President Donald Trump used his Twitter account Saturday to spread an evidence-free conspiracy theory about the death of Jeffrey Epstein, a wealthy and politically connected financier who had been facing multiple charges of sex trafficking involving underage girls.
Trump's own Justice Department announced that Epstein, who was being held in a federal corrections facility, died by "apparent suicide."
But Trump appeared to disregard the statements from within his administration, instead retweeting a message from conservative actor and comedian Terrence Williams, who suggested that Epstein's death might be tied to former president Bill Clinton. Williams also questioned how Epstein could have died by suicide if he had been on suicide watch.
The claim is completely unsubstantiated, and federal officials say Epstein was not on suicide watch at the time of his death. He had been placed on suicide watch last month but then taken off within a week, according to a person familiar with the matter.
White House officials did not immediately return a request for a comment on why Trump was spreading the conspiracy theory. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the president's retweet.
A Clinton spokesman responded on Twitter: "Ridiculous, and of course not true - and Donald Trump knows it. Has he triggered the 25th Amendment yet?"
On Saturday, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., warned against embracing conspiracy theories.
While scrutiny of Epstein's apparent suicide is "warranted," Rubio said, he added: "the immediate rush to spread conspiracy theories about someone on the 'other side' of partisan divide having him killed illustrates why our society is so vulnerable to foreign disinformation & influence efforts."
Still, Trump's retweet will surely help fuel the conspiracy theories that have quickly spread online since the news of Epstein's death broke Saturday. And the president - who is on vacation at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey - is no stranger to using his considerable public platform to promote conspiracy theories, particularly those that target his political opponents.
For years, Trump promoted the myth that former president Barack Obama was born in Kenya rather than in the United States. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump spread a conspiracy theory that the father of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Rafael Cruz, was somehow connected to the assassination of president John F. Kennedy.
He has claimed without evidence that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower in New York, and once entertained an unsubstantiated theory that former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in his sleep in February 2016, may have been murdered.
Epstein, 66, was found unresponsive in his cell at the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan about 6:30 a.m. Saturday, according to officials. Several agencies, including the FBI, the New York City medical examiner and the Justice Department's inspector general, have begun inquiries into how Epstein could have died while in federal custody.
Epstein apparently hanged himself, officials said. Both the Bureau of Prisons and Attorney General William Barr called the death an "apparent suicide," although one official said no final determination has been made.
Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., who has demanded congressional investigations into Epstein's past crimes, questioned whether Epstein's death really was a suicide Saturday.
"I was not surprised for one minute," Frankel told NPR. "There are a lot of very powerful people who wanted to see this man dead. So was it really just a suicide? Was it just negligence by the officials who had custody of him? I don't know, but I definitely think it needs to be investigated."
News of Epstein's death quickly fed conspiracy theories online Saturday that powerful people who once socialized with Epstein - such as Trump and Clinton - had a hand in the financier's fate and stood to benefit from his silencing.
A #ClintonBodyCount hashtag that trended anew on Twitter last month after Epstein was found injured and placed on suicide watch was revived Saturday, showing up in more than 90,000 tweets by the afternoon - often in conjunction with hashtags about Epstein's death.
Lynne Patton, a Trump appointee at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, also used her Instagram account to spread the conspiracy theory.
But "Clinton" wasn't the only name becoming fodder for proponents of conspiracies around Epstein's death. An echo of the Clinton hashtag implicating the president, #TrumpBodyCount, was also trending with more than 33,000 tweets early Saturday afternoon.
Various unsubstantiated Clinton conspiracy theories have circulated for decades, but some have criticized Twitter for giving them new prominence by allowing related hashtags to gain momentum and show up in the site's trends sidebar.
Twitter said in a statement that the social media platform's trends are determined by the rate and consistency of tweets on a topic in a certain location. The company said the site aims to reflect the public conversation.
Twitter's rules say it wants to promote "healthy discussions" and may prevent content from trending if it contains profanity, certain graphic elements, incites hatred on the basis of qualities such as sex or race, or otherwise violates Twitter policy.
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