President Trump crossed a new line Wednesday — one that until recently no one knew existed — when he offered praise from the White House briefing room for the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, which the FBI has labeled a potential domestic terrorism threat. QAnon followers "like me very much" and "love America," the president told reporters, before affirming the group's core belief that he is in fact "saving the world" from the "radical left."
NBC News correspondent Shannon Pettypiece kicked off the discussion, asking, "Can you talk about what you think about [QAnon] and what you have to say to people who are following this movement right now?"
"I don't know much about the movement, other than I understand they like me very much. Which I appreciate. But I don't know much about the movement," Trump said. He then connected the values of the group to one of his own campaign themes — law and order.
"I have heard that it is gaining in popularity, and from what I hear ... these are people that don't like seeing what's going on in places like Portland, and places like Chicago and New York and other cities and states," the president said.
"I've heard these are people that love our country and they just don't like seeing it," he added. "So I don't know really anything about it other than they do supposedly like me. And they also would like to see problems in these areas, like especially the areas that we're talking about, go away."
Trump then vowed he would send in "troops or law enforcement or whatever they would like" to cities to help "straighten out their problems."
Pettypiece followed up, pointing out that the QAnon universe — an outgrowth of the 2016 "pizzagate" conspiracy theory — hangs on a core belief that the world's levers of power are wielded by prominent liberals and celebrities who are literally pedophiles and cannibals and who kill and eat children, and that Trump has been anointed as a savior who will render justice and liberate the innocent.
"This belief that you're supposedly saving the world from this satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals," Pettypiece asked, "does that sound like something you are behind?"
"Well, I haven't heard that, but is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing?" Trump said, drawing laughs from the briefing room.
"I mean, you know. If I can help save the world from problems I'm willing to do it. I'm willing to put myself out there," he said.
"And we are, actually!" the president continued. "We are saving the world from a radical left philosophy that will destroy this country, and when this country is gone the rest of the world would follow. The rest of the world would follow. That's the importance of this country."
Although this is the first time Trump has voiced direct praise for the QAnon "movement," the president and his campaign have been nodding and winking at Q believers for more than a year, despite a May 2019 FBI intelligence bulletin warning that conspiracy theories like QAnon were likely to "motivate some domestic extremists, wholly or in part, to commit criminal and sometimes violent activity."
QAnon believers have been prominently featured at the president's rallies as far back as July 2019, when Trump praised a baby wearing a QAnon onesie during a speech in North Carolina, and a speaker recited a QAnon slogan at a Cincinnati rally minutes before the president took the stage.
A 2019 Trump campaign video showed a woman holding a "Women for Trump" sign in which the O's were replaced with Q's. Another supporter could be seen holding a "Keep America Great" sign with a large "Q" taped to the top-left corner.
Trump has also amplified QAnon supporters on Twitter numerous times over the past year or more, retweeting 14 QAnon accounts on the Fourth of July alone. That was the same day that Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who figures prominently in the movement's conspiracy lore, pledged allegiance to Q in a video posted to social media.
This year QAnon officially seeped into national electoral politics, with multiple Q-supporting Republican Party candidates winning primaries — and endorsements from the president. Last week Trump tweeted that Georgia congressional candidate and QAnon adherent Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose rhetoric has been denounced by GOP leaders as "appalling" and "disgusting," was a "future Republican star."
Democratic nominee Joe Biden's campaign laid into the president soon after his White House remarks Wednesday, connecting the moment to Trump's infamous "both sides" comments in the wake of the 2017 neo-Nazi terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia.
"Not only is our president refusing to take responsibility for his failed leadership that has cost over 170,000 American lives and tens of millions of jobs, he is again giving voice to violence," said Biden campaign spokesperson Andrew Bates. "After calling neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville 'fine people' and tear gassing peaceful protesters following the murder of George Floyd, Donald Trump just sought to legitimize a conspiracy theory that the FBI has identified as a domestic terrorism threat,"
When wrapping up his thoughts on the subject during the White House briefing, Trump tried once more to link QAnon to his slightly more pedestrian campaign themes, including urban crime and his as-yet-nonexistent wall along the Mexican border.
"Mexico, as you know, has a very high rate of infection," the president said, referring to the coronavirus. "The wall is now going to be, next week, about 300 miles long. Our numbers are extraordinary on the border. And this is through luck, perhaps more than talent."
"You don't hear talk about the wall anymore," Trump concluded. "We need strength in our country, not weakness. Too much weakness."
Veteran GOP strategist Karl Rove, who has reportedly been advising Trump in recent months, told a Fox News panel immediately after the president's remarks, "This is a group of nuts and kooks and he ought to disavow them."
"They may like him, but they like him because they think he is fighting an incredible war against forces of 'pedographic' evil and it's just ridiculous. Disavow them, get done with it," Rove said.