The phrases "dark shadows" and "Air Force One" began trending on social media Tuesday after President Donald Trump posited a baseless conspiracy theory that people in "dark shadows" are controlling his Democratic rival Joe Biden, and that his administration was investigating a plane "almost completely loaded with thugs," without specifiying their identities or origin.
"What does that mean, 'dark shadows'? That sounds like a conspiracy theory."
—Laura Ingraham to President Trump
The president's bizarre comments came during a Fox News interview with Laura Ingraham in which he accused Biden of being "weak" and "controlled like a puppet."
When Ingraham asked who he thought was "pulling Biden's strings," Trump said, "people that you've never heard of, people that are in the dark shadows."
The comment was apparently too much for even a staunch Trump supporter like Ingraham. "What does that mean? That sounds like a conspiracy theory," she asked. "Dark shadows. What is that?"
Donald Trump says "people that are in the dark shadows" and "people you haven't heard of" are 'pulling the strings' for Joe Biden pic.twitter.com/tjLpVMSRCO
— Jason Campbell (@JasonSCampbell) September 1, 2020
"There are people that are on the streets, there are people that are controlling the streets," Trump insisted. "We had somebody get on a plane from a certain city this weekend, and in the plane, it was almost completely loaded with thugs, wearing these dark uniforms, black uniforms, with gear and this and that."
The president offered absolutely no evidence to support his claim. Seeing Ingraham's puzzled expression, he said he would tell her "sometime," and that "it's under investigation right now."
Twitter erupted in ridicule following Trump's groundless allegations, with some users questioning the president's mental state, and others calling Air Force One the "plane loaded with thugs."
If someone sat next to you on the bus or subway and started talking about powerful men being controlled in “the dark shadows” and groups of men in black gear moving around the country to hurt him...you would change your seat.
— Claire McCaskill (@clairecmc) September 1, 2020
BREAKING: Investigators have identified the thugs.
...On Air Force One. pic.twitter.com/favD7NkeN1
—(@maddyAin17) September 1, 2020
Last night Trump suggested that there was a plane full of "thugs" who set out to terrorize Americans
I'm pretty sure that plane was Air Force One.#ImVotingForJoe
Who's with me?
— Mrs. Krassenstein (@HKrassenstein) September 1, 2020
Others noted the nearly identical nature of the president's claim with a debunked viral rumor from June claiming a "plane load" of "Antifa agitators" would be storming Idaho, which led to heavily armed white residents taking to the streets of some of the state's cities and towns.
President Trump tonight: "We had somebody get on a plane... it was almost completely loaded with thugs, wearing these dark uniforms, black uniforms."
Viral Facebook rumor from June: "At least a dozen males got off the plane in Boise from Seattle, dressed head to toe in black." pic.twitter.com/xn5YrM1R2k
— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) September 1, 2020
The conspiracy theory that President Donald Trump pushed on Monday that a plane “almost completely loaded with thugs” was set to disrupt protests was almost identical to a rumor that went viral on Facebook three months ago. https://t.co/1cMYAVLWNL
— Max Burman (@maxburman93) September 1, 2020
Trump also used the Ingraham interview to disparage the Black Lives Matter movement, which he falsely called a "Marxist organization."
"The first time I ever heard of Black Lives Matter, I said, 'That's a terrible name. It's so discriminatory,'" he said. "It's bad for Black people. It's bad for everybody."
Sticking to his tough "law and order" message, Trump defended police, telling Ingraham that they are "under siege," before comparing officers who shoot Black people to golfers stricken with the yips.
"They can do 10,000 great acts, which is what they do, and one bad apple, or a choker... they choke... shooting the guy in the back many times," the president said in an apparent reference to Jacob Blake, the Black man who was paralyzed after being shot multiple times in the back by a Kenosha, Wisconsin officer on August 23.
"I mean, couldn't you have done something different, couldn't you have wrestled him?" Trump asked. "[Blake] might've been going for a weapon, but they choke, just like in a golf tournament, they miss a three-foot putt," Trump said. His comments drew stinging criticism from observers who noted the murder by asphyxiation of George Floyd, Eric Garner, and other victims by the hands of police.
Trump is correct, sometimes police officers do choke, right George Floyd?
— Name is Bishop(@BishesBrew) September 1, 2020
Trump using these words to excuse police shootings without any irony that it was a LITERAL choke hold that killed George Floyd.
— Dara “#WeHaveHerBack” Kass, MD (@darakass) September 1, 2020
Ultimately, Ingraham cut Trump off.
Trump compares police who shoot civilians to golfers who miss putts.
TRUMP: "They choke. Just like in a golf tournament. They miss a 3-foot putt ..."
INGRAHAM: "You're not comparing it to golf, because that's what the media -"
TRUMP: "I'm saying people choke." pic.twitter.com/ggXGckrBzQ
— Pod Save America (@PodSaveAmerica) September 1, 2020
This drew a swift rebuke from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who tweeted that "you know things are bad when Laura Ingraham has to save President Trump from saying stupid things."
You know things are bad when Laura Ingraham has to save President Trump from saying stupid things. https://t.co/jBBp9x7e4U
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) September 1, 2020
The president wasn't finished. He also lied about the state of affairs in Portland, Oregon, claiming that the city has "been burning for many years, for decades" before he took office.
This wasn't Trump's first foray into the realm of conspiracy theories. His political rise can be traced to his propagation of racist "birther" theories regarding former President Barack Obama's citizenship, and before and during his presidency he has helped spread false theories about everything from the origins of the coronavirus pandemic to QAnon and Pizzagate. Trump's willingness to embrace baseless rumors has earned him the moniker among some pundits of "conspiracy theorist-in-chief."
Trump's comments came as he prepared to travel to Wisconsin in the wake of the Blake shooting and the killing of two Black Lives Matter protesters, allegedly by teen gunman Kyle Rittenhouse, last week. The president headed to Kenosha despite pleas by Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian, and others for him to stay away, and warnings that his presence could further inflame violence.