WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Tuesday suggested without evidence that the 75-year-old protester in Buffalo, N.Y., who was seen on video being pushed to the ground by police in the past week, could have been part of a setup coordinated by anti-fascist demonstrators.
His musings on Twitter drew a rebuke from the man’s lawyer, condemnation from Democrats and a now-familiar dance from many Republicans who had said that they had not seen a tweet by the president that was making headlines.
Twitter, which has recently taken a more aggressive stance in policing the truth of Trump’s tweets, said this one had not violated its policies because it was “speculative.”
Two Buffalo police officers have been charged with assault in the episode after footage showed them shoving Martin Gugino to the ground and blood pooling on the sidewalk below his head. Gugino has been transferred out of intensive care but remains hospitalized.
“I watched, he fell harder than was pushed,” Trump said in his tweet. “Was aiming scanner. Could be a set up?”
Trump cited a report by One America News Network, a tiny conservative cable outlet that based its reporting on speculation that appeared on a blog called the Conservative Treehouse.
A post on the blog suggests that Gugino appeared to be using a police scanner on his phone, which it said is a common tactic of antifa, a radical anti-fascist movement that Trump has blamed for violence at protests of the death of George Floyd. The post provided no evidence that Gugino was actually affiliated with antifa.
Trump said Gugino “could be an ANTIFA provocateur,” writing that he was “pushed away after appearing to scan police communications in order to black out the equipment.”
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?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 9, 2020
Kelly Zarcone, a lawyer for Gugino, said Trump’s characterization has no basis in fact and questioned the president’s motives.
“Martin has always been a PEACEFUL protester because he cares about today’s society,” she said. “He is also a typical Western New Yorker who loves his family. No one from law enforcement has suggested otherwise, so we’re at a loss to understand why the president of the United States would make such a dark, dangerous and untrue accusation against him.”
Zarcone said last week that her client is a “longtime peaceful protester and human rights advocate.” Gugino is a member of two nonprofits: PUSH Buffalo, which focuses on affordable housing, and Western New York Peace Center, a human rights organization. He is also part of the Catholic Worker Movement.
Trump’s provocative tweet came two weeks after he created another controversy by continuing to push the baseless conspiracy theory on Twitter that MSNBC host Joe Scarborugh was linked to the 2001 death of a former congressional staffer — despite a plea by the widower for Twitter to delete the president’s musings on the debunked plot.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, called Trump “cruel & reckless” for his latest postings.
“The president is tweeting conspiracy theories about the Buffalo incident based on no evidence, no proof,” Cuomo tweeted. “Was the blood coming out of his head staged? Were our eyes lying to us? No. The man is still in the hospital & the president is disparaging him.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., meanwhile, seized on the fact that the correspondent from OANN, the network whose segment Trump cited, has written pieces for Sputnik, the Russian government-owned news outlet.
“The story Trump is referencing was written by a Russian working for the Kremlin’s propaganda agency,” Murphy wrote on Twitter. “Get ready — this is the next 5 months. Russia and the Trump campaign openly collaborating to spread lies and manipulate the election.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., wished Gugino a “speedy recovery” in a tweet and said Trump should “go back to hiding in the bunker instead of tweeting baseless conspiracies about peaceful protestors and further dividing America.”
“What are Senate Republicans going to do about this?” Schumer added.
Several of Schumer’s Republican colleagues sought to sidestep questions from reporters when asked about Trump’s tweet on the 75-year-old protester.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for instance, reportedly told CNN: “I didn’t see it. You’re telling me about it. I don’t read Twitter. I only write on it.”
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the majority whip, told reporters that he considered Trump’s tweet “a serious accusation,” adding that it “should only be made with facts and evidence, and I haven’t seen any yet.”
Asked if Trump should be making such accusations, Thune said: “Most of us up here, we’d rather not be political commentators on the president’s tweets, because that’s a daily exercise, which I know is something you all have to cover.”
The Drudge Report, a news aggregation site that once appeared Trump-friendly in tone, offered a less than complimentary headline on Tuesday’s controversy: “AARP-ANTIFA: TRUMP LASHES OUT AT A SENIOR!”
Trump also drew a rebuke from James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor of America magazine, who referenced Trump’s recent photo op with a Bible in front of a historic church near the White House after peaceful protesters were cleared from his path.
Gugino “is a peace activist and volunteer with the Catholic Worker movement,” Martin tweeted. “Why spread rumors about someone who embodies the Beatitudes? In case you’ve forgotten what’s in the Bible you were carrying, Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers,’ not the rumormongers.”
#MartinGugino is a peace activist and volunteer with the Catholic Worker movement. Why spread rumors about someone who embodies the Beatitudes? In case you’ve forgotten what’s in the Bible you were carrying, Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” not the rumormongers. https://t.co/LMEAO16LvQ
— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) June 9, 2020
The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis and Meryl Kornfield contributed to this report.