WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday advanced an unfounded conspiracy theory about a 75-year-old protester in Buffalo, New York, who was pushed down by police officers, tweeting without evidence that the confrontation may have been a "set up."
Trump, who has called himself "your president of law and order," was once again siding firmly with police over the protesters who have taken to the streets across the country.
With his tweet, Trump attempted to cast doubt on video showing Buffalo police shoving the man, who fell backward and hit his head on the sidewalk. He was seen bleeding from his head as officers walk away.
Two Buffalo police officers have been charged with second-degree assault for the incident and could face prison sentences of up to seven years if convicted. They have pleaded not guilty.
The video is one of several that have emerged in recent weeks showing police using seemingly excessive force against protesters who are demanding justice and racial equality following the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck.
"Buffalo protester shoved by Police could be an ANTIFA provocateur," Trump wrote. "75 year old Martin Gugino was pushed away after appearing to scan police communications in order to black out the equipment. @OANN I watched, he fell harder than was pushed. Was aiming scanner. Could be a set up?"
There is no evidence to suggest that anything of the sort took place. Trump was referencing a report on One America News Network, a far-right news channel that he often praises.
As he has tried to malign violent protesters as "radical-left, bad people" engaging in domestic terrorism, Trump has repeatedly invoked the label "antifa," an umbrella term for leftist militants bound more by belief than organizational structure.
There have been violent acts, including property destruction and theft. Police officers and protesters have been seriously injured and killed. But federal law enforcement officials have offered little evidence that antifa-aligned protesters could be behind a movement that has appeared nearly simultaneously in hundreds of cities and towns in all 50 states since Floyd's death.
Gugino, who is out of the intensive care unit but remains hospitalized, has been described by friends as a retiree and veteran peace activist driven by his faith and a desire for social justice. He is involved with the Western New York Peace Center and Latin American Solidarity Committee, said Vicki Ross, the center's executive director.
Ross said Gugino has also been undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.
Gugino's attorney, Kelly Zarcone, told The Associated Press that Trump's accusations "are utterly baseless and ridiculous."
Gugino, she said, "has always been a peaceful protester because he cares about today's society."
"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 about him. We can confirm that those accusations are utterly baseless and ridiculous," she said.
The No. 2 Republican in the Senate, John Thune of South Dakota, also criticized Trump's tweet.
"It's a serious accusation, which should only be made with facts and evidence. And I haven't seen any yet," Thune told reporters at the Capitol."
Asked if the president should not be making it, Thune said: "Well, I think that's a given."
New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, called Trump's tweet "sick."
"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 …" she tweeted.
And Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, another Democrat, tweeted to Trump that "the City of Buffalo is laser focused on healing, taking action against racial injustice and building a good future for our residents. We pray for a full recovery for Mr. Gugino and as I have repeatedly said, the two officers deserve due process."
Erie County District Attorney John Flynn declined to comment Tuesday on the president's tweet and said he would have no further comment on the Gugino case because it remains under investigation.