But Trump’s recent moves are perhaps the most he has directly engaged with QAnon-beloved figures as president in such a short time period. In a matter of several days, he met multiple times with Sidney Powell, the controversial attorney who is a hero in the QAnon community, and talked multiple times with Rep. elect-Marjorie Taylor Greene, the first QAnon-booster to get elected to Congress. He also met with Michael Flynn, the former Trump national security adviser who became a celebrated QAnon figure after seeking to rescind a guilty plea for lying to the FBI.
And on Sunday, Trump retweeted 11 QAnon-linked accounts — the most he had elevated Q content since July 4, according to Media Matters for America, a progressive watchdog site monitoring far-right media.
The behavior itself does not prove that Trump is specifically targeting a QAnon audience or embracing the ideas of the movement itself. But it does show how the president is increasingly turning to the most extreme and loyal corners of his base as more and more Republicans back away from his flailing effort to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s win. And, whether he intended it or not, the confluence of events was received as a signal among QAnon adherents.
In their eyes, “it’s big ‘end of days’ stuff for those people to all be meeting — it means the final blow is about to be delivered,” said Mike Rothschild, a conspiracy theory researcher working on a book about QAnon. In the apocalyptic QAnon community, the final blow is “The Storm,” a long-predicted day of reckoning where Trump institutes martial law and the elites are arrested, tried in front of military tribunals and executed.
QAnon frequently reads omens about The Storm in the most minuscule of Trump actions, such as references to “storms” in meetings, or appearing to draw a “Q” with his fingers during a speech. So when Trump brought in Flynn, who took the QAnon pledge and has argued he is a deep state target, and Powell, who represented Flynn in his fight against government prosecutors, it sent waves of excitement through QAnon followers.
“They see Flynn as meeting with Trump because he’ll lead this military effort that Trump will start by invoking the Insurrection Act” — the little-used law that lets the president deploy the military to quell domestic rebellions — ”and Powell is the legal enforcer who will make sure that their insanely unconstitutional coup is by the book,” Rothschild said.
The moves — especially given Trump also considered appointing Powell as a White House special counsel to investigate the election — fits a broader pattern of Trump and his allies increasingly nodding to the QAnon community during the pandemic.
Trump has amplified accounts that boost the conspiracy theory and its canon through tweets and retweets, but his allies have made even more overt references — from his son Eric Trump posting a “Q” on Instagram to Republican Senate candidates accepting endorsements from QAnon influencers and appearing on their radio shows and podcasts.
When asked directly about QAnon in August, Trump refused to distance himself: “I don’t know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate,” he said.
So while Trump may not know the extent of the connection between QAnon and figures like Powell, Flynn and Greene, he does seem to understand that they command big audiences.
“It’s one last big show for dramatic effect or whatever it may be, but he knows [Flynn and Powell] have massive followings,” said Karim Zidan, a researcher who follows QAnon for the progressive watchdog group Right Wing Watch.
And Trump has frequently extended unorthodox White House invitations as political statements to people with large digital audiences.
“For all we know, Trump could be someone who has no idea about the exact depths of QAnon,” Zidan said. “Maybe he understands it better than it appears. One way or another, he knew that by bringing those two characters in, that it was going to lead to this sort of discussion online.”
But although Trump appears to be winking at the QAnon crowd, experts and QAnon researchers expressed doubt that Trump could get any immediate benefit from leaning into his most conspiratorial supporters — especially since they will settle for nothing less than “The Storm.”
“It’s a little late in the game here,” said Angelo Carusone, the president of the left-leaning Media Matters, which monitors extremist groups and far-right media. “At this point, it is like the bare minimum he could do to satisfy the Q crowd.”
Indeed, since the election — the “day of reckoning” that was supposed to lead to The Storm — the QAnon conspiracy has faced a series of crushing blows to the faith. “Q,” the shadowy figure posting cryptic “Q drops,” has barely posted. And Ron Watkins, the administrator of the site 8kun, which hosts the “Q drops,” announced his sudden resignation.
Additionally, allies that QAnon followers had idolized — Attorney General Bill Barr, for instance — have said there was no widespread election fraud. And though “Q” repeatedly suggested that a conservative majority on the Supreme Court would protect Trump, the Court — with three Trump-appointed justices, no less — struck down the president’s most-touted lawsuit challenging the election.
But QAnon supporters view Flynn and Powell differently, said Rothschild. Ever since Flynn picked up Powell as his lawyer, he has portrayed himself as a deep state victim, appearing on QAnon podcasts, performing the QAnon oath on video and echoing their call for invoking martial law to prevent Biden’s White House ascension. Powell, who has frequently promised a massive series of lawsuits exposing election fraud, is just as overtly QAnon.
“These [are] his last hardcore acolytes, the ones who haven’t given up on the idea of him snapping his fingers and staying on for a second term,” Rothschild said. “Most of the rest of the GOP is slowly starting to move on, but the Q people are still 1,000 percent on board with whatever this nonsense is. They praise him, and he reflects back their praise.”
Still, QAnon cannot praise Trump the way it once did. Many of its most prominent adherents have been booted from major social media networks, forcing them to either migrate to obscure platforms or change their slogans and memes to avoid banishment.
Zidan, the QAnon researcher, noted that previously, “Facebook pages were growing in the thousands per day” after a Trump tweet engaging with the community. After Facebook, YouTube and Twitter all instituted bans, though, QAnon’s most loyal retreated to platforms like Telegram, “which is a lot more popular in places like Russia” than in the United States, or forums like 8kun, which “are not very user friendly.”
“But it’s safe to say that there hasn’t been a massive increase,” Zidan said. “Trump has been retweeting a lot of QAnon accounts over the past few days. Every other day, you’re seeing him retweet something from someone who’s either a QAnon adherent or an influencer in the space. And you think that would have a massive effect, but it hasn’t.”