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Trump slammed over conspiracy theory about senior hospitalized in Floyd protest

U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday advanced an unfounded conspiracy theory about a 75-year-old protester in Buffalo, N.Y., who was pushed down by police officers, tweeting without evidence that the confrontation may have been a "set up."

Martin Gugino, 75, remains hospitalized in Buffalo, N.Y.

Martin Gugino, a 75-year-old protester, lies on the ground after he was shoved on June 4 in Buffalo, hitting his head on the pavement. (Jamie Quinn/Reuters)

U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday advanced an unfounded conspiracy theory about a 75-year-old protester in Buffalo, N.Y., who was pushed down by police officers, tweeting without evidence that the confrontation may have been a "set up."

Trump, who has called himself "your president of law and order," was once again siding firmly with police over the protesters who have taken to the streets across the country.

With his tweet, Trump attempted to cast doubt on video showing Buffalo police on June 4 shoving the man, who fell backward and hit his head on the sidewalk. Martin Gugino, 75, was seen bleeding from his head as officers walk away.

The video of the encounter sparked outrage online as demonstrations were well underway in the wake of George Floyd's death to protest excessive use of force and agitate for police reform. 

"Buffalo protester shoved by Police could be an ANTIFA provocateur," Trump wrote. "75 year old Martin Gugino was pushed away after appearing to scan police communications in order to black out the equipment. @OANN I watched, he fell harder than was pushed. Was aiming scanner. Could be a set up?"

(CBC News)

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at his daily news briefing Tuesday was apoplectic over the tweet, which he described as "pouring gasoline on the fire" during a tense moment for the country.

"What does that even mean, 'fell harder than he was pushed'?" said Cuomo. "What, do you think it was staged? Do you think the blood coming out of his head was staged?

"Show some decency, show some humanity," Cuomo said, and called on Trump to apologize.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the president's tweet, which cast doubt on Martin Gugino's interaction was police, as 'reckless.' 2:18

Reaction was also swift from Democrats on Capitol Hill in Washington. Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz said it was time to ask Republicans if they were still supporting a president who could make such a claim.

The No. 2 Republican in the Senate, John Thune of South Dakota, did criticize Trump's tweet.

"It's a serious accusation, which should only be made with facts and evidence. And I haven't seen any yet," Thune told reporters at the Capitol.

Asked if the president should not be making such an accusation, Thune said: "Well, I think that's a given."

Longtime peace activist

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, another Democrat, tweeted to Trump that "the City of Buffalo is laser focused on healing, taking action against racial injustice and building a good future for our residents. We pray for a full recovery for Mr. Gugino, and as I have repeatedly said, the two officers deserve due process."

Gugino, who is out of the intensive care unit but remains hospitalized, has been described by friends as a retiree and veteran peace activist driven by his faith and a desire for social justice. He is involved with the Western New York Peace Center and Latin American Solidarity Committee, said Vicki Ross, the centre's executive director.

Ross said Gugino has also been undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.

WATCH | Graphic content warning: 75-year-old Buffalo man knocked down, bloodied:

The man was at a protest that was nearing its end when he was pushed by police and hit his head on the sidewalk. Two police officers have been suspended.   0:35

Gugino's attorney, Kelly Zarcone, told The Associated Press that Trump's accusations "are utterly baseless and ridiculous."

Gugino, she said, "has always been a peaceful protester because he cares about today's society."

"No one from law enforcement has even suggested anything otherwise, so we are at a loss to understand why the president of the United States would make such dark, dangerous and untrue accusations about him. We can confirm that those accusations are utterly baseless and ridiculous," she said.

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, also called Trump out for the tweet.

Two Buffalo police officers were charged with assault Saturday in connection with the incident. Robert McCabe and Aaron Torgalski, who had been suspended, pleaded not guilty to second-degree assault and were released without bail.

Dozens of police officers stepped down from the department's crowd control unit, objecting to the suspensions of the two fellow officers.

Frequent Antifa accusations

Trump and Attorney General William Barr have sought to tie violent incidents that have sometimes occurred in two weeks of national protests with Antifa. While there have been violent acts, including property destruction and theft, there is little evidence that Antifa-aligned protesters could be behind a movement that has appeared nearly simultaneously in hundreds of cities and towns in all 50 states since Floyd's death.

Antifa, short for "anti-fascist," doesn't appear to be a formal organization.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which monitors extremists, describes Antifa as an amorphous movement whose adherents oppose people or groups they consider authoritarian or racist. Antifa aims to "intimidate and dissuade racists," but its aggressive tactics including physical confrontations can create "a vicious, self-defeating cycle of attacks, counter-attacks and blame," the ADL has said.

Trump's tweet referenced a report from the far-right One America News Network. The report concerning Gugino came from an OANN reporter who is Russian. According to the Daily Beast, the reporter has also worked for Sputnik, the Kremlin-backed media outlet.

OANN's Chanel Rion was barred in April by the White House Correspondents' Association for repeatedly showing up to briefings on days her organization was not in the rotation to attend.

Despite the WHCA action, the White House has allowed her to continue to attend.

Recently, Trump has accused former congressman and current Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough of being complicit of murder in a staffer's death nearly 20 years ago, despite no evidence to support that claim and a medical examiner's report that ruled her death accidental. Despite public comments from the young woman's widower that the tweets were a source of pain, Trump continued to tweet about her death.

Rion appeared to take Trump's side in the Scarborough controversy at a recent press briefing.

"If Joe Scarborough were innocent, couldn't he sue the president for defamation?" she asked the White House press secretary.

"And then, in turn, couldn't President Trump's attorneys immediately depose Joe Scarborough and allow him to go under oath to explain how this 28-year-old woman was found dead by his desk with multiple skull fractures?"

With files from CBC News

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