In 2001, the 28-year-old congressional staffer Lori Klausutis was suffering from an undiagnosed heart condition. She lost consciousness and fell, hitting her head on a desk. She died on the floor of the resulting brain trauma, according to a medical examiner’s report. She left behind a promising future and a grieving husband.
Nineteen years later, the President of the United States used Klausutis’ death to smear the man she worked for at the time of her passing, baselessly insinuating that the cable TV host and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough is a murderer.
The conspiracizing about Klausutis’ death punctuated a stormy weekend on Trump’s Twitter page. As confirmed COVID-19 fatalities in the United States approached 100,000, Trump pumped out tweets by the dozen — boasting of “great reviews” of his pandemic response, boosting denture jokes about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and calling a Marine veteran a fraud, among other things.
Among the noise, Klausutis’ death became yet another weapon to vilify a political opponent.
A lot of interest in this story about Psycho Joe Scarborough. So a young marathon runner just happened to faint in his office, hit her head on his desk, & die? I would think there is a lot more to this story than that? An affair? What about the so-called investigator? Read story! https://t.co/CjBXBXxoNS
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 24, 2020
….about whether or not Joe could have done such a horrible thing? Maybe or maybe not, but I find Joe to be a total Nut Job, and I knew him well, far better than most. So many unanswered & obvious questions, but I won’t bring them up now! Law enforcement eventually will?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 26, 2020
Contrary to his tweet, the President hasn’t “joined the chorus” spreading baseless rumors about Klausutis — he’s become the conductor. He first tweeted about the “unsolved mystery” related to Scarborough in 2017.
In late April, he picked up that theme again, referring to Scarborough as “Psycho Joe ‘What Ever Happened To Your Girlfriend?’ Scarborough.” On May 4, he used the hashtag #OPENJOECOLDCASE. A week later, he wondered aloud, “When will they open a Cold Case on the Psycho Joe Scarborough matter in Florida. Did he get away with murder? Some people think so. Why did he leave Congress so quietly and quickly? Isn’t it obvious?” On May 16, he employed a new nickname, “Psycho Cold Case Joe Scarborough,” and on May 20 he called again to “Open Cold Case!”
The facts surrounding Klausutis’ passing were established at the time, and re-reported in several major outlets when Trump boosted the conspiracy theories in 2017. Contrary to Trump’s claims, her death is not a “cold case” nor an “unsolved mystery,” and authorities have never suspected foul play.
On July 19, 2001, Klausutis told a coworker in Scarborough’s Fort Walton Beach office that she wasn’t feeling well, the Tampa Bay Times reported. She told a mail carrier something similar. The next morning, she was found dead. Scarborough had announced his impending retirement from Congress a month prior.
The medical examiner’s report is, in light of Trump’s accusations, remarkably straightforward.
Klausutis lost consciousness due to a previously undiscovered heart issue, then died after hitting her head on her desk. Or, medically speaking, she died of “acute subdural hematoma from closed head trauma as a result of blunt force trauma sustained in a fall which was precipitated by complications of floppy mitral valve disease.”
“There is no doubt that the head injury is as a result of a fall rather than a blow being delivered to the head by a moving object,” the report stated.
Klausutis had not attempted to guard against the fall, suggesting she began losing consciousness while upright. No injuries were found on her hands or arms.
“A conscious person capable of guarding against a fall would normally not have hit the side of the desk with such a large amount of force as a near unconscious person free falling with no guarding reflexes,” the report noted. There are three events that typically “cause one to drop in mid sentence or in mid stride” it said: Blood clots that block circulation to the lungs, bleeding in the brain, or sudden cardigan arrhythmia: an abnormal heart rhythm.
The report noted that the first two possibilities had been ruled out by an autopsy, as had the possibility that her loss of consciousness was the result of drug use.
However, Klausutis had indicated to a witness hours before her death that she was “anxious and did not feel quite right.”
“These feelings could easily be those associated with extra or skipped heartbeats,” the report stated.
Trump wasn’t the first to raise questions about the nature of Klausutis’ death: Almost as soon as it happened, pundits on both sides of the aisle poked at the story to score political points. Despite that, the facts were clear. And years later, Trump has kept the theory alive with the click (or, quite a few clicks) of a mouse.
Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski’s MSNBC show “Morning Joe” used to be friendly terrain for Trump. But after years of appearances on the program, Trump’s 2016 campaign turned the co-hosts into reliable critics.
That criticism has intensified as COVID-19 sweeps across the country.
A couple of hours before Trump targeted Scarborough on Sunday, for example, Scarborough and Brzezinski hosted a special edition of their show focused on victims of the pandemic. At one point in the broadcast, Scarborough took square aim at Trump, listing his assurances earlier this year that the virus would “go away.”
“Look at the 100,000 dead,” Scarborough said. “It didn’t go away.”
Last week, Klausutis’ widowed husband Timothy Klausutis asked Twitter’s CEO to remove two recent tweets of Trump’s about her death, as well as one from Donald Trump Jr., for violating the site’s rules.
“These conspiracy theorists, including most recently the President of the United States, continue to spread their bile and misinformation on your platform disparaging the memory of my wife and our marriage,” he wrote, adding: “My wife deserves better.”
The influential New York Times technology contributor Kara Swisher boosted that letter on Tuesday morning, calling on Twitter to remove the tweets.
Twitter responded with a noncommittal statement a few hours later.
“We are deeply sorry about the pain these statements, and the attention they are drawing, are causing the family,” a spokesperson for the company said. “We’ve been working to expand existing product features and policies so we can more effectively address things like this going forward, and we hope to have those changes in place shortly.”