Will footage from Paul Pelosi’s attack put an end to right-wing conspiracy theories?
Within 48 hours of a brutal hammer attack on Paul Pelosi last October, the case had become exploited by the same far-right ecosystem that fuelled it.
Mr Pelosi, 82, suffered serious head injuries when an intruder, identified as David DePape, broke into his San Francisco home and beat him over the head with a hammer days before November’s midterm elections.
The details of the attack on Mr Pelosi are outlined in several court documents based on 911 calls, police video, surveillance footage and interviews with Mr DePape himself, who reportedly told officers that he was “sick of the insane f****** level of lies coming out of Washington DC” and intended to send a message to members of Congress that there were consequences for their actions.
But in the conspiracy universe, there was no home invasion. Mr DePape was depicted as Mr Pelosi’s leftist gay lover, and a far-reaching plot involving Democratic officials and mainstream media is covering up the facts to protect Ms Pelosi.
Those baseless claims – debunked by Mr DePape’s own alleged statements to police, as well as his own apparent online footprint and interviews with his family and neighbours – have been widely shared by influential right-wing figures and media outlets.
Other conservative influencers legitimised the claims by introducing questions that were either already answered in court documents or based on speculation from bogus sources.
During a preliminary hearing last month, prosecutors played portions of Mr Pelosi’s 911 call plus footage from Capitol police surveillance cameras, and body cameras worn by the two police officers who arrived at the house, the Associated Press reported.
Mr DePape, 42, has pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted murder, residential burglary, assault with a deadly weapon, elder abuse, false imprisonment of an elder, and threats to a public official and their family.
On 25 January, a judge ordered the release of a 911 call made by Mr Pelosi on the night he was attacked along with the responding police officer’s bodyworn camera footage.
Prosecutors and Mr DePape’s lawyers had objected to the release of the evidence, claiming it would hinder his right to a fair trial and fuel misinformation about the case.
But San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Stephen Murphy agreed with more than a dozen media outlets who had sought their release, the Associated Press reported.
The recordings could be released as soon as Thursday 26 January.
Almost in unison, rightwing commentators began laying seeds of doubt about what the footage would reveal.
“The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office argued that releasing the Paul Pelosi footage would allow people to manipulate their quest to spread false information,” wrote broadcaster Matt Crouch to his 560,000 Twitter followers. “In other words... What you will see on the video isn’t what really happened... Trust us, we’re Democrats.”
“Rest assured this is NOT the genuine video,” another account posted. “It will have been edited and cherry picked to portray the narrative they want.”
Last week, the far-right news site The Gateway Pundit claimed that the Pelosi’s and police were engaged in a “cover up”.
Rather than dismiss debunked conspiracy theories, right-wing media figures and GOP officials provided a platform to amplify them. Instead of condemning an act of violence and the potential assassination of an elected official, they openly mocked it.
Mr DePape appeared to have been immersed in toxic, online-driven conspiracy theories, according to court filings and his own digital footprint.
He appears to have published a subscription-based blog where he expressed a range of transphobic, antisemitic and racist views, alongside conspiracy theories tied to Covid-19 and QAnon, among others, according to posts reviewed by The Independent.
A recording of Mr DePape’s interview after his arrest on 28 October was played in San Francisco Superior Court on 14 December during a preliminary hearing in the case.
“I’m not trying to get away with it. I know exactly what I did,” he said during the interview.
“The lies are insane,” he continued. “People in Washington. It originates with Hillary. Honestly, day in and day out, the person on TV lying every day was [Nancy] Pelosi. It’s f****** insane the crime spree the Democrats have been on, persecuting the rival campaign.”
Asked by a San Francisco Police Department lieutenant who was interrogating Mr DePape if he was referring to Mr Trump’s campaign, Mr DePape said “yes, Trump”.
Mr Pelosi told police he was able to call 911 from a bathroom, and appeared to try to talk with the dispatcher without alarming Mr DePape. He used the speakerphone so Mr DePape was aware that Mr Pelosi speaking to police, according to court filings.
“There is a gentleman here waiting for my wife to come, waiting for my wife to come back. She’s not going to be here for days so I guess we will have to wait,” Mr Pelosi said.