In response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s penchant for spreading conspiracy theories (in particular, the insinuation that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough killed an intern years ago), his critics on social media invented a conspiracy theory of their own: Trump, they claimed, killed a woman named Carolyn Gombell in 2000.
The rumor started with a tweet from God on May 26, 2020:
That and subsequent tweets in a thread started by the Twitter account TheTweetOfGod (hereafter referred to as ToG) followed a pattern similar to that of conspiracy theories pushed by Trump and his supporters: It made an outlandish claim and then attempted to prove it true by "connecting" a series of dots. ToG, for instance, followed up this claim with several “FACTS” about the alleged incident. ToG claimed that Gombell’s mother had an audio recording of “her daughter the night before she was killed saying, ‘If something happens to me it was Donald.’” ToG claimed that Officer Bernard Kerik had written in his autobiography that he had made “certain inconvenient facts disappear” for a “a certain well-known real-estate magnate." And ToG claimed that Gombell’s roommate, Michelle White, died of "suicide" just two weeks after Gombell’s death.
But the coup de grâce, a fixture of so many conspiracy theories, was the claim that verifiable information regarding Gombell’s death had been mysteriously scrubbed from all of the usual places as part of a cover-up.
Taken at face value, these “facts” paint a damning picture: The President of the United States killed a woman in 2000. Even for readers with a slightly more discerning eye, this thread still “raised questions” and suggested that Trump was likely involved in some sort of nefarious activity.
Before we start pulling apart this set of claims, let’s make something clear: Donald Trump did not murder a woman named Carolyn Gombell in 2000. Carolyn Gombell never existed.
This thread was posted on May 26, 2020, the same day Twitter announced that it would not remove Trump’s tweets pushing a debunked conspiracy theory about MSNBC's Joe Scarborough supposedly killing an intern named Lori Klausutis, despite her widower's pleas that the platform do so. ToG created a conspiracy theory that mirrored this and others pushed by the president, except that ToG’s conspiracy theory was directed at the president himself.
"Facts" #1 & #2: Where's the Evidence?
While some may disagree with ToG's tactic, it does give us an opportunity to pull apart a conspiracy theory to show just how it was put together. ToG's first "fact" claims that there's an audio recording of Gombell naming Trump as her potential killer. However, saying something exists does not make that thing exist. As you'll notice, this viral thread does not actually link to an audio file of Gombell making this statement.
ToG's second "fact" makes a similarly baseless claim. While this account says that forensics first "matched the residual thumbprints found on Carolyn's neck as 'matching' Trump's own (small) hands," they provide no supporting evidence to back up this claim.
"Fact" #3: A Nonexistent Book
In ToG's third fact, we finally have something that we can truly investigate. Not only does ToG claim that "Kerik" (referring to former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik) wrote about the incident in his 2009 autobiography "One Good Cop," but ToG also provides the alleged page number.
At first glance, this detail makes it seem like this rumor is valid and verified. ToG, after all, just provided a source for his claim and most readers are not going to take the time to look up this passage. If they did, however, they'd see that this book does not actually exist.
Kerik has written two autobiographies about his experiences as police commissioner and as the minister of the interior of Iraq, and his jailing for fraud and lying to authorities, but neither of these books was titled "One Good Cop." The first, published in 2001, was titled "The Lost Son: A Life in Pursuit of Justice," and the other, published in 2015, was titled "From Jailer to Jailed: My Journey from Correction and Police Commissioner to Inmate #84888-054."
Although Kerik did not write a book entitled "One Good Cop" in which he admitted to "disappearing evidence" for a certain "real estate mogul," we imagine that his name was included in this thread for a reason. It grounds this conspiracy theory at least partly in reality — Kerik, after all, was a real and controversial figure — and provides interested parties an opportunity to ask some suspicious questions: Why did Trump issue a full pardon to Kerik? Was it because Kerik helped him cover up a murder?
While ToG did not make this specific accusation, the account did provide just enough information to let people start drawing their own conclusions.
The Death of Michelle White?
The fourth "fact" provided by ToG insinuates that not only did Trump murder a woman named Carolyn Gombell, supposedly, but he also had her roommate killed to cover up the crime. ToG does not directly make this accusation, either. Rather, they put the words "committed suicide" in quotation marks to imply that while this is the official narrative, it may also not be the truth. This is another common tactic used by purveyors of misinformation (notably those spreading the similar "Clinton Body Bags" conspiracy theories for the past quarter-century).
We searched Newspapers.com for articles reporting that a woman named "Michelle White" threw herself in front of a train in New York in 2000, but again, we came up empty-handed.
Why weren't we able to find any information about a woman named Carolyn Gombell? According to ToG, it's because all of the information regarding her death has been scrubbed from the internet as part of a massive cover-up to protect Trump. While this certainly sounds suspicious -- damning, even -- it also provides convenient cover to hide a baseless claim.
The fact of the matter is that searching the internet for articles on the death of Carolyn Gombell doesn't yield many results, not because these articles were deleted as part of a cover up, but because they never existed in the first place.
It Starts with a Joke...
When we first came across ToG's thread on May 26, 2020, we thought it was obvious that this Twitter account was using the language of conspiracy theorists to make a point about how easy it is to start a baseless rumor, and also to challenge social media platforms to enforce their content policies. Soon thereafter, however, we started to receive queries from people who thought that there might be some truth to the claim that Trump killed a woman in 2000.
The day following ToG's thread, fake obituary pages were published for "Carolyn Gombell" on websites such as DeadDeath and Ever Loved. The hashtag #JusticeForCarolyn also trended on Twitter as social media users spread the baseless claim. While this may seem an obvious ruse now, in May 2020, it's easy to imagine people being taken in by this claim if they were to encounter it for the first time a week or a month afterward.
Did President Trump Murder a Woman Named Carolyn Gombell in 2000?
This conspiracy theory was invented in May 2020 as a criticism of President Trump for spreading baseless rumors, and of the social networks that allow him to do so.
Did Joe Scarborough Murder an Intern in 2001?
In May 2020, President Trump repeatedly insinuated that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough had murdered a woman. The president, just like the ToG Twitter account, made outlandish and evidence-free claims, asked leading questions, and provided just enough detail to let his followers start connecting imaginary dots:
The biggest difference between Trump's tweets and those of TheTweetofGod is that Trump's accusations deal with the death of real woman, Lori Klausutis, who died in 2001, reportedly as a result of a heart condition. But this is not a "cold case," as Trump claims, and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough is not a murder suspect. In fact, Scarborough was hundreds of miles away at the time of Klausutis' death.