President Donald Trump, who has long sowed disinformation on Twitter, spread an unfounded conspiracy theory Tuesday about a 75-year-old man hospitalized after he was pushed by a police officer during a peaceful protest last week in Buffalo, New York.
Viral video showed activist Martin Gugino approach officers then stumble and fall after pushed back during a protest for racial justice Thursday at Buffalo City Hall soon after the city's 8 p.m. curfew. The video also showed an officer who appeared to try to approach Gugino brushed aside by another officer as he lay on the ground with blood pooling near his ear.
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown told MSNBC medics at the scene quickly gave first aid to Gugino.
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Witnesses described the protest as peaceful and an attorney statement said Gugino is "a longtime peaceful protester, human rights advocate, and overall fan of the US Constitution for many years," NBC affiliate WGRZ reported.
He is involved with the Western New York Peace Center and Latin American Solidarity Committee, whose executive director Vicki Ross, told The Associated Press Tuesday that Gugino is still hospitalized but out of intensive care. He has also been undergoing treatment for cancer, she said.
Amid outcry over video of the incident, two Buffalo officers, Robert McCabe, 32, and Aaron Torgalski, 39, were suspended without pay then charged with second-degree assault. They have pleaded not guilty and 57 members of the Buffalo Police Department's Emergency Response team quit the task force in solidarity with their colleagues.
Erie County District Attorney John Flynn described the two charged officers having "clearly crossed the line."
Trump claimed on Twitter without any evidence Tuesday that Gugino "could be an ANTIFA provocateur," may have had a "scanner," and that he "fell harder than was pushed." Trump tagged his tweet with a reference to One America News, a right-wing media outlet that often amplifies conspiracies. Gugino could be seen holding a cell phone in the video, which a One America News segment focused on without attributing any evidence for the conspiracy.
The bogus theory has its roots on an anonymous blog, NBC News reported.
Religion News Services cited friends of Gugino as saying he is a Catholic retired scientist who has long advocated for the poor, disenfranchised and on behalf of Black Lives Matter.
Gugino's attorney, Kelly Zarcone, told The Associated Press that Trump's accusations “are utterly baseless and ridiculous.”
Gugino, she said, “has always been a peaceful protester because he cares about today’s society."
“No one from law enforcement has even suggested anything otherwise, so we are at a loss to understand why the president of the United States would make such dark, dangerous, and untrue accusations about him," she said.
Buffalo's Mayor Brown also responded to Trump Tuesday, saying his city was "laser focused on healing, taking action against racial injustice and building a good future for our residents."
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden joined in tweeting support for Gugino.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the comments were "reprehensible" and called for Trump to apologize.
“How reckless, how irresponsible, how mean, how crude," Cuomo said during a news conference. "I mean if there was ever a reprehensible, dumb comment from the president of the United States … at this moment of anguish and anger, what does he do? Pours gasoline on the fire. If he ever feels a moment of decency he should apologize for that tweet.”
It wasn't just Democrats who took issue with the president's smear. The No. 2 Republican in the Senate, John Thune of South Dakota, also criticized Trump's tweet.
“It’s a serious accusation, which should only be made with facts and evidence. And I haven’t seen any yet,” Thune told reporters at the Capitol.