed, homie. Every time,” said O’Neill, who was a member of SEAL Team Six, which raided bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Trump’s troubles with the military escalated last month after The Atlantic reported that he called U.S. troops who died in battle “suckers” and “losers.”
The president has denied making the comments but kept up tensions with the Pentagon by accusing Defense Department leaders of deciding to send forces into war to appease defense contractors.
Earlier this month, Trump sparked a small firestorm by suggesting he may have caught the coronavirus from Gold Star families at a Sept. 27 event at the White House.
Trump, who trails Biden both in national polls and in key battleground states, has stepped up his promotion on QAnon-linked Twitter accounts since spring. He has retweeted messages from such accounts at least 258 times, including at least 163 times since early March, according to Media Matters for America, a media watchdog.
But while the move may appeal to staunch supporters in his base, it’s unlikely to gain him any additional undecided voters, including service members, veterans and other military supporters.
“If you’re actually trying to find folks that haven’t made up their mind, it’s hard to believe that this conspiracy-mongering is going to play well with them,” Schmitt told The Hill on Friday.
The tactic has instead provided ammunition for his Democratic rivals, including Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).
Harris at the vice presidential debate last week cited Trump’s numerous military-related scandals, including his dismissal of troops’ brain injuries in Iraq earlier this year as “headaches” and his repeated criticism of the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for being a prisoner of war, to argue Trump has a “pattern” of disparaging the military.
For many in the military, Schmitt said, it’s the fallout from these controversies that can make them lose confidence.
“Trump has taken on board this idea that you never say you’ve made a mistake. If you’re a commander in chief, the people that work for you in the military know that not only can mistakes be made but they will be made,” Schmitt said.
“This inability to own up to the mistake of retweeting has to shake the confidence of those in the military about [his] judgment,” he said.