US President Donald Trump has revived the long-discredited conspiracy theory that a TV host he doesn’t like got away with murder, in his latest spray against critics of the United States’ coronavirus response.
Mr Trump unleashed a torrent of early morning tweets on Tuesday (US time), attacking everyone from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (“crazy”) to NBC anchor Chuck Todd (“sleepy eyes”), comedian Bill Maher (“show sucks”), political consultants (“people I beat so badly”) and the reporters who ask him questions at news conferences (“fake journalists”).
Just a normal morning at the office, then.
But Mr Trump reserved particular venom for MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, who co-hosts the breakfast news show Morning Joe alongside his wife Mika Brzezinski.
Scarborough and Brzezinski were once acquaintances of Mr Trump, and he often appeared on their show in the early months of the 2016 election cycle.
The pair grew increasingly critical of him as that campaign wore on, however, and after a very public falling out, they have now become frequent targets of his scorn.
Labelling Scarborough “a total nutjob”, Mr Trump today implied the former Republican congressman may have killed one of his staffers, Lori Klausutis, back in 2001.
“Did he get away with murder? Some people think so,” the President said.
It was the second time he had mentioned the case in two weeks. Last Monday, Mr Trump said MSNBC’s parent company Comcast – which he calls “Concast” – should open a “cold case” investigation into Scarborough.
Before that, he had briefly alluded to it just once before. That was back in 2017, after the high profile firing of Scarborough’s colleague Matt Lauer.
“Will they terminate low ratings Joe Scarborough based on the ‘unsolved mystery’ that took place in Florida years ago? Investigate!” Mr Trump said at the time.
What exactly happened to Ms Klausutis? Is there actually any reason to suspect Scarborough was involved in her death?
In short, no. Here are the details of the case.
THE DEATH OF LORI KLAUSUTIS
Ms Klausutis worked as a staffer for Mr Scarborough back when he was a politician representing Florida’s first congressional district.
She was based in one of his district offices, in the town of Fort Walton Beach.
Ms Klausutis, 28, was found dead in that office, lying on the floor next to a desk, on the morning of July 20, 2001.
The previous day, she had told two people – a colleague and a mail carrier – that she was not feeling well.
An autopsy revealed Ms Klausutis had an undiagnosed heart condition called cardiac arrhythmia. The medical examiner, Dr Michael Berkland, eventually concluded she had “lost consciousness because of an abnormal heart rhythm” and fallen, hitting her head on a desk.
Her official cause of her death was a blood clot.
Dr Berkland found no evidence she had been struck by anyone else, and indeed no evidence of any foul play at all.
Scarborough was not even in Florida on the day Ms Klausutis died. He was in Washington D.C., debating policy and casting votes. The House of Representatives did not adjourn until almost 10pm.
So, how did such a seemingly clear-cut case become the subject of a conspiracy theory? The Northwest Florida Daily News has the best breakdown, based on the weeks it spent rigorously investigating Ms Klausutis’ death and the authorities’ response to it. Here are the key details.
First there was the behaviour of Dr Berkland. Having initially promised a quick determination in the case, he didn’t announce a cause of death until August 6, and at one point stopped returning phone calls for a few days.
Second, there was a “scratch and bruise” found on Ms Klausutis’ skull.
Third, there was a crucial detail left out of Dr Berkland’s initial reports – that she suffered a hairline fracture to her skull.
The medical examiner later claimed mention of that injury was omitted to prevent “undue speculation” – terrible, as excuses go – and that it was only further evidence of a fall anyway, rather than foul play.
“We know for a fact she wasn’t whacked in the head because of the nature of the injury,” Dr Berkland said.
Fourth, the security company in charge of the business complex where the office was located walked back its initial testimony to investigators that it had patrolled the area properly on the night of Ms Klausutis’ death. It admitted it “may have missed” its usual check-up on the office.
Finally, there were the political circumstances. Mr Scarborough was just 38, young for a politician, but he had already announced his intention to resign from Congress. He followed through on that announcement in September of 2001, two months after the tragedy.
“Why did he leave Congress so quietly and quickly?” Mr Trump wondered in his tweet today.
Conspiracy theorists at the time speculated there was a sinister reason, such as an affair. Mr Scarborough’s stated reason for quitting was his desire to spend more time with his two sons. Nothing ever emerged to contradict that claim.
So, to sum up, the authorities did behave opaquely in this case, but there is no evidence that Ms Klausutis was murdered, and at the same time there is plentiful evidence that Scarborough was hundreds of kilometres away when she died.
‘TURN OFF THE TV, DONALD’
Scarborough responded to Mr Trump’s latest tweet on his TV show today. He urged the President to focus on doing his job.
“For your sake, as I’ve been saying for years – Donald, for your sake and for the sake of America, you need to stop watching our show, OK? It’s not good for you,” Scarborough said.
“I think that might be why you go out and, like – you’re distracted. You’re tweeting so much.
“Why don’t you turn off the television, and why don’t you start working, OK? You do your job, we’ll do ours, and America will be much better off for that.
“Just go. Turn off the TV, Donald.”
“Please leave us alone. For yourself,” Ms Brzezinski added.
Ms Brzezinski has also been targeted by the President in the past. In a widely panned tirade two years ago, Mr Trump nicknamed her “low IQ crazy Mika” and claimed he had once witnessed her “bleeding badly from a facelift” at Mar-a-Lago
That attack led the couple to write a joint article for The Washington Post, in which they condemned Mr Trump’s “unhealthy obsession” with them.
“Donald Trump is not well,” the headline read.
“During the campaign, (Mr Trump) called Mika ‘neurotic’ and promised to attack us personally after the campaign ended. This year, top White House staff members warned that The National Enquirer was planning to publish a negative article about us unless we begged the President to have the story spiked. We ignored their desperate pleas,” Scarborough and Brzezinski wrote.
The Enquirer, a tabloid magazine, infamously published several conspiracy theories about the president’s political opponents during the Republican primaries in 2016.
For example, it alleged the father of Ted Cruz, one of Mr Trump’s rivals, was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Mr Trump was close friends with the magazine’s boss, David Pecker.
“Mr Trump claims that we asked to join him at Mar-a-Lago three nights in a row. That is false. He also claimed that he refused to see us. That is laughable,” Mr Scarborough and Ms Brzezinski continued.
“Mr. Trump also claims that Mika was ‘bleeding badly from a facelift.’ That is also a lie.
“We have known Mr Trump for more than a decade and have some fond memories of our relationship together. But that hasn’t stopped us from criticising his abhorrent behaviour or worrying about his fitness.”
PEDDLER OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES
This latest attack on Scarborough is hardly the first time Mr Trump has promoted a baseless conspiracy theory.
During Barack Obama’s presidency, he was a leading proponent of the theory that Mr Obama was not an American citizen. He claimed to have hired private investigators to look into the matter, and at one point said they “could not believe what they’re finding”.
Mr Obama eventually released his long-form birth certificate to put the theory to bed. Mr Trump reacted by questioning its authenticity.
When he was competing for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, Mr Trump suggested the father of one of his opponents, Ted Cruz, had been involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. As we mentioned earlier, that claim was echoed by The Enquirer.
The Cruz campaign denounced the claim as “garbage”.
During the general election campaign, Mr Trump fomented false rumours the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, was suffering from a debilitating illness. Four years later, she is still alive and seemingly well.
And he rehashed an old conspiracy theory about the death of former Clinton aide Vince Foster, who took his own life in 1993, saying it was “very fishy”.
In the wake of billionaire paedophile Jeffrey Epstein’s death in prison, Mr Trump spread the theory that the Clintons were involved.
And he has spent much of his presidency dabbling in the repeatedly debunked theory that a Democratic National Committee server, supposedly containing evidence that Russia was framed for interfering in the 2016 election, is hidden somewhere in Ukraine.
So whenever Mr Trump makes a particularly outlandish claim – for instance, that a prominent TV host committed murder 19 years ago and got away with it – it is generally worth checking the President’s facts.