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The New York Times: How Trump’s Tweets Cause Collateral Damage for Families Already in Pain

Washington, May 29, 2020
The New York Times: How Trump’s Tweets Cause Collateral Damage for Families Already in Pain

In the 19 years since a faulty heart valve caused Lori Klausutis to faint and fatally hit her head on a desk, her family has had to emotionally weather swells of conspiracy theories positing that she was the victim of foul play, even murder, despite all medical and police evidence to the contrary.

First came voices on the political left trying to cast her death as mysterious and tie it to her Republican boss, Representative Joe Scarborough of Florida. Then came a Senate candidate who rekindled the innuendo ahead of the 2006 election to try to keep Mr. Scarborough out of a Republican primary. Eventually, the right-wing fringe took over, persistently returning to the incident to stir distrust in Mr. Scarborough, now a liberal MSNBC personality.

But rarely has an American family, all private citizens, had to endure having their personal pain weaponized by someone with the unchecked bully pulpit of the president of the United States. People close to Ms. Klausutis’s widower, Timothy, and other relatives say the family has been aching anew for Lori and feels hurt that President Trump keeps tweeting about her to score political points.

Mr. Trump’s baseless insinuations that Mr. Scarborough was involved in Ms. Klausutis’s death and had an affair with her reflect a callous pattern in which the president attacks his critics by going after their families or even ordinary people unconnected to Mr. Trump’s grievance. They have become the collateral damage of a transactional president and his followers, whose online swarm lingers and continues to unsettle long after Mr. Trump has moved on to the next outrage.

Some of the people pulled into the spotlight against their will, like Ms. Klausutis’s family, declined to describe their difficult experience, reluctant to become a media focus and convinced that little will deter the conspiracy theorists.

“It was a pretty tough time for them right after it happened, and that’s really who my heart aches for every time it comes up,” Paul Lux, a friend of Ms. Klausutis’s from the Okaloosa County Young Republicans, said, referring to her death in 2001. “This is the second time in the last four or five years. I always get called.”

Mr. Trump has gone after the dead and their families before, usually because he regards them as political opponents. In 2016, he claimed that the Gold Star mother of a Muslim soldier was not “allowed” to speak alongside her husband at the Democratic National Convention. He relentlessly insulted Senator John McCain of Arizona for months after his death. When former Representative John D. Dingell Jr. died last year, Mr. Trump mocked his widow, Representative Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, and implied that her late husband was “looking up” from hell.

But it is his disregard for the pain of private citizens that is most striking about his latest conspiracy theory about Ms. Klausutis, as he claims that her family would want to know more about her death when all they want is for him to leave her memory alone.

Mr. Trump previously cited Ms. Klausutis’s death in 2017, calling it an “‘unsolved mystery’” in a tweet suggesting that Mr. Scarborough be fired. Ms. Klausutis’s death is neither unsolved nor a mystery: Mr. Scarborough was in Washington when she died in his congressional office in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. The police investigated, the medical examiner performed an autopsy, and her death was ruled an accident.

But that has mattered little to the president. On Wednesday, he falsely referred to Ms. Klausutis’s death as a “cold case” — even after Mr. Klausutis wrote a heart-wrenching letter to Twitter pleading that it take down Mr. Trump’s posts. Twitter said the posts did not violate the platform’s terms of service.

“The frequency, intensity, ugliness, and promulgation of these horrifying lies ever increases on the internet,” wrote Mr. Klausutis, who still lives in the same home in Niceville, Fla., that he and his wife bought not long before her death. “These conspiracy theorists, including most recently the president of the United States, continue to spread their bile and misinformation on your platform disparaging the memory of my wife and our marriage.”

For Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the attacks by Mr. Trump after their Democratic convention appearance continue to reverberate. Mr. Khan had denounced Mr. Trump’s stance on Muslim immigration, invoking the memory of his soldier son, Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq, and waving his pocket-size copy of the Constitution. Mr. Trump then belittled the Khans by suggesting that Mrs. Khan had not been permitted to speak. In truth, she was still too overcome by the death of her son in 2004.

Initially, Mr. Khan said in an interview, he figured the furor against his family would subside and the news cycle would move on. But nearly four years later, he said, he still receives threatening letters, emails and phone calls. (The threats are a tiny fraction of the thousands of supportive messages the family has received, Mr. Khan added.)

“We have realized that this is a very calculated scheme, a very deliberate way of causing pain in others: ‘I will utter this, then I will go quiet and then I will let my followers take it from there,’” Mr. Khan said of Mr. Trump. “This is in his operating manual — this is not unintentional or in the heat of the moment.”

After a while, the family developed a system to open unaddressed envelopes with gloves after letting the letters sit for a few days. They have a longstanding relationship with local law enforcement, who routinely patrol near their home in Charlottesville, Va. For years, Mr. Khan, a lawyer, had an automated response on his email to remind the sender that a threat sent over email is a federal crime.

“It was emotionally draining and disturbing,” he said. “No human being can be constantly and constantly on guard.” Now, he added, he sees it playing out with the Klausutis family, as Mr. Trump’s attacks shake “an innocent family who grieves.”

The White House press office declined to comment for this article.

The impact of getting caught in the maelstrom of an interaction with Mr. Trump can last for years. That was the case for Myeshia Johnson, who complained about the president’s tone during a 2017 condolence call after her husband, Sgt. La David T. Johnson, was killed in Niger.

The complaint sparked a tweet from Mr. Trump questioning her account of the call and a combative news conference from John F. Kelly, the president’s chief of staff at the time. Representative Frederica S. Wilson, a Florida Democrat who remains friends with Ms. Johnson, said this week that Ms. Johnson’s pain from the incident lingers.

For weeks after the clash with Mr. Trump, Ms. Johnson received death threats and vitriolic comments on social media from supporters of Mr. Trump’s, many of them saying she did not deserve money raised by a GoFundMe page to support her three children. Ms. Johnson eventually took down her Facebook and Twitter accounts, Ms. Wilson said.

“That hurt her so badly,” Ms. Wilson said. “I don’t think people realize what really happens to people who are demonized on social media. It hurts. It broke her heart.”

The anguish is reminiscent to what Trump allies have caused for the family of Seth Rich, the former Democratic National Committee staff member whose 2016 murder was exploited by conspiracy theorists. Sean Hannity of Fox News, a champion and confidant of Mr. Trump’s, helped amplify the conspiracy theories tying Mr. Rich’s death to hacking of D.N.C. email accounts that ultimately aided the president’s 2016 campaign.

Left to fend for itself against a barrage of social media attention, the family was profoundly affected by the unfounded insinuations, veering moment to moment from grief to anxiety to fear, said Brad Bauman, a former family spokesman who is still in touch with them. Mr. Trump did not step in to tamp down the conspiracy theories.

“At the time that they were going through this, it felt like a revictimization,” Mr. Bauman said. “And it was almost as though they had lost Seth for a second time.”

The 2019 report by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, confirmed that Mr. Rich had not been the source of the emails, published by WikiLeaks.

Mr. Rich’s parents, Joel and Mary Rich, filed a lawsuit in 2018 against Fox News contending that it helped push the groundless allegations. Through their lawyers, the couple declined to comment. Mr. Rich’s brother, Aaron, also declined to comment.

Aaron Rich filed a separate lawsuit in 2018 related to allegations that he had worked with his brother to leak the D.N.C. emails to WikiLeaks. The lawsuit details how he was the target of death threats and online harassment, requiring him to pay for security equipment and seek psychological treatment. Both of the family’s lawsuits are ongoing.

One of the defendants in Aaron Rich’s lawsuit is Matt Couch, a founder of a company named America First Media. His recent post about the Scarborough conspiracy theory was retweeted by Mr. Trump over the weekend, causing the Klausutis family renewed distress.

Other families aggrieved by Mr. Trump in the past declined to comment, saying they have been traumatized enough and do not care to relive their experiences.

For the family of Senator McCain, Mr. Trump’s attacks were a constant over the last five years, continuing even after the senator passed away when the president argued with his own aides about lowering the flags at the White House to half-staff.

“There’s a real psychological, pit-in-your stomach sadness that comes with having the president attack your family,” Mr. McCain’s daughter Meghan said in a brief interview. “Even though he does it because it’s a distraction from whatever scandal he’s battling, it can be detrimental to your family’s mental health.”

Mr. Trump’s days-long tirade about the Scarborough conspiracy theory has drawn unusually sharp rebukes from the conservative news media, but few Republican politicians broke ranks to criticize the president. One of them was Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who posted a tweet on Wednesday about his friendship with Mr. Scarborough and the president’s impact on Mr. Klausutis.

“Joe can weather vile, baseless accusations but T.J.? His heart is breaking. Enough already,” Mr. Romney wrote.

Three years ago, Mr. Klausutis, an Air Force researcher, opened up about his life to Bicycling magazine, recounting how deeply he despaired after his wife’s death, keeping to himself and gaining an unhealthy amount of weight. After five years, he bought a mountain bike and found joy and camaraderie in the sport. He also lost 165 pounds.

“I went to grief counseling after my wife died,” he told the magazine. “They told me to find a hobby … to find like-minded people who support you.”

Mr. Lux, the friend who knew Ms. Klausutis from the Young Republicans, is now the Okaloosa County elections supervisor. Her life had a lasting impact on his: Ms. Klausutis was a fellow Catholic who encouraged Mr. Lux to return to the church. He did, starting with her funeral.
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