President Donald Trump has never seen a conspiracy theory he didn’t like — and promote on Twitter. So it’s unfortunately no surprise that he praised the lie-spreading cult QAnon in his nationally televised town hall on NBC on Thursday night.
Moderator Savannah Guthrie — who was rightly praised for standing up to Trump and posing tough questions — directly asked Trump if he supported QAnon’s claims that there is a global child-torturing cabal: “Can you once and for all denounce QAnon in its entirety?”
Compared to the other questions Guthrie asked, this one was a softball. Denouncing QAnon seems like a pretty easy thing to do. But not for Trump. Instead, he deflected, "I know nothing about QAnon." Guthrie responded, "I just told you," to which he said, "What you tell me doesn't necessarily make it fact."
Then, he said: "What I do hear about it is they are very strongly against pedophilia, and I agree with that."
So, about that: QAnon is a conspiracy cult that has been labeled a domestic terror threat by the FBI. It claims, entirely falsely, that Satan-worshiping politicians and celebrities around the world are working together to engage in child sex abuse and trafficking. Members also believe that Trump, whom they consider a savior, wants to bust this pedophilic cabal and that he is the target of a "deep state" effort to annihilate him — and, let's face it, he's unlikely to denounce anyone who calls him a savior. They also spread other baseless theories, like that 5G cellular networks are spreading coronavirus, as well as lies about the election and mass shootings.
During the town hall, Trump also walked back his recent retweet of a conspiracy theory from a QAnon-linked account, which falsely claimed that former Vice President Joe Biden arranged to have Seal Team Six killed to cover up the fake death of Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. "I know nothing about it," Trump said. "That was a retweet — that was an opinion of somebody. And that was a retweet. I'll put it out there. People can decide for themselves."
To which, Guthrie responded, speaking for so many of us, "I don't get that. You're the President. You're not like someone's crazy uncle who can retweet whatever."
This isn’t the first time Trump has enabled QAnon and other conspiracy theory groups. He has often used his Twitter account to promote QAnon-related accounts, and he even embraced the group’s support in August. "I don't know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate," Trump said. He has also endorsed Republican congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia, despite her QAnon ties and history of making racist and anti-Semitic remarks.
Joe Biden, who participated in a much tamer town hall over at ABC on the same night, explicitly denounced QAnon last month. "What in God's name are we doing? Look at how it makes us look around the world. It's mortifying. It's embarrassing, and it's dangerous," Biden said at a campaign event. "If the president doesn't know better, which he has to know better, then, my Lord, we're in much more trouble than I ever thought we were."
The movement has had a big presence at Trump’s campaign rallies, so it is questionable, if not wholly unbelievable, that the president doesn’t know anything about it. But what he is really doing by refusing to denounce QAnon is clear: He is playing to his base. According to recent polls, a disturbing amount of people believe that at least some QAnon claims are true; 12% of social media users say they have engaged with or posted QAnon content in a positive way, with Republicans more likely to do so. It’s not the first time Trump has embraced dangerous, false theories — like the birther movement, which claimed President Barack Obama was born in Kenya — to appeal to the worst instincts of his supporters. And it will doubtfully be the last.