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Anatomy of a talking point: Donald Trump on the JFK assassination

Linda Qiu
By Linda Qiu May 6, 2016

It’s a case study in Donald Trump’s art of the unreal.

First, raise an outrageous untruth: Trump throws a rhetorical grenade at rival Ted Cruz on the day of the critical Indiana primary, linking Cruz’s father to the man who shot President John F. Kennedy. Cruz’s father calls the charge "ludicrous" and PolitiFact agrees, rating it Pants on Fire.

Next, bank on the media coverage: Trump highlights Cruz’s outrage, then soundly wins the Hoosier State, prompting Cruz to suspend his campaign.

After that, ride it out: The presumptive Republican presidential nominee refuses to apologize and instead defends his attack with more inaccurate claims, before sort of taking it back.

This chain of misinformation epitomizes Trump’s long-time philosophy of hyperbole as promotion, bombast over facts. The strategy earned him PolitiFact’s 2015 Lie of the Year and, as many pundits have noted, helped him become the GOP’s last man standing.

The initial Pants on Fire claim about Rafael Cruz Sr. and Lee Harvey Oswald

Trump first made the inflammatory claim on the morning of May 3 on Fox and Friends: Cruz’s "father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald being, you know, shot."

The charge is lifted straight from the grocery store checkout tabloids, specifically a National Enquirer report based on photos of Oswald handing out pro-Fidel Castro pamphlets in New Orleans in 1963.

Two photo experts told the Enquirer that another man in the grainy image bears a resemblance to young Rafael Cruz Sr. We tried unsuccessfully to reach those experts.

But Cole Calistra, the chief technology officer of Kairos, a Miami-based facial recognition software company, was skeptical about claims of a positive identification. Calistra told PolitiFact that the photos are too grainy "to perform a proper match one way or the other."

Bearing this in mind, we had a freelance programmer test it out using Kairos’ software, and he did not find a match between the unidentified man next to Oswald and Cruz.

At the same time, multiple experts on early 1960s pro-Castro advocacy said they have never seen evidence of Cruz associating with Oswald and considered Trump’s claim implausible at best and ridiculous at worst.

The elder Cruz was an early supporter of Fidel Castro, but would have been a staunch anti-communist for several years by the time Oswald was handing out pro-Castro leaflets for the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. In other words, the alleged partnership between Cruz and Oswald would make no sense on its face.

Moreover, it’s believed that Oswald in this period was more of a lone wolf than an organization man. Historians specializing in Cuba-U.S. relations in the 1960s agreed that it was unlikely that Oswald and Cruz had crossed paths.

"Top leaders of anti-Castro organizations claim not to have met Cruz, and I have never come across his name in declassified records," said María Cristina García, a Cornell University historian and author of Havana USA: Cuban Exiles and Cuban Americans in South Florida, 1959-1994.

"I have never come across Mr. Cruz's name as a pro-Castro activist," said William M. LeoGrande, author of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana.

"I know of no evidence that would have put Cruz in the world of Oswald," David Abraham, an immigration law professor at the University Miami said.

We rated Trump’s claim Pants on Fire.

Cruz helps Trump shift the narrative

The afternoon of the Indiana primary, Cruz gave an explosive news conference that began with an absolute denial of Trump’s charge and then turned into a blistering attack on the billionaire.

"Donald Trump alleges that my dad was involved in assassinating JFK. Now, let’s be clear. This is nuts. This is not a reasonable position. This is just kooky," Cruz said, before calling Trump "a pathological liar," "utterly amoral," "a narcissist at a level I don't think this country's ever seen" and "a serial philanderer."

This response, said Indiana University communications professor Kristina Sheeler, "fed right into Trump’s hand."

Sheeler noted that connecting JFK’s assassination to Cruz’s Cuban father fits in with Trump’s winning strategy of stoking fear of and uncertainty about immigrants. The best response, she said, would have been to leave it alone, but instead Cruz allowed Trump to capitalize by deflecting.

"In this instance, what people saw on their televisions and read in the papers was Cruz’s anger, which allowed Trump to change the subject, which he is so good at doing," Sheeler said. "Then we saw Trump using words like ‘desperate’ and ‘unhinged’ to describe Cruz, shifting the focus to his last-ditch attempt to ‘steal’ the nomination, rather than the outlandish claim that started the exchange."

A few hours before the polls closed in Indiana on Tuesday, Trump tweeted, "Wow, Lyin' Ted Cruz really went wacko today. Made all sorts of crazy charges. Can't function under pressure -- not very presidential. Sad!"

That night, one of Trump’s defenders, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, suggested that the whole thing was on purpose.

"Do you believe he thinks that Cruz’s dad was associated with Lee Harvey Oswald?" conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer asked O’Reilly.

"No," O’Reilly responded, "But I believe that he puts that out there just to create mayhem and creating mayhem has won the election for him."

Cruz dropped out of the race later that night. In his victory speech, Trump called Cruz  "one hell of a competitor" and gave a shoutout to Cruz’s "whole, beautiful family."

Backing a false claim with more false claims

The morning after our fact-check and others like it appeared — also the morning after Trump effectively clinched the Republican nomination — he tried to downplay and defend his false charge with a few more inaccurate statements. Then, he took it back, sort of.

In an interview on ABC’s Good Morning America, Trump said he doesn’t owe Rafael Cruz an apology because "all I was doing was referring to a picture that was reported and in a magazine."

"And I think they didn’t deny it. I don’t think anybody denied it," he added. "I don't know what it was exactly, but it was a major story and a major publication, and it was picked up by many other publications."

This is not true. The Cruz camp did deny the initial allegation made by the Enquirer and again when Trump brought it up. Furthermore, Trump seemed aware of this when he called Cruz’s angry response to his charge "unhinged" and "crazy."

The second part of Trump’s argument is also illogical, pointed out Michael LaBossiere, a philosophy professor at Florida A&M who studies theories of knowledge.

"His approach of getting attention drawn to a story and then using this attention to ‘prove’  the story is true because it is ‘major’ and repeated is an established technique — a version was used in the lead-up to the second Iraq war," LaBossiere said.

Trump was pressed about his accusation on NBC as well, when the Today Show’s Savannah Guthrie asked, "Why in the world would you do that?"

"Savannah, I was on a show, and they played a clip of Ted's father, who was very active in the campaign. It's not like he is an inactive person," Trump said. "And I just asked, what was that all about? So this was just in response to some very, very nasty — I mean, honestly, very, very nasty remarks that were made about me."

Trump is downplaying what he actually did — "one of Trump’s signature moves," according to LaBossiere. Trump didn’t simply raise the question as he told Guthrie; he definitively said Cruz’s father "was with" Oswald before JFK’s assassination.

"His defense is essentially ‘I am just punching the guy back. But, I really didn’t punch him. I just pointed out that someone else punched him. And that punching was not a bad thing,’ " LaBossiere said.

But why would Trump punch back in the first place, asked Today’s Matt Lauer, with "the polls indicating that you were going to win this, and perhaps go on to become the nominee, why take that opportunity at that moment to go back into the gutter?"

"Well, because I didn't know I had it in the grasp," Trump responded. "I mean, I didn't know I was going to win by such a big margin."

This response contradicts Trump’s own Twitter feed. While he couldn’t have known that he was going to win for sure, it’s disingenuous for Trump to suggest he had no indication of a probable victory in Indiana. At least three times before May 2, Trump tweeted out polls showing him leading by double digits.

On Wednesday afternoon, as Trump settled into his status as the presumptive GOP nominee, he seemed to wash his hands of the whole thing.

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Trump if he actually thinks that Cruz’s father had a hand in Kennedy’s assassination.

"Of course I don’t believe that," Trump responded, and then falsely accused Hillary Clinton of starting the Obama birther movement.

And repeat ...

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Anatomy of a talking point: Donald Trump on the JFK assassination