If Donald Trump were actively trying to elect Hillary Clinton, would he be conducting himself any differently?
On Wednesday, the Republican nominee took a break from suggesting Clinton should be assassinated and calling her “the devil” to focus his attention on the current president, who he believes is the mastermind of a terrorist cell. This particular line of thinking is incidentally also favored by American conspiracy theorists as well as the Russian government and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
On stage at a rally in Sunrise, Florida, Trump said, “In many respects, you know, they honor President Obama—ISIS is honoring President Obama. He is the founder of ISIS, he’s the founder of ISIS, he’s the founder! He founded ISIS, and I would say the co-founder would be crooked Hillary Clinton. Co-founder, crooked Hillary Clinton!”
Given the opportunity to clarify his remarks on Thursday, in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Trump instead confirmed that he believes Obama is, literally, the founder of the terrorist organization.
“I know what you meant,” Hewitt said, sympathetically, “you meant that he created the vacuum, he lost the peace.”
“No,” Trump replied, “I meant he’s the founder of ISIS. I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.”
Informed by Hewitt that Obama has been bombing ISIS, or bombing the shit out of them in Trump-speak, he said, “I don’t care. He was the founder. His, the way he got out of Iraq was that, that was the founding of ISIS, OK?”
Trump is seldom transparent about where he gets his information and ideas, often claiming to have “heard” them someplace or that “many people are saying” it, but he has access to a web of anti-Clinton and -Obama conspiracy texts written by his confidants and advisers that he seems to have tapped into over the last several months as he’s pivoted to the general election.
He’s also developed a cordial relationship with Alex Jones, the radio host and founder of Infowars, a website for cranks and paranoids that, among other things, sells products to help its fans prepare for the end of days. On Thursday, Jones, who did not respond to a text message seeking comment, told his listeners, “It is surreal to talk about issues here on air and then word-for-word hear Trump say it two days later. It is amazing. And it just shows how dialed-in this guy is and that’s why they’re so scared of him.” Infowars then published a story titled, “Trump Is Right: Here’s Proof Hillary and Obama Founded ISIS.”
A spokesperson for Trump did not respond when asked where Trump got the idea that Obama is the founder of ISIS, but it’s worth noting that—aside from the homegrown fantasists Trump counts among his friends—the idea is also popular among the Russian government Trump has tried to distance himself from.
Russia Today, a propaganda news outlet funded by the Russian government, has published multiple stories attributing ISIS’s rise to U.S. calculations.
In August 2015, RT ran a story quoting Trump supporter Michael Flynn, formerly of the Defense Intelligence Agency, saying the government purposely ignored his agency’s analysis to allow the rise of ISIS.
“I think it was a decision,” Flynn said. “I think it was a willful decision.”
In December 2015, RT quoted Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei as saying that America created ISIS because it hates Muslims. And in February of this year, RT turned a single protester yelling at John Kerry into headline news. “‘You Created ISIS!’ Press conference scandal mars Kerry’s visit to Italy,” RT claimed after a woman told Kerry, “It’s you who created Daesh!” RT then added, “The protester in Italy is not the first to accuse Washington of aiding the rise of ISIS. One former U.S. Marine has blamed the self-proclaimed caliphate on the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.”
Although Trump’s has claimed ignorance on the subject, his campaign did succeed in altering the Republican Party’s platform to feature less harsh language about Russia. Trump himself has praised Vladimir Putin, who has described him in flattering terms, and both claimed to know him well and claimed that he’s never met him at all.
Michael McFaul, a professor at Stanford University and fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Affairs, tweeted on Wednesday that “Trump’s line that Obama founded ISIS echoes exactly a myth propagated by Russian state-controlled media and bloggers.”
McFaul told The Daily Beast, “For years, I have seen posts nearly every day from Russian bloggers suggesting that President Obama founded and continues to fund ISIS. It seems to be one of their standard talking points… Last night, after I posted and refuted what Trump said in Russian, dozens of Russians jumped in to say that Trump was right, and I was wrong.”
Sure enough, Maria Katasonova, a Russian nationalist and candidate for the State Duma election, responded to McFaul, in Russian, “ISIS is the outcome of not only Obama policy, but of #CrookedHillary.”
—with additional reporting by Martha Mercer