MAGA conspiracy-theory defense keeps failing in court: Bad news for Donald Trump?

Paul Pelosi's attacker tried to plead being stupid and gullible — turns out that's not a viable defense

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published November 20, 2023 6:00AM (EST)

David DePape and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
David DePape and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Putting David DePape, Paul Pelosi's attacker, on the witness stand wasn't a great idea. But it was the only thing DePape's defense had. He has admitted, even bragged, about his attempted murder of Nancy Pelosi's husband last year at the couple's home in San Francisco. Predictably enough, on the witness stand DePape rambled on about the conspiracy theories he believed, telling the jury that he worshiped Donald Trump and believed every cockamamie nugget of disinformation churned out by the MAGA media ecosystem. DePape was captured on video smashing Paul Pelosi's head with a hammer, and has repeatedly admitted he went to the Pelosi house that night in hopes of kidnapping the then-speaker of the House and forcing her to endorse Trump's false claims about the 2020 election lies. This was a Hail Mary move from DePape's lawyers, at best, built on the dubious premise that he'd seem too delusional to be a full-blown domestic terrorist. 

In other words, conspiracy theories got DePape into this situation, and he hoped conspiracy theories would get him out. It didn't work. The jury found DePape, whose far-right radicalization goes all the way back to Gamergate in 2014, guilty on all charges. 

This "I believed a conspiracy theory" defense shouldn't come as a big surprise. Outside the courtroom, Trump and his acolytes have relied heavily on conspiracy theories to deflect blame for their role in inspiring DePape's murderous rage. Within hours of the attack on Paul Pelosi, the right-wing noise machine was cranking out homophobic lies based on the false claim that DePape was a sex worker or that he and Paul Pelosi were lovers. (They had never met before the break-in.) Trump continues to push this slanderous nonsense without taking responsibility for it, cracking crude jokes that could well encourage further violence. 

In general, Trump treats conspiracy theories as an all-purpose tool to get what his way. He used his BS claims about Barack Obama's birth certificate" to rally the deplorables to his cause way back when. He uses the QAnon cult to prop up the illusion that his sociopathic behavior is just a front for a superhero out to save the world. And of course he used the Big Lie, claiming that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election, to justify his very real attempts to overthrow democracy. 

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Trump has also been trying to use conspiracy theories the same DePape did, in hopes of wriggling out of his legal difficulties. Every single day, in every single utterance, he claims to be an innocent man targeted by an elaborate "deep state" conspiracy to take him out. He also invents smaller fictions to prop up this big one, such as accusing the law clerk in his New York civil trial of secretly controlling the judge (and of being Sen. Chuck Schumer's "girlfriend.")

But like DePape, Trump seems to be investing heavily in the "I really believed it" defense. In both the federal case and the Georgia RICO case related to Trump's January 2021 coup attempt, Trump's team has signaled that he may argue that he sincerely believed the election had been stolen. The hope here is to downgrade the long list of crimes in Trump's indictments to innocent mistakes made by a guy who just didn't know better.

This is being called the "advice of counsel" defense in the media, since Trump plans to argue he just picked up his conspiracy theories from lawyers and other advisers. But we could also think of it as the "innocent by reason of stupidity" defense.

Trump's team has signaled that he may argue he sincerely believed the election had been stolen, in hopes of downgrading his long list of alleged crimes to innocent mistakes by a guy who just didn't know better.

But as the DePape example shows, juries aren't necessarily going to buy this. In fact, this was just the latest in a line of MAGA-inspired criminal defendants who have failed to get off the hook by depicting themselves as credulous idiots who believed the wrong people. Alex Jones tried to wiggle out of a defamation lawsuit by playing an ignorant dumbass, but evidence of sinister intent was swiftly established from his phone communications. Both the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers tried out a variation of this defense, arguing that they let their belief in ludicrous fantasies get the better of them during the Capitol riot. They were convicted. Indeed, many Jan. 6 insurrectionists have rolled out the "well-meaning moron" argument at trial and, by and large, have found themselves headed to prison. 

The court system, in other words, is where MAGA conspiracy theories go to die. That's because the legal system can deprive a conspiracy theory of the oxygen it needs to thrive: Willful ignorance. Social media, Trump rallies and Fox News are all environments where facts can be ignored and malicious actors can spread outrageous lies without consequence. This allows believers to wallow in their preferred narratives, while simply avoiding countervailing evidence.

The courtroom, though, has a captive audience in the jury, along with a system of rules that help filter out the noise so facts can be perceived more clearly. Hardcore partisans who will sticking to their lies no matter what largely get removed during jury selection. It's not impossible to BS people in the courtroom, but a lot tougher to pull off, as one MAGA malefactor after another has found out. 

It's frustrating that one of the most important Trump cases, regarding the classified documents he stashed at Mar-a-Lago, is being handled by Judge Aileen Cannon, a Federalist Society tool who is doing everything in her power to rig the case in Trump's favor. But it's telling nonetheless that Cannon's main tactic is to allow endless delays. That suggests she knows perfectly well that Trump is likely to lose the case, even with her thumb on the scale. That's another reason why Trump's trials should be televised, so people can hear the evidence for themselves rather than filtered through the GOP spin machine. 

There are no guarantees in life. Trump could get lucky and land a juror or two who is so deeply MAGA-fried they will refuse to convict him no matter how much evidence they see. After eight years of practice, some Trump supporters are so good at self-deception that they can ignore reality when it's staring them right in the face. But look at the track record of his fellow travelers when they leave behind the hyperbolic world of social media for the somber atmosphere of a courtroom and their empire of lies collapses. Trump is clearly worried about that, as he should be. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Aileen Cannon Commentary Conspiracy Theory David Depape Donald Trump Maga Paul Pelosi Trump Crimes