President Donald Trump has a long history of toying with conspiracy theories, many of which get little traction or even reaction. But his Twitter message on Tuesday suggesting that the 75-year-old man whose head was cracked open by Buffalo law enforcement last week was a tech-savvy “ANTIFA provocateur” prompted an immediate outcry, as well as support for the still-hospitalized victim.
“Buffalo protester shoved by Police could be an ANTIFA provocateur. 75 year old Martin Gugino was pushed away after appearing to scan police communications in order to black out the equipment. @OANN,” Trump tweeted, citing the conservative cable channel One America News Network but offering no evidence to support such an assertion.
Trump added: “I watched, he fell harder than was pushed. Was aiming scanner. Could be a set up?”
Gugino’s attorney, Kelly Zarcone, pushed back against the president.
“Martin has always been a PEACEFUL protestor because he cares about today’s society,” Zarcone said in a statement reported Tuesday by various media outlets. “He is also a typical Western New Yorker who loves his family.”
“No one from law enforcement has even suggested anything otherwise so we are at a loss to understand why the President of the United States would make such dark, dangerous, and untrue accusations against him,” Zarcone said, adding that although “Martin is out of ICU,” he is “still hospitalized and truly needs to rest.”
The president’s conspiratorial social media post comes after a video of the encounter last Thursday between Gugino and officers in Buffalo, N.Y. — shot by local NPR affiliate WBFO — went viral online amid nationwide protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, by Minneapolis police.
The footage shows Gugino approach two officers outfitted in tactical gear who were part of a larger group of police officers enforcing the city’s 8 p.m. curfew in Buffalo’s Niagara Square, in front of City Hall. After a brief interaction, the officers forcefully push Gugino, and he falls backward onto the pavement. Officers can then be seen walking past Gugino’s body as he bleeds from his head.
Buffalo police initially said in a statement last Thursday night that a person “was injured when he tripped & fell” during a “skirmish involving protestors,” but they later apologized and said they were “working with incomplete details during what was a very fast-moving and fluid situation.”
Mayor Byron Brown announced on Friday that Buffalo’s police commissioner had suspended the two officers involved in the episode without pay, prompting dozens of other officers to step down from the department’s crowd-control unit in protest.
On Saturday, Erie County, New York, District Attorney John Flynn charged the two officers, Robert McCabe and Aaron Torgalski, with second-degree assault. McCabe and Torgalski pleaded not guilty and were released without bail.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York said Tuesday there was “no proof whatsoever” to back up Trump’s accusation that Gugino was associated with the leftist ideology antifa, fiercely criticizing the president during his daily news briefing in Albany.
“How reckless. How irresponsible. How mean. How crude,” Cuomo told reporters. “I mean, if there was ever a reprehensible, dumb comment — and from the president of the United States. At this moment of anguish and anger, what does he do? Pours gasoline on the fire. If he ever feels a moment of decency, he should apologize for that tweet. Because it is wholly unacceptable.”
The state’s lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, a native Buffalo resident, also condemned Trump’s tweet as “sick,” writing online: “The President continues to use his platform to peddle conspiracy theories, this time about a peaceful protestor and fellow New Yorker. Not sure how this is supposed to bring our country together…”
Former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s likely Democratic rival in the November election, similarly denounced the president’s accusation.
“My Dad used to say there’s no greater sin than the abuse of power,” Biden said in a tweet. “Whether it’s an officer bloodying a peaceful protester or a President defending him with a conspiracy theory he saw on TV. I’m a Catholic — just like Martin. Our faith says that we can’t accept either.”
The criticism wasn’t limited to Democrats.
“Oh, lord. Ugh,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) when shown a printout of the president’s tweet on Tuesday. “Why would you fan the flames? That’s all I’m going to say.”
Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said: “It’s a serious accusation, which should only be made with facts and evidence. And I haven’t seen any.”
Trump’s tweet echoed a recent OANN segment about a report from a website called the Conservative Treehouse, which alleges Gugino “was attempting to capture the radio communications signature of Buffalo police officers.” The report states that the “capture of communications signals … is a method of police tracking used by Antifa to monitor the location of police.”
Neither OANN nor the Conservative Treehouse offered any evidence to support their claims about Gugino, who is a longtime peace activist from Amherst, according to The Buffalo News.
The president and Attorney General William Barr have charged that extremist organizations are largely responsible for acts of looting and violence that have broken out at some protests across the country. Republicans have specifically blamed what they refer to as antifa, a collection of far-left militant groups that often resist neo-Nazis, white supremacists and far right-wing groups at demonstrations and other events.
Trump declared last month the U.S. government would be “designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization” — even though he does not appear to have the legal authority to do so, and it is not clear that the loosely defined group of radical activists is an organization at all.
At a news briefing last Thursday, Barr claimed Justice Department officials “have evidence that antifa and other similar extremist groups, as well as actors of a variety of different political persuasions, have been involved in instigating and participating in the violent activity” at protests.
Max Cohen, Marianne LeVine, Burgess Everett and the Associated Press contributed to this report.