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How the Trump campaign came to court QAnon, the online conspiracy movement identified by the FBI as a violent threat

The convergence of Trump's inner circle with an ever-widening cohort of QAnon believers is alarming to scholars of extremism and digital communications. What most troubles analysts, however, is that the president's messaging is increasingly indistinguishable from some key elements of the conspiracy.

David Reinert holding a Q sign waits in line with others to enter a campaign rally with President Donald Trump in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory forged in a dark corner of the internet is creeping into the mainstream political arena.
David Reinert holding a Q sign waits in line with others to enter a campaign rally with President Donald Trump in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory forged in a dark corner of the internet is creeping into the mainstream political arena.Read moreMatt Rourke / AP

Outside the Las Vegas Convention Center, Kayleigh McEnany raised a microphone to a mega-fan and asked what it felt like to be acknowledged by President Donald Trump at his February rally in Sin City.

At the time a spokeswoman for Trump's re-election campaign, McEnany nodded as the supporter said the shout-out was most meaningful because of the words on the shirt he was wearing, which he read aloud: "Where we go one, we go all," the motto of QAnon conspiracy theorists who believe Trump is battling a cabal of deep-state saboteurs who worship Satan and traffic children for sex.

McEnany, who has since become the White House press secretary, continued, asking the supporter, "If you could say one thing to the president, what would you say?"

"Who is Q?" he replied, inquiring about the mysterious online figure behind the baseless theory. McEnany smiled and said, "OK, well, I will pass all of this along."

The little-noticed exchange - captured in a video posted to YouTube - illustrates how Trump and his campaign have courted and legitimized QAnon adherents.

The viral online movement, which took root on internet message boards in the fall of 2017 with posts from a self-proclaimed government insider identified as "Q," has triggered violent acts and occasional criminal cases. Its effects were catalogued last year in an FBI intelligence bulletin listing QAnon among the "anti-government, identity based, and fringe political conspiracy theories" that "very likely motivate some domestic extremists to commit criminal, sometimes violent activity."

As the worldview took shape online, its followers flocked to Trump rallies with QAnon apparel and placards. Recently,as the election has drawn closer, actions by the president and his associates have brought them more directly into the fold.

The Trump campaign's director of press communications, for example, went on a QAnon program and urged listeners to "sign up and attend a Trump Victory Leadership Initiative training." QAnon iconography has appeared in official campaign advertisements targeting battleground states. And the White House's director of social media and deputy chief of staff for communications, Dan Scavino, has gone from endorsing praise from QAnon accounts to posting their memes himself.

The president has repeatedly elevated its digital foot soldiers, sharing their tweets more than a dozen times on Fourth of July alone. His middle son, Eric, who is 36 and a campaign surrogate, recently posted, and then deleted, an image drumming up support for his father's Tulsa rally that included a giant "Q" and the text, "Where we go one, we go all."

The apparent convergence of Trump's inner circle with an ever-widening cohort of QAnon believers is alarming to scholars of extremism and digital communications, some of whom characterize the theory's adherents as a cult. What most troubles analysts, however, is not that McEnany and others responsible for carrying out Trump's agenda are amplifying QAnon, which has permeated right-wing politics and inspired a cadre of congressional candidates who could soon bring the philosophy to Capitol Hill. Even more worrisome, these observers say, is that the president's messaging is increasingly indistinguishable from some key elements of the conspiracy theory.

The erroneous ideas defining QAnon - that Trump is a messianic figure fighting the so-called deep state, that he alone can be trusted, that his opponents include both Democrats and Republicans complicit in years of wrongdoing and that his rivals are not just misguided but criminal and illegitimate - represent core tenets of the president's re-election campaign, especially as his poll numbers slump.

Meanwhile, the salvation envisioned by QAnon believers, including military takeover and mass arrests of Democrats, rhymes with the president's vow to use the armed forces to "dominate." They back his endorsement of hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug that has not been proved to prevent coronavirus infection, and cast skeptics, including Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading expert on infectious diseases, as a deep-state plant.

"We're seeing the Trump campaign tack closely to an almost explicitly QAnon narrative," said Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "I don't expect to hear the president talking about pedophilia or Satanism, but I expect to hear almost everything else."

McEnany did not respond to a request for comment, but White House spokeswoman Sarah Matthews sent a written statement saying: "The premise of your article is ridiculous. While the Trump administration is working tirelessly for the American people, the Washington Post peddles in conspiracy theories."

The Trump campaign also did not respond to emailed questions.

The oft-mutating QAnon philosophy has captured the imagination of a new corps of pro-Trump congressional candidates, about a dozen of whom have already secured spots on the ballot in November, according to a tally by Media Matters for America, the liberal research organization. Among them is Angela Stanton-King, a Republican House candidate in Georgia who served two years in prison for her role in a car-theft ring but whose sentence was commuted by Trump in February. A month later, she posted a popular QAnon video on Instagram, writing of the president, "This would explain why they tried so hard to make us hate him." She has since posted repeatedly about the scourge of pedophilia, a fixation of the QAnon movement.

In an interview, she said, "People have a right to look into information and do their own research." Her research has led her to misguided beliefs about the coronavirus, including that the pandemic represents a "political game, to make it seem like the economy has crashed."

Similar language is employed by QAnon believers, who scrawl their accusations across social media. They rally around the hashtag #WWG1WGA - shorthand for "Where we go one, we go all" - and swarm perceived enemies. "These people are not only sick but evil too!" one combatant in the Q "army" on Facebook wrote in March, referring to the Democratic mayor of Minneapolis, whom Trump has attacked as a "very weak radical left mayor."

Individuals who had posted in support of QAnon or otherwise expressed their devotion to it, according to police, have been arrested in at least 10 incidents, including two murders, a kidnapping, vandalism of a church and a heavily armed standoff near the Hoover Dam.

Twitter recently took action against the conspiracy theory, including by eliminating more than 7,000 accounts. Facebook is also weighing new action, a spokesperson confirmed, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing deliberations.

The largest Facebook groups devoted to the theory boast hundreds of thousands of members, but the size of its following is difficult to measure, experts say. Only about a quarter of American adults say they have heard of QAnon, according to polling by the Pew Research Center.

Americans may be oblivious to QAnon but still shaped by its doctrine, Zuckerman said, arguing, "It's actually more dangerous if people don't know what Q is but hold these beliefs." Because of the overlap between QAnon communities and far-right circles, he said, aspects of the conspiracy theory are filtering up to conservative websites, as well as to the pro-Trump One America News and Fox News.

The coronavirus pandemic, by bringing into sharp focus anti-scientific beliefs among a broad segment of the president's supporters, offers a preview of the clashing worldviews that QAnon could portend, Zuckerman added. The November election, if Trump were to refuse to accept the legitimacy of the results because of widespread mail-in voting, would represent the clash's climax, testing the "parallel universe that he and some of his supporters live in," he said.

Such an outcome would mark the culmination of Trump's "use of conspiracy theories for the past five years," said Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami and co-author of "American Conspiracy Theories."

QAnon, however, is a new frontier for Republicans, and for the party's most prominent purveyor of conspiracy theories.

Recent ads from Trump's re-election campaign have included shots of supporters with QAnon paraphernalia, including a spot in Nevada that briefly showed a woman in a crowd with a "Q" shirt. A spot in Arizona showed a still of a man in a similar shirt carrying a World War II veteran into an arena. The man posed for a photo with Donald Trump Jr. at a recent event, according to material later uploaded to Facebook. A spokesperson for Trump Jr.did not respond to a request for comment.

The inclusion of QAnon symbols in official campaign media, previously unreported, sent shock waves through the QAnon community, whose primary aim is to be noticed by Trump. The ads racked up thousands of comments on YouTube, where users with QAnon references in their accounts seized on the fleeting visuals to declare victory. "Well done," one wrote.

Sometimes, the signaling from the campaign is less subtle. Last fall, Erin Perrine, director of press communications for Trump's re-election campaign, went on Patriots' Soapbox, a show on YouTube and other platforms devoted to QAnon coverage. Before she called in, one of the hosts - whose Twitter account features QAnon references and a photo with Brad Parscale, Trump's recently deposed campaign manager - gushed about speaking to her for an hour before a recent Trump rally. He said the segment with Perrine, which was unearthed by Media Matters, could be the "tip of the iceberg" for connections with the Trump campaign.

During the interview, Perrine was asked to "send a direct message" to the "group of very, very smart activists here," keen to be Trump's "soldiers on the ground." She encouraged them to sign up for a campaign training event and to "talk to their local GOP party, their state party, come online and ask us."

Neither Perrine nor her hosts mentioned QAnon directly during the interview, but their discussion was studded with references to the conspiracy theory, including mention of the "insurgency from within" and remarks about Michael Flynn, Trump's first national security adviser, who is central to the QAnon worldview. Emails and a call to Perrine went unanswered, as did an email to the show.

Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his communications with a Russian diplomat in late 2016, recently recorded a video of himself repeating an oath originating on 8kun, a message board where Q, who claims high-level security clearance, posts esoteric references and half-baked ideas that followers call "bread crumbs."

"Where we go one, we go all," intoned Flynn, his right hand raised, at the end of the oath, which otherwise follows a generic script administered to new members of Congress. Flynn did not respond to a text message seeking comment. His attorney, Sidney Powell, another luminary for QAnon conspiracy theorists who has also appeared on Patriots' Soapbox, also did not respond to a request for comment. The program's other guests have included Chanel Rion, chief White House correspondent for One America News, who said the conspiracy theory's central figure is "anonymous for a reason, for a very good reason, and I think that people need to respect that." Rion did not respond to a request for comment.

Praise for the anonymous figure, whose posts have been linked to multiple violent episodes, has also flowed on Fox News. During a conversation this month with Eric Trump, one of the channel's hosts, Jesse Watters, credited Q with having "uncovered a lot of great stuff," saying later in a statement he does not "support or believe in" the conspiracy theory. In a pitch to potential guests, shared with The Washington Post by someone who received it, Fox characterized the segment this way: "Inside Twitter's crackdown on QAnon - How the social media giant is engaging in election interference and shutting down free speech." A Fox spokesperson declined to comment beyond Watters' statement.

The congressional candidates who put stock in the theory say its proximity to Trump makes it appealing. Flynn's apparent endorsement - his move to swear his allegiance to QAnon - was decisive for some who had once only flirted with the theory. Theresa Raborn, a Republican House candidate in Illinois, said she had been on the fence, unable to "definitively debunk or definitively confirm."

"But when General Flynn posted that video, he's a highly respected general and has been for decades, and he is very close to President Trump," she said. "So I don't think he would do that for a conspiracy theory, or at least logically that's where I'm at. I don't know if he has information about whether it's a conspiracy theory or whether it's real, but it seemed to give a lot of validity to people who support me who also happen to follow Q."

Raborn, who ran unopposed in her March primary and so will appear on the ballot in November, faces near-certain defeat in the heavily Democratic district in the suburbs of Chicago.

Flynn's role is just as important to the supporter interviewed by McEnany in February. He described himself as "one of the digital soldiers General Flynn talks about."

“That’s why I don’t sleep,” he told the soon-to-be White House press secretary. “That’s why all I do is share information.”