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Trump's fake controversy about Clinton's emails getting an Iranian scientist killed, explained

Shahram Amiri arrived in Tehran, Iran, in 2010. A few months later, he disappeared. The Iranian government confirmed he was executed for espionage.
Shahram Amiri arrived in Tehran, Iran, in 2010. A few months later, he disappeared. The Iranian government confirmed he was executed for espionage.
Getty Images/Getty Images

Last week, the Iranian government executed an Iranian nuclear scientist for espionage.

In light of the news, Donald Trump shared some additional insight on the scientist’s death with his 10.8 million Twitter followers: The Iranian government killed him because of Hillary Clinton’s "hacked" emails. His source: "Many people are saying" it.

Shahram Amiri’s execution comes at the end of an almost decade-long history, in which Amiri reportedly defected to the US of his own accord, defected back to Iran with the Iranian government’s support, and was then imprisoned for spying and ultimately executed.

"Shahram Amiri was hanged for revealing the country’s top secrets to the enemy," Iran’s Justice Ministry told the country’s state news agency. Amiri’s mother confirmed seeing his body with rope marks around his neck.

Trump’s comments have a more recent history, likely stemming from two sources.

On CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas signaled that there was discussion about Amiri on Clinton’s private server: "In the emails that were on Hillary Clinton’s private server, there were conversations among her senior advisers about this gentleman. That goes to show just how reckless and careless her decision was to put that kind of highly classified information a private server. I think her judgment is not suited to keep this country safe," Cotton said.

That day, the Drudge Report stretched Cotton’s remarks, sharing a story with the tag line "CLINTON EMAIL LED TO EXECUTION IN IRAN?" which likely led "many people" to share the sentiment and Trump to tweet it.

Unsurprisingly, Clinton’s campaign responded to Trump’s insinuation that Clinton was somehow to blame for Amiri’s death, censuring him for feeding conspiracy theories.

"The Trump campaign has never met a conspiracy theory it didn’t like. He and his supporters continue to use increasingly desperate rhetoric to attack Hillary Clinton and make absurd accusations because they have no ideas for the American people," Clinton campaign spokesperson Jesse Lehrich told the Washington Post.

There is one big problem with Trump’s tweet, though — namely that there is "no reasonable connection between the discussion of Amiri’s case on email by Clinton’s staff to Amiri’s eventual execution," writes the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin, who started covering Amiri’s story six years ago:

There’s no evidence her server was hacked. The Iranians knew all about Amiri well before the emails were released publicly. His kidnapping story never held water and his fate was sealed long before his sentence was carried out.

Rather, the implication that Clinton has Amiri’s blood on her hands is yet another example of Trump’s often heedless commentary — let’s not forget his ludicrous insinuations that Sen. Ted Cruz’s father was involved in JFK’s assassination — only now it’s all the more serious with Trump as the official presidential nominee for the Republican Party.

The nuclear scientist’s mysterious story predates Clinton’s email scandal

Over the past two years, Clinton’s team has released almost all 52,455 emails from her private server. But Amiri’s story predates this scandal, and there is no evidence that Clinton’s emails were "hacked" — by the Iranians or anyone else. Even more importantly, though, the premise that the Iranian government tied Amiri to espionage after reading Clinton’s private emails is inconsistent with Amiri’s own story.

In the summer of 2009, Amiri, a nuclear scientist at Tehran's Malek-Ashtar University of Technology, which reportedly has ties to Iran’s military, disappeared while on a religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. A year later, he appeared in the United States, having reportedly defected to the CIA.

According to information released in 2010, the CIA viewed Amiri’s defection as "an intelligence coup" in its long-running operation spying on Iran’s nuclear facilities, ABC first reported. Amiri had allegedly been feeding the United States information about his country’s nuclear facilities from inside Iran and wanted to get out of the country. His disappearance in Saudi Arabia was part of his defection, anonymous sources briefed on the operation told ABC.

But that same year, Amiri went public with a different story — or stories, rather. He made several YouTube videos, first claiming the CIA had kidnapped him in Saudi Arabia and that he hadn’t shared any secret Iranian information, then shifting the narrative to say he had been in the United States to study and then was captured by the CIA.


The State Department denied Amiri’s comments, claiming he had been a paid CIA informant. In 2010, then-Secretary of State Clinton publicly stated: "He’s free to go. He was free to come. These decisions are his alone to make." In July 2010, Amiri showed up at the Iranian interests section of the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, DC, asking to be sent back home to Iran.

Why Amiri decided to go public about his connection with the CIA and why he asked to be sent back to Iran remain a mystery.

Some theorize that he had gotten cold feet, or that his family in Iran had been threatened. At the time, Dr. Muhammad Sahimi, an Iranian chemical engineering professor and columnist, also pointed out that those deeply connected to Iran’s nuclear program were rarely permitted to travel outside the country: "The fact that Amiri was allowed to leave Iran and go to Saudi Arabia already indicated to me at that time that he probably doesn’t know much," Sahimi told NPR.

Indeed, Iran’s deputy foreign minister denied Amiri was a nuclear scientist altogether: "Amiri is a researcher at one of Iran's universities," Hassan Qashqavi said.

Amiri returned to Iran, where he was greeted by his wife and 7-year-old son and received what was described as "a hero’s welcome" from the Iranian government. At a press conference after his return, he said the United States tortured him mentally and physically.

"They wanted me to announce that I had come to seek asylum in the United States of my own free will and that I handed over some very important documents contained in a laptop, including secrets about Iran's nuclear issue," Amiri said. "They wanted to use this as pressure to implement their political plans and hostile actions which they have always done to our country."

But only a few months later, he disappeared again — this time in Iran. Then, last week, the Iranian government confirmed years of speculation that Amiri had been arrested and secretly detained by the government, telling reporters he had been hanged for treason and returning his deceased body to his family.

According to the Associated Press, Iranian judiciary spokesperson Gholamhosein Mohseni Ejehi said Amiri "had access to the country's secret and classified information" and "had been linked to our hostile and No. 1 enemy, America, the Great Satan." He explained that Amiri had been tried in a death penalty case that was upheld by an appeals court.

Amiri’s death is the first time the Iranian government has admitted to secretly detaining someone, according to the AP.

Clinton’s emails did mention Amiri

Parts of Amiri’s storyline were captured in the emails released from Clinton’s private server.

On July 5, 2010, Richard Morningstar, the State Department’s special envoy for Eurasian energy, sent an email (obtained by WikiLeaks) to Clinton’s foreign policy adviser Jacob Sullivan indicating that if Amiri wanted to leave, he should:

Per the subject we discussed, we have a diplomatic, "psychological" issue, not a legal issue. Our friend has to be given a way out. We should recognize his concerns and frame it in terms of a misunderstanding with no malevolent intent and that we will make sure there is no recurrence. Our person won't be able to do anything anyway. If he has to leave so be it.

The following week, on July 12, 2010, Sullivan sent an email to Clinton to note that Amiri had gone to the Pakistani Embassy, which hosted an Iranian interests office, to demand repatriation:

"The gentleman you have talked to Bill Burns about has apparently gone to his country's interests section because he is unhappy with how much time it has taken to facilitate his departure. This could lead to problematic news stories in the next 24 hours. Will keep you posted," Sullivan wrote.

The key point to understand here, though, is that Amiri had already outed himself publicly by the time these emails were written. Which means that the emails, even if they had been hacked (which, remember, there is no evidence of), played no role in outing Amiri as a spy to the Iranians and thus did not contribute to his death.

Trump doesn’t check what he tweets. He deals with the consequences later.

Trump’s tweet on Amiri’s death is certainly not the first time he has used his political platform to give voice to loosely sourced and sometimes baseless claims.

He has repeatedly insinuated that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in JFK’s assassination. After the shooting in Orlando, he implied that Obama had deeper ties to terrorists than the American public is aware of. Seemingly apropos of nothing, Trump reignited conspiracies that there was something "fishy" about the suicide of Bill Clinton’s close friend and former White House counsel Vince Foster. Most recently he said Hillary Clinton was unfit to be president because foreign governments likely have a "blackmail file" on her from "hacking" her emails.

And of course, before this election cycle even started, Trump was known for his close ties to the repeatedly debunked birther movement, which alleged Obama was not actually an American-born citizen and questioned Obama’s true religious affiliations.

It’s all part of the fundamental element in his campaign strategy of drumming up controversy. The Republican nominee’s policy with Twitter seems simple: If it hurts his opponents, run with it, and deal with the consequences later.

Trump has been able to brush off his notably foolhardy approach to campaigning. But after he initially claimed Cruz’s father had ties to JFK’s death in March, Vox’s Ezra Klein argued it should be taken seriously:

His tendency to solicit, repeat, and retweet self-serving falsehoods served up by sycophants and hangers-on should be taken seriously. Among the most important tasks the president has is knowing what to believe, whom to listen to, which facts to trust, and which theories to explore. Trump's terrible judgment in this regard is one of the many reasons he's not qualified for the office.

Now that Trump has clinched the Republican Party’s nomination, the stakes are even higher.

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