Elon Musk, others amplify conspiracy theory about Paul Pelosi attack
Days after finalizing his purchase of Twitter, the billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk shared an article claiming the attack on US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband was an altercation resulting from a drunken sexual encounter with a male prostitute. This is false; federal charging documents allege that the suspect broke into the Pelosi family's San Francisco residence in search of the congresswoman, and authorities confirmed he and Paul Pelosi did not know each other.
"There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye," Musk tweeted on October 30, 2022 in reply to former US secretary of state and presidential runner-up Hillary Clinton, who shared a report about the alleged intruder's online footprint showing ties to conspiracy theories.
Musk's tweet, which gained more than 100,000 likes before it was deleted, echoed claims that multiplied across social media, buoyed by prominent conservatives such as Donald Trump Jr, former president Donald Trump's eldest son, and far-right commentator Dinesh D'Souza.
The tweet linked to an article from a website called the Santa Monica Observer, headlined: "The Awful Truth: Paul Pelosi Was Drunk Again, And In a Dispute With a Male Prostitute Early Friday Morning."
The Santa Monica Observer has previously published misinformation about Covid-19, politics and other topics, according to NewsGuard, a company that assesses the reliability of websites. One false story claimed Clinton died and was replaced by a body double during a 2016 presidential debate, NewsGuard found. Another said Trump appointed Ye, the rapper formerly known at Kanye West, to an administration position.
The site's claim that Pelosi was hurt in a lover's quarrel comes as extremism researchers have warned in recent months about escalated rhetoric and threats facing LGBTQ Americans, and years of vilification in Republican ads and online discourse of Nancy Pelosi, one of the most powerful leaders in Washington.
Such allegations are false, the US Justice Department's charging documents against the suspect show.
Federal authorities on October 31 charged David DePape, 42, with attempting to kidnap a public official and assaulting her immediate family member with the intent to retaliate against Pelosi's performance in Congress. The San Francisco District Attorney's Office followed up with state charges for attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, elder abuse, residential burglary, false imprisonment and threatening the life or serious bodily harm to a public official.
"We do not have evidence that shows that the victim and the suspect knew each other," said Robert Rueca, a public information officer for the San Francisco Police Department, in a statement to AFP that reflected public comments from San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins.
A spokesperson for Nancy Pelosi referred AFP to other statements from the police denying that the men knew each other. In a statement, the House speaker's office said Paul Pelosi underwent successful surgery for a fractured skull and serious injuries to his right arm and hands.
DePape was to appear in court November 1.
Intruder was stranger, charging documents say
The article Musk shared on Twitter spun an unsubstantiated story in which Pelosi met DePape at a gay bar around 2 am and brought him home, where they were discovered tangling in their underwear after an unidentified third person called police to check on the house.
The Santa Monica Observer later added an update acknowledging that Pelosi and DePape were not acquainted. But the story -- which it defended on Twitter -- had already blown up, receiving more than 20,000 interactions across Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, according to BuzzSumo, a social media insights tool.
Across social media, similar posts claimed Pelosi knew DePape; that he let DePape into his home; that the two men were both in their underwear; that both men were wielding hammers; and that DePape told investigators they were having sex before police arrived. The hashtag "#Pelosigaylover" trended on Twitter.
D'Souza, who later accused authorities of "trying to 'clean up' the facts," speculated that when DePape asked where Nancy Pelosi was, "he was making sure she was NOT AT HOME so the sexual rendezvous with Paul Pelosi could proceed."
In a recorded interview DePape provided to San Francisco Police Department officers after he was read his rights, DePape said he broke into the house through a glass door in the hope of finding Nancy Pelosi and described a plan to break her kneecaps, according to the DOJ's affidavit in support of a criminal complaint.
DePape said he woke Paul Pelosi and planned to restrain him before the speaker's husband -- not a third person -- called police and the two men moved downstairs. DePape also said Pelosi ran over and opened the door when police knocked.
DePape struck Pelosi in the head with a hammer as police arrived. He also had zip ties, tape and rope on him.
The affidavit says nothing about a sexual relationship.
Instead, contradicting claims that the two men entered the Pelosi residence together, the filing says DePape "stated that he broke into the house through a glass door, which was a difficult task that required the use of a hammer. DEPAPE stated that Pelosi was in bed and appeared surprised by DEPAPE."
Pelosi told police he had never seen DePape before the man woke him up, looking for the congresswoman.
Some social media posts have focused on audio of a police dispatcher's call to another operator after speaking with Pelosi, in which the dispatcher said Pelosi had “stated that he does not know who the male is, but he advised that his name is David and that he is a friend."
The charging documents clarify what happened. They say: "Pelosi stated words to the effect of there is a male in the home and that the male is going to wait for Pelosi’s wife. Pelosi further conveyed that he does not know who the male is. The male said his name is David."
DePape was not in underwear
The charging documents also contradict claims that both men had hammers and were stripped to their underwear when police arrived.
But the affidavit says the hammer DePape used to strike Pelosi in the head was DePape's, not Pelosi's, and that DePape was wearing "all black." The filing says that "officers removed a cell phone, cash, clipper cards, and an unidentified card from DEPAPE’s right shorts pocket."
In a press conference, Jenkins added that Pelosi "was wearing a loose-fitting pajama shirt and boxer shorts."
Other false claims
Other posts speculating about a sexual relationship between the two men surmised that DePape was in Pelosi's car when he crashed it in May and was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol -- a charge he pleaded guilty to in August.
But Paul Gero, assistant district attorney at the Napa County District Attorney's Office, which prosecuted the case, said: "There was no one in the car with Mr. Pelosi on the night of the crash and arrest."
Another post describing DePape as "Paul's friend" purported to show DePape working as a "cameraman" during the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol -- when rioters broke into the House speaker's office and roamed the halls chanting, "Where are you, Nancy?"
But reverse image searches revealed the Associated Press photo in the post is from 2013 and it shows DePape filming for a nude wedding in San Francisco.