“You know, I just landed and I’m hearing it’s a big topic,” Donald Trump said, when Michael Savage, a conservative radio host, asked him about theories that Justice Antonin Scalia had been murdered. Trump continued, “And it’s a horrible topic. But they say they found a pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow. I can’t tell you what—I can’t give you an answer. You know, usually I like to give you answers. But I literally just heard it a little while ago. It’s just starting to come out now, as you know, Michael.” Savage, who had introduced Trump by playing “Hail to the Chief” and calling him the next President, replied that he, for one, had been talking about it for a full hour and a half. Savage had already called for “a Warren Commission” like the one that investigated the J.F.K. assassination. There are many theories: Scalia was killed by Barack Obama, or by Rod Blagojevich, or by Hillary Clinton; or, veering to the right corner, by the Bush family, or by Ted Cruz, or by Dick Cheney. Suggested weapons, in addition to the pillow, include carbon monoxide and poison. Where did all this come from?
The pillow is a good place to start. Scalia was found dead in his room at the Cibolo Creek Ranch, a resort about thirty-five miles south of Marfa, Texas. He had gone to bed at around nine o’clock, according to John Poindexter, the ranch owner, and, when Scalia didn’t come to breakfast the next morning, Poindexter eventually went to his room. “We discovered the judge in bed, a pillow over his head. His bed clothes were unwrinkled,” he told the San Antonio Express-News. Poindexter was not calling out the pillow’s placement as strange—it is part of his portrait of a man at peace in death: “It looked like he had not quite awakened from a nap.” Similarly, Poindexter told reporters, over the weekend, with what sounded like pride, that Scalia had been in a state of “complete repose,” following an evening in which he had been cosseted by the flattery of admirers. “If this had to happen, it happened in the very best of circumstances,” Poindexter said. In other words, he brought up the pillow in the first place as evidence that Scalia had had everything a man could have wanted in such a moment, including a pillow.
But Poindexter had thrown a feather-stuffed apple of discord into the Scalia story. The Drudge Report sent out a breaking-news alert: “Scalia Found Dead with ‘Pillow Over Head.’ ” On Tuesday, Poindexter, speaking to CNN, tried to clarify. “He had a pillow over his head, not over his face as some have been saying,” he said. “The pillow was against the headboard and over his head when he was discovered.” This is a conspiracy theory that depends heavily on what the meaning of “over” is—on top of or above—the sort of fine distinction that may make it harder to chase away. We may soon have diagrams laying out second-pillow trajectories.
So, the conspiracy theorists say, tell us how Scalia did die. Poindexter told the Express-News that he’d initially had some trouble reaching federal officials to tell them that one of the most powerful men in the government had died; he got answering machines when he first tried to reach them. Scalia often travelled with U.S. marshals, who presumably would have known the right number to call, but they were not on this trip. Ultimately, Poindexter said, officials “became available and handled it superbly. They flew in by helicopter. They told me to secure the ranch, which I did until this morning.” Sometime during that process, a county judge named Cinderela Guevara was reached by phone. According to the Washington Post, she spoke to the law-enforcement people on the scene, who said that nothing looked suspicious, and to Scalia’s personal physician, who apparently told her that there were all sorts of medical reasons for Scalia, who was seventy-nine, to die suddenly. And so she certified his death by phone.
Under Texas law, that was sufficient, but Guevara could have asked for more, including for an autopsy. Guevara was quoted in some local-news sources as saying that Scalia had had a heart attack, which were then corrected to say that she just meant that his heart stopped—another loop of unhelpful vagueness. Scalia’s health problems were manifold—his family members didn’t want an autopsy or feel that one was necessary. (“I knew, and he knew, that he was at a place in life where he could be taken from this world at any time, and that’s what happened last week,” Scalia’s son Eugene told Laura Ingraham on Wednesday. “Our family just has no doubt he died of natural causes.”) But precision, at this political and cultural moment, would have been helpful. Texas, after all, is a state where a good number of people believe that a military-training exercise named Jade Helm is a cover for a plot by the Obama Administration to declare martial law, and where senior elected officials—senators, governors—are willing to humor them.
This is also why Trump is unlikely to pay a political price for his failure to quickly dismiss the conspiracy theories. He is in tune with the feeling among many in the electorate that the official story is almost never the whole story. One argument against the conspiracy theories is that everything that seems odd about Scalia’s death can be explained as linguistic or official clumsiness. This, though, also plays to one of the main themes of Trump’s campaign. In speech after speech, he says that there are “stupid and incompetent people leading our nation” and that “we need to get a lot smarter.” It’s a corollary to the notion that the system is rigged by moneyed interests that get what they want by paying off the politicians: people in government are too dumb to get rich any other way. If the choices are perfidy or bumbling, Trump wins both ways.
The Scalia conspiracy theories are crude and fantastic, but one reason they may persist is that the respectable Republicans—Presidential candidates and Senate leaders—echo their bottom line, which is that it would be illegitimate, a seizure of power, almost, for President Obama to name a successor to Scalia. He doesn’t have the right, even though the inauguration of the next President is almost a year away; he would be cheating, ignoring the people. The quiet implication is that Obama, himself, is not legitimate.
“You certainly don’t think that Hussein Obama should have the right to do an interim appointment, do you?” Savage asked Trump, in their radio interview. “No, I actually commented that we’re going to have to make sure that Mitch McConnell and the Senate hold it up,” Trump, who spent a lot of time during the 2012 election season spreading doubts about Obama’s American birth, replied, without pausing to comment on that “Hussein.” Savage didn’t press him. “I’m in talk radio, you’re running for the Presidency—it’s two different worlds in some ways,” he said. “And I don’t want to drag you into my world because it’s quite a different world, by the way, than the one you’re in right now.” Maybe not so different, after all.