Two recent House primary victories have given the fringe QAnon movement, a network of conspiracy theorists and extremists, a potential gateway to mainstream politics. President Trump was already aware of QAnon, though, as he indicated in late August.
“I’ve heard these are people that love our country… so I don’t know really anything about it, other than they do supposedly like me,” he said.
QAnon adherents baselessly believe there is a cabal of pedophiles and Democratic politicians running a child sex trafficking ring and secretly controlling America — and that Mr. Trump is destined to expose them.
Mr. Trump was asked last week at a press briefing about QAnon. While Mr. Trump said that he didn’t know much about it, he said “if I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it.”
Mostly, QAnon operates on fringe internet forums and through catchphrases and “clues” via social media. QAnon supporters showed up at Trump events in 2018, and recently at protests across the country that were ostensibly about child trafficking, NBC News reported.
The FBI considers QAnon a “domestic terrorist threat,” writing in an August 2019 letter fringe conspiracy movements like QAnon “encourage the targeting of specific people, places, and organizations… increasing the likelihood of violence against these targets.”
While Mr. Trump has so far avoided disavowing QAnon, Vice President Pence and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy have tried to steer it away from the party. On Fox News, McCarthy said there’s “no place” for QAnon in the GOP. On CBS This Morning, Pence dismissed the movement “out of hand.”
Marjorie Taylor Greene is a QAnon supporter who won her primary runoff, and after her victory, Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois posted a video addressing QAnon, saying that “denouncing conspiracies shouldn’t be the exception. They really should be the rule.”
“What my concern is, from a party and a national dialogue perspective, is that we continue to just tack both parties to the extremes. And we’re alienating the great number of Americans that just think, frankly, all of this is nuts,” Kinzinger told CBS News correspondent Nancy Cordes.
But Mr. Trump’s views are far less clear. Greene said Tuesday she was invited to the White House to attend his Republican National Convention speech on Thursday, and Colorado House candidate Lauren Boebert said she was invited too. But on Tuesday, the Republican National Convention swiftly canceled a planned speech by “angel mom” Mary Ann Mendoza after she retweeted a thread containing an anti-Semitic QAnon theory.
When asked on MSNBC if Greene would be disinvited, Trump Campaign Communications Director Tim Murtaugh dismissed the question. He added QAnon “is not something that we deal with here in the campaign. It’s not something we ever think about.”
Mr. Trump’s comments on the theory had already energized the QAnon base, said Alex Kaplan, a senior researcher at Media Matters for America, a liberal non-profit focused on disinformation.
“They took it as validation,” he told CBS News, pointing to Trump’s history of retweeting accounts that support QAnon. He noted that one prominent QAnon figure posted that “Q” has been “absorbed into MAGA.”
While some campaigns may view QAnon as a political constituency they can wink at for their primaries, Kaplan says it can be more of a liability in the general election.
At least 19 House Republican candidates who support or have elevated the QAnon movement will be on the November ballot, according to tracking by Media Matters. Two who are running in reliably red districts are trying to ditch their ties to QAnon since making it past the primary process.
Greene, a small business owner and candidate in Georgia’s 14th District, had previously posted on social media in support of the movement, using its catchphrases and calling its leader, “Q,” a “patriot” who’s “worth listening to.”
She has peddled baseless theories like the Obama administration used the MS-13 gang to do its “dirty work” and kill Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. Greene has also made inflammatory racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim comments, once equating the election of Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib to an “Islamic invasion.”
But since she won her runoff, Greene has been trying to distance herself from QAnon.
“Never once during my campaign did I ever speak about QAnon, or ‘Q,’ she told Fox News. “I had read about a lot of things, I had posted, talked about on video things I had seen on Q. But really, what made me change my mind is as a person that’d worked hard all my life, I chose a different path.”
She claimed she began to doubt QAnon after some in the movement predicted Republicans would hold the House after the 2018 midterms.
In Colorado’s 3rd District, Lauren Boebert, a pro-gun restaurant owner who went viral last year confronting then-presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, pulled off a notable upset against incumbent GOP Congressman Scott Tipton. In May, Boebert appeared on an online show hosted by a QAnon supporter. When asked if she had heard of the movement, she said she was “very familiar with it” but said “that’s more of my mom’s thing, she’s a little fringe.”
“Everything that I’ve heard of Q, I hope that this is real because it only means that America is getting stronger and better, and people are returning to conservative values,” she said.
Boebert and her campaign stress that she is not a QAnon supporter, acknowledging in July she was “very vague” in what she said about it before and that she’s “not into conspiracies.”
But recently, Boebert tweeted about a fundraiser between actor Tom Hanks and Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden, noting that Hanks is a “newly minted Greek citizen.” The QAnon community recently suggested that Hanks only became a Greek citizen because it’s a “place that recognizes pedophilia as a disability.”
On the specific mention of Hanks’ Greek citizenship, Boebert campaign communications director Laura Carno pointed to past comments by celebrities about leaving the country if Mr. Trump was elected.
“That was her reference point,” Carno said. “She was not aware of what conspiracy theorists are saying about it because she doesn’t follow them.”
Molly McKew, who independently researches and writes about disinformation, compared the Republican response to QAnon to Mr. Trump’s declining to disavow an endorsement by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke during his 2016 campaign.
“You just kind of keep [groups like QAnon] at enough of an arm’s length, that you get their support because they’ve got nowhere else to go,” she said. “But you’re not like embracing them and putting them on the parade float.”
While Greene is on track to win her race in November, Boebert is in a slightly more competitive race against Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush. In Utah, Burgess Owens, a Republican nominee in a battleground district, was attacked by Democrats for appearing on a show affiliated with the movement.
A former Republican state legislator called on the Republican National Committee to remove Owens from his speaking slot at this week’s convention.
Congressman Cheri Bustos, Chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Washington Republican leaders “are legitimizing this dangerous conspiracy– giving QAnon a platform by offering QAnon-aligned candidates RNC Convention speaking slots, House committee assignments, and financial support for their campaigns.”
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer was asked by The Hill if the committee will support Greene or Laura Loomer, a far-right Republican candidate running in a safely Democratic Florida district that includes Mar-a-Lago. He noted while their seats are not competitive, “the conversations that we’ve had basically are congratulations and let us know how we can be of assistance.”
When asked about how QAnon’s growth could impact competitive House races, Chris Pack, communications director for the Republican House campaign arm, pointed to Antifa, a decentralized anti-fascist group. Trump and Attorney General William Barr have claimed, without any concrete evidence, the movement is tied to violence at Black Lives Matter protests.
“There are far more supporters of the Antifa movement in the House Democrat Conference than supporters of QAnon in the House GOP (are there any?). Has Pelosi said there is no place for Antifa in the Democrat Party?” Pack said in an email.
McKew said the decentralized structure and scale with Antifa blurs the comparison between the two. She pointed to Twitter having to shut down several accounts claiming to be Antifa that proved to be fake. On their supposed role in the protests, she pointed to arrests of right-wing activists looking to instigate violence.
“I just don’t think it’s similar in terms of what it is, how it organizes, what the goals are,” she said. “Antifa definitely has crazy radical elements to it… but these are people who follow whatever the core anti-fascist ideology was. They’re not like inventing an alternate reality in which their opponents are eating babies, And that, I think, is a key difference.”
Still, QAnon remains relatively unknown and unpopular among Americans. A March Pew Research poll found that 76% know “nothing at all” about the movement. A more recent poll by the Washington Post found low approval ratings for QAnon.
But it’s still finding its way into politics. New Jersey Congressman Tom Malinowski, a Democrat, said a constituent informed him of a local poll that asked if they’d support the congressman if they knew he was part of a “child sex ring,” alluding to a central tenet of the QAnon movement.
Malinowski had recently been hit by claims he had lobbied against a bill expanding the sex offender registry base during his time at the Human Rights Watch organization. Malinowski and a former colleague have told CBS News he had no role in that effort.
On Tuesday, he and GOP Congressman Denver Riggleman, introduced a resolution asking the House to condemn the movement and called on law agencies to “strengthen their focus” on criminal activity “by extremists motivated by fringe political conspiracy theories.”
Days before introducing the resolution, Riggleman told CBS News, “I don’t know who put this poll out… but whoever it was, was pushing out the basic QAnon, pizzagate conspiracy stuff, presumably in hopes that people that had heard the question on the poll, would start talking about it. Like, ‘What? Malinowski drinks the blood of babies?’ It’s crazy.”