BRIDGEWATER, N.J. - President Donald Trump used his Twitter account Saturday to spread a baseless conspiracy theory about the death of Jeffrey Epstein, a wealthy and politically connected financier who had been facing multiple charges of sex trafficking involving underage girls.
Trump's own Justice Department announced that Epstein, who was being held in a federal corrections facility, died by "apparent suicide."
But Trump appeared to disregard his administration's statement, instead retweeting a message from conservative actor and comedian Terrence K. Williams, who suggested that Epstein's death might be tied to former president Bill Clinton. Williams also questioned how Epstein could have died by suicide if he had been on suicide watch.
The claim is completely unsubstantiated, and federal officials say Epstein was not on suicide watch at the time of his death. He had been placed on suicide watch last month but then taken off within a week, according to a person familiar with the matter.
A Clinton spokesman responded on Twitter: "Ridiculous, and of course not true - and Donald Trump knows it. Has he triggered the 25th Amendment yet?" The 25th Amendment spells out a process for the president's Cabinet to remove him from office.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the president's retweet.
Asked about Trump's retweet, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said on "Fox News Sunday" that the president "just wants everything to be investigated." She also criticized those who she said are "trying to connect the president to this monster from years ago where they are seen dancing in the video," a reference to a recently resurfaced NBC News video of Trump and Epstein partying together at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in 1992.
Others, Conway said, "were actively, I suppose, flying around with this monster on his island. … Perhaps there's a public interest in knowing more about that."
Some Democrats rebuked Trump for retweeting the conspiracy theory.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who is running for president, said Trump is "using the same tactics and languages of the Russians, if you look at the intelligence reports about how they're coming at our democracy." Booker called Trump's actions "dangerous" and said he has "been using the Clintons as a means for a lot of his false accusations."
"This is a nation now where we have just seen horrific acts, whether it is someone walking into a pizza shop, based upon these kind of conspiracy theories, to take violent action," the Democrat said, referring to the "Pizzagate" conspiracy theory cited by a gunman who walked into the District of Columbia restaurant Comet Ping Pong in 2016 and fired an assault rifle. "We see people's lives being threatened because this president whips up hatred."
On Saturday, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., warned against embracing conspiracy theories about Epstein.
Although scrutiny of Epstein's apparent suicide is "warranted," Rubio said on Twitter, "the immediate rush to spread conspiracy theories about someone on the 'other side' of partisan divide having him killed illustrates why our society is so vulnerable to foreign disinformation & influence efforts."
The president - who is on vacation at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey - is no stranger to using his considerable public platform to promote conspiracy theories, particularly those that target his political opponents.
For years, Trump promoted the myth that former president Barack Obama was born in Kenya rather than in the United States. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump spread a conspiracy theory that the father of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Rafael Cruz, was somehow connected to the assassination of President John Kennedy.
He has claimed without evidence that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower in New York, and he once entertained an unsubstantiated theory that former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in his sleep in February 2016, may have been killed. Trump's latest retweet will surely help fuel the conspiracy theories that have quickly spread online since the news of Epstein's death broke Saturday.
Epstein, 66, was found unresponsive in his cell at the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan about 6:30 a.m. Saturday, according to officials. Several agencies, including the FBI, the New York City medical examiner and the Justice Department's inspector general, have begun inquiries into how Epstein could have died while in federal custody.
Epstein appeared to have hanged himself, officials said. Both the Bureau of Prisons and Attorney General William Barr called the death an "apparent suicide," although one official said no final determination has been made.
Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., who has demanded congressional investigations into Epstein's past crimes, questioned whether his death really was a suicide, suggesting without evidence on Saturday that there might be a link between his death and the powerful people he associated with.
"There are a lot of very powerful people who wanted to see this man dead. So was it really just a suicide?" Frankel told NPR. "Was it just negligence by the officials who had custody of him? I don't know, but I definitely think it needs to be investigated."
Online, news of Epstein's death quickly fed conspiracy theories that powerful people who once socialized with Epstein - such as Trump and Clinton - had a hand in the financier's fate and stood to benefit from his silencing.
A #ClintonBodyCount hashtag trended on Twitter last month after Epstein was found injured and placed on suicide watch. It was revived Saturday, often in conjunction with hashtags about Epstein's death.
Lynne Patton, a Trump appointee at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, used her Instagram account to spread a version of the conspiracy theory.
But "Clinton" wasn't the only name becoming fodder for proponents of conspiracies around Epstein's death. An echo of the Clinton hashtag implicating the president, #TrumpBodyCount, also was trending early Saturday afternoon.
Various unsubstantiated Clinton conspiracy theories have circulated for decades, but some have criticized Twitter for giving them new prominence by allowing related hashtags to gain momentum and to show up in the site's trends sidebar.
Twitter said in a statement that the social media platform's trends are determined by the rate and consistency of tweets on a topic in a certain location. The company said the site aims to reflect the public conversation.
Twitter's rules say it wants to promote "healthy discussions" and may prevent content from trending if it contains profanity or certain graphic elements, incites hatred on the basis of qualities such as gender or race, or otherwise violates Twitter policy.
This article was written by Seung Min Kim and Hannah Knowles, reporters for The Washington Post.