This article marks the debut of a new column excavating the origins of public figures’ factually dubious comments. We explain what their claims are referring to, the evidence (or lack thereof) behind them and where they sprang from in the first place.
Who said what …
Speaking on Fox News on July 11, former President Donald Trump raised questions about the Capitol Police lieutenant who killed Ashli Babbitt, a 35-year-old Air Force veteran whose support for Trump led her to raid the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Babbitt was shot during the attack and died at a hospital shortly afterward. Trump said he had heard that the police officer “was the head of security for a certain high official — a Democrat.”
Some background …
After the violent mob breached the Capitol building on Jan. 6, dozens of House members and their staff were trying to evacuate the House chamber. At this point, part of the mob had made its way toward the corridor lawmakers were evacuating. The only thing that separated them was a set of wood and glass doors guarded by three uniformed Capitol Police officers. On the other side of the doors, a makeshift barricade of furniture had been erected. The mob broke through the window of one of the doors, and video evidence shows Babbitt attempting to climb through the broken glass. Before she could get through, the lieutenant on the other side of the doors fired one shot, hitting Babbitt, who collapsed and later died at a hospital. He was placed on administrative leave and the shooting was investigated, but ultimately criminal charges against him were not pressed. Police have not released the name of the officer who shot Babbitt — her husband is suing for information on the investigation, including the officer’s identity — but a senior law enforcement official told NBC News that he was not part of a security detail for any specific member of Congress. In fact, the Associated Press reported that members of Congress do not have a personal security detail while at the Capitol, relying instead on the Capitol Police force.
It is unusual — though not unheard of — for a police officer who shoots and kills someone not to be publicly identified. The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, for example, is required by law to report the names of officers involved in a death or serious use of force. But the Capitol Police force is unique. Not only is it not required to release this information, but it is not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, which could be used to publicly reveal more information. The attack on the Capitol has drawn renewed scrutiny to very real issues regardingthe lack of transparency with this force. It’s likely the name of the officer who shot and killed Babbitt is being withheld, at least in part, because of fears for his safety — his attorney, Mark Schamel, told the Associated Press that the officer had received “many credible death threats” and was forced to leave his home because of them. But the lack of transparency allows for misinformation and conspiracy theories to fester, eventually making their way to the mouth of a former president.
Where the comment came from …
Trump’s comments represent a high-profile crossover of conspiracy theories that have been simmering online for months. Almost immediately after the insurrection at the Capitol, QAnon followers, far-right groups and Trump supporters began to hypothesize online about the shooting. In one far-right group with more than 31,000 subscribers on the chat app Telegram, a video of Babbitt’s shooting was posted on Jan. 7 with text claiming the officer who shot her was part of then-Vice President Mike Pence’s personal security detail.
Over the next few months, multiple baseless conspiracy theories emerged. Many QAnon followers, for example, believe that Babbitt is not actually dead but was in fact a “crisis actor” paid to fake her own death. In the days after the Justice Department announced it was not pressing charges, QAnon followers on Telegram made comments such as “[They’re] not going to charge anybody because she’s really not dead it was a staged episode,” and “Can’t charge [someone] for a crime that didn’t happen.”
But even among those who accept that Babbitt’s death was real, conspiracy theories abound. Online, right-wing posters have variously claimed the police officer who shot her was a member of the security detail for Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. The sole “evidence” for these claims seems to be that the officer was in plain clothes rather than a uniform. While members of personal security details typically do wear plain clothes, sometimes Capitol Police officers do too, depending on their assignment, according to the Associated Press. Conservative media and a handful of Republican elected officials — namely Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona — have been steadfast in demanding more information about the shooting, but most avoided entertaining the conspiracy theories that the officer was working for a particular member of Congress.
That started to shift in recent weeks. In mid-June, Fox News host Tucker Carlson played a clip of an NBC News interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin in which Putin asks who “order[ed] the assassination” of Babbitt. Carlson said Putin was asking “fair questions.” On June 30, the British conservative magazine The Spectator published a thinly sourced column titled “Who Killed Ashli Babbitt?” that claimed the police officer was assigned to Pence’s security detail. The next day, Trump issued a statement with one line: “Who shot Ashli Babbitt?” The next week, Trump broached the subject again, this time at an event where he announced a lawsuit against social media companies for suspending his accounts. Finally, in a phone interview on Fox News on July 11, he pushed the conspiracy theory further by saying the officer was a member of the personal security detail for a high-ranking Democrat. He did not name the person or cite any evidence.
The internet is, of course, a mire of conspiracy theories and outlandish ideas, most of which never break through to the mainstream. But in this case, the lack of transparency from the Capitol Police and the highly politicized nature of Babbitt’s death created ideal conditions for this particular theory to bubble up to the surface.