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Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is being normalized. 

He’s a conspiracy theorist who has made a lot of money pushing baseless or disproven notions about vaccines, Covid, and other hot-button subjects. At the start of his 2024 presidential bid, the media reported his history as a disinformationalist on multiple fronts. Yet now he’s largely covered as another character in the ongoing presidential horse race.

Most of the recent stories about him focus on his standing in the polls, what voters he’s attracting, and speculation regarding his potential impact on the outcome. In such pieces, his extreme conspiracism is often not conveyed fully and sometimes not even mentioned. A recent Washington Post story on Kennedy family members endorsing President Joe Biden noted in mild fashion that  RFK Jr. “has embraced controversial, unfounded claims on issues including vaccines and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.” A Wall Street Journal article on chaos within his campaign merely said Kennedy “has promoted conspiracy theories—in particular on vaccines—and espouses political views from across the spectrum.” A New York Times piece referred to him as a “vaccine skeptic” who has promoted “vaccine misinformation and conspiracy theories about the government.”

Those descriptions of Kennedy do not do him justice. He is much further around the bend than they indicate. With his advancement of unhinged and outlandish conspiracy theories, RFK Jr. is in the league of Alex Jones. There’s at least one difference. While Jones comes across as a shameless charlatan grifting his audience, Kennedy does seem to fervently believe the dark nonsense he spews. That makes him particularly dangerous, not merely because he may influence a critical election but because his presidential run is something of a super-spreader event for false information, lies, and paranoia. 

One could spend countless hours examining and countering the long list of hair-raising and unsubstantiated allegations Kennedy, once known mainly as an environmental lawyer, has peddled over the years in books, interviews, articles, and public appearances. But I took a deep dive into one that serves as an example of how far out-of touch from reality he can be—and how far he will go to twist the truth to serve his ideology of conspiracy. 

In May 2022—about a year before he announced his presidential bid—Kennedy appeared on the podcast of comedian and reality TV star Theo Von, a recurring guest on Joe Rogan’s podcast, and he presented a harrowing tale: A global elite led by the CIA had been planning for years to use a pandemic to end democracy and impose totalitarian control on the entire world. He claimed to have proof: the ominous-sounding Event 201.

This was the name of a pandemic simulation held at a New York City hotel in October 2019, months before the Covid pandemic struck. In his usual frenetic and rambling style, Kennedy told Von that the cohosts of the event were billionaire Bill Gates and Avril Haines, whom he identified as the deputy director of the CIA. He asked, “What is the CIA doing at a public health forum. They don’t do public health. They do coup d’etat.” He dwelled on Haines’ participation, noting she was now the “top spy of the country”—the Director of National Intelligence—and “also in charge of the coronavirus response.” He pointed out that in attendance at Event 201 were “people from all the social media companies” and from “the pharmaceutical companies, mainly Johnson and Johnson.” He added, “you have another guy, a peculiar guy, George Gao, who’s the head of the Chinese CDC.” And he reported there were participants from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Kennedy asserted that the timing of the event was curious. He stated, “We now know, according to the National Security Agency, that Covid-19 began circulating on September 12 [2019] in Wuhan,” and he suggested this was due to a leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The NSA, he said, had reached this conclusion for a number of reasons: that at that time there had been “chatter all over the internet coming out of Wuhan, people talking about symptoms,” that three lab workers fell ill about then, that aerial photographs showed hospital parking lots were full, that on the evening of September 12 the Chinese government went into the Wuhan lab and removed 22,000 samples of coronavirus, and that pages of the lab’s website were taken down. “This is what the National Security Agency is saying,” he remarked, “that they believe that September 12 was the day that it actually began circulating.”

Consequently, Kennedy contended, it was quite odd that Gao was part of this simulation and that Event 201 was being held after Covid had started spreading: “The world did not know until around January 3…And they’re all together planning what are we—here’s how we’re going to handle a coronavirus pandemic if it happens.”

Kennedy then described to Von the nefarious agenda of Event 201:

The interesting thing is there was no discussion of public health. They weren’t saying how are we going to repurpose medications. How are we going to link 11 million doctors, front-line-physicians, around the world on a communications grid that we can quickly figure out what’s working, what’s working in Bangladesh, what’s working in Argentina. What are the best protocols? What are the best repurposed medications?…  The only thing they were doing was they were saying how do we use a pandemic to clamp down totalitarian controls to essentially execute a coup d’etat against democracy and the Bill of Rights.

At this point, Von, who had been nodding along, interjects with a brief dose of skepticism: “You think they brought this up in this meeting?”

Kennedy replied:

Nobody should believe me on anything. They should do the research themselves. You go to Event 201, and this is what you will see. The fourth simulation that day. They took breaks. There was a total of four. The fourth one is the longest one. And the whole simulation is how do you get the social media companies to censor dissent and how specifically do you get them to not talk about the fact that this was a lab-generated virus. This is what they’re talking about for two hours. This is in October… [Their fear was] then they would start pointing fingers and blaming, not only the Chinese, but blaming public health officials who were all funding those studies in Wuhan.

In another interview, Kennedy, calling this simulation a CIA event, said the point of this last conversation was “how do we hide it.” (Other proponents of Covid conspiracy theories have cited Event 201 as proof of a malevolent worldwide plot.)

During his chat with Von, Kennedy remarked, “Any of your listeners who do not believe what I am saying can go and look up Event 201. It’s still on YouTube.” He was right about that. The video of Event 201 remains on YouTube—as does an entire website devoted to the exercise—and it in no way matches Kennedy’s description. Not even close. 

First, Kennedy was wrong about the NSA concluding that Covid first circulated in Wuhan in mid-September 2019. This was the conclusion of a report released by House Republicans—the minority staff of the House Foreign Affairs Committee—in August 2021. The report cited several pieces of information (which Kennedy referenced) to claim this earlier date for the origin of the pandemic and to suggest a Chinese cover-up. An intelligence community report released in June 2023 noted there was no consensus position among the intelligence agencies on whether Covid emerged due to natural exposure to an infected animal or a laboratory-associated incident. But it did state that “almost all” of the agencies assessed that Covid “was not genetically engineered” and that all of the agencies agreed it was “not developed as a biological weapon.” (Kennedy wrote a book claiming Covid was designed as a bioweapon.) 

Kennedy had cooked up a non-existent NSA conclusion. There’s a big difference between an NSA determination and allegations from House Republicans.

As for Event 201, it was not cohosted by Avril Haines and the CIA. At the time of the simulation, Haines was not, as Kennedy stated, serving in the US government. She was a senior research scholar at Columbia University and a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. This public event was organized by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in partnership with the World Economic Forum and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It was held before a live audience and streamed in real-time.

Appearing on Russell Brand’s podcast last year, Kennedy claimed that Event 201 was part of a long series of pandemic simulations sponsored by the CIA that had occurred over the past 23 years and that the CIA “wrote the script for it.” There is no evidence of that.

Haines was one of 15 “players” from the worlds of global business, nonprofits, and public health. Other participants included executives and officials from UPS, Marriott International, the UN Foundation, and the Monetary Authority of Singapore, and a dean from McGill University’s medical school. There was one person from the pharmaceutical industry (the vice president for global health at Johnson & Johnson). Contrary to what Kennedy said, there were no representatives from social media companies.

The simulation began with Anita Cicero, a member of the team from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, explaining its mission: “To illustrate the potential consequences of a pandemic and the kind of societal and economic challenges it would pose.” She explained that the focus would be on how the private sector—not the public health community—could respond. She encouraged people watching it to tweet. This was the scenario presented to the participants: A new coronavirus originates in a pig herd in Brazil, and farmers fall ill, with symptoms ranging from a mild flu to severe pneumonia. Many die, and the disease spreads quickly through family members and health care personnel. International travel turns this outbreak into a pandemic. Within three months, there are 30,000 cases and nearly 2,000 deaths. Estimates show millions of deaths are coming.

The simulation was divided into four parts, with the first one centering on the global allocation and distribution of medical countermeasures—such as antiviral drugs that might be effective, testing materials, and other medical supplies—and supply chain problems with personal protection equipment. It was all straightforward. Would more economically advanced countries horde medicines and supplies for their own citizens, while the pandemic devastated impoverished communities elsewhere? The goal was clear: how to help those with the disease and thwart the spread. The next two discussions zeroed in on the pandemic’s impact on trade, travel, and global finance.

Kennedy was flat-out wrong to say that there was no consideration of public health or the repurposing of medicines. That was covered. He also mischaracterized the simulation as only concentrating on the flow of information.

The fourth conversation did address disinformation and misinformation. And Kennedy misrepresented this, as well. It was not the longest. Nor was it a planning session for a totalitarian clampdown.

At this point in the scenario, two months into the pandemic, the participants were informed, there have been 240,000 worldwide deaths, with 1 million predicted to occur in the next four weeks. Financial markets are down by 15 percent. There’s no end in sight. And disinformation and misinformation are spreading. Rumors that health workers are purposefully spreading the disease have led to attacks on them. Pharmaceutical companies have been accused of introducing the virus so they can profit off drugs and potential vaccines. Social media companies are attempting to limit the use of their platforms for misleading purposes, but, as a set-up video stated, “false, misleading or half-true information is difficult to sort without limiting potentially true messages.” The public no longer knows who to trust.

The panel was asked, “How can government, international business, international organizations ensure that reliable information is getting to the public and prevent highly damaging and false information, to the extent that’s possible, about the pandemic from spreading and causing deepening crisis around the world? How much control of information should there be and by whom? And how can false information be effectively challenged?”

The ensuing conversation was rather pedestrian. Matthew Harrington, the global chief operating officer at Edelman, a communications and PR firm, noted that CEOs can be a good source of information and that social media platforms should partner with scientific and health communities to “flood the zone with good information.” Jane Halton, a board member for ANZ Bank, chimed in: “I personally do not believe that trying to shut things down in terms of information is either practical or desirable.” Martin Knuchel, the head of Crisis, Emergency and Business Continuity Management for Lufthansa Airlines, suggested that governments and business should “find a way to cooperate [with social media]…but not to hamper them.” Stephen Redd, a deputy director of the CDC, pointed out that social media could be used to “quickly counter” claims about “treatments purported to be effective that are harmful.” Gao said it was vital to ensure front-line health care workers “have the right information.”

This was standard stuff. When it was Haines’ turn to weigh in, she asserted it was important to “work with telecommunications companies to actually make sure everybody has access to the communications.” She added, “We shouldn’t be trying to control communication but rather flood the zone, in a sense, with a trusted source.” And it would be critical, she said, to communicate constantly: “For all the disinformation that will be put out, it’s important to actually have a response to those questions and to those concerns… We need to be able to respond quickly.” Later in the discussion, she remarked, “You want to work with the private sector and those who are spreading information generally to see that they can bring things down that are lies or false information that’s being put forward as a way to minimize it.”

That’s it. No diabolical planning about covering up a lab leak that came from a bioweapons program. Kennedy had told a wide-eyed Von that “the whole simulation” was designed and conducted to hide “the fact that this was a lab-generated virus” and to plan how to exploit a pandemic to “execute a coup d’etat against democracy.” Only an observer removed from reality could watch the three-and-a-half-hour-long Event 201 and reach that conclusion. There was not much, if any, mention of a lab leak. The scenario was clear. In this case, the virus had jumped from pigs to humans. While Haines and the others did discuss how to counter disinformation—especially on social media—they tended to take a soft approach to censorship. 

Yet for Kennedy, the timing of the simulation was proof of evil scheming, and he cites this event as slam-dunk evidence of a fiendish conspiracy run by the CIA. “Either they’re incredible soothsayers or there’s something weird going on,” he told Brand. 

Moreover, this particular conspiracy theory championed by Kennedy makes no sense. If the goal of these treacherous people was to formulate a secret strategy for global censorship and totalitarianism, why hold this simulation in full public view and ask people to tweet about it? (Even Von could see that was strange.) If the Deep State wanted to cover up a lab leak, would it create a plan to do so by live-streaming a conversation among corporate execs and nonprofit leaders? Furthermore, if that was the grand scheme, why would the NSA reveal that the spread of Covid began in mid-September? (The NSA did not say this, but Kennedy claimed it did.) It doesn’t add up. 

I sent a query to the Kennedy campaign asking for comment regarding his false claim that the NSA concluded the coronavirus began spreading in mid-September 2019 and his assertion that Event 201 was evidence that the CIA and others planned to exploit the pandemic to implement a “totalitarian” clampdown and a “coup d’etat against democracy.”

Regarding Kennedy’s citation of the NSA, the campaign said that he “was referring to a statement by John Ratcliff, former director of US National Intelligence. Many of his statements are quoted in this article in Sky News.” In that piece, which was about an Australian documentary that alleged the virus originated at the Wuhan lab, Ratcliffe—it’s spelled with an “e”—noted (at a time when he was out of government) that there had been intelligence indicating three lab workers had fallen sick in October 2019 (not September). Ratcliffe’s remarks hardly support Kennedy’s assertion that the NSA reached the widespread conclusion he declared it had.

As for Kennedy’s comments about Event 201, the campaign insisted that his remarks have been “misconstrued.” It replied, “He does not believe that the pandemic was planned in advance. He believes that the administrative machinery for the pandemic response, which amounted indeed to a totalitarian clampdown, was already being developed before the pandemic.” That’s subtle and inaccurate revisionism that downplays what Kennedy has repeatedly and wildly alleged. As the campaign describes it, Kennedy merely thinks that the preparatory planning for a pandemic reaction yielded measures that “amounted” to a repressive response. That’s not the story he has been pitching. He has clearly claimed more than once that Event 201 was part of a long-standing devilish plot to use the pandemic to impose a dictatorship.

With his dissemination of this conspiracy theory, Kennedy is not heroically revealing a heinous plan. He is demonstrating his methodology. He misrepresents facts. He fabricates. He sounds authoritative. He presents what he cites as evidence. But he blends dollops of reality with his fevered fantasies and concocts a goulash of irrational conspiracy. If he’s not a self-aware con man, he must be delusional.

Donald Trump has long pitched assorted conspiracy theories—most notably, the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Yet he does so as a carnival barker who will say whatever he needs to say whenever he needs to say it. Kennedy comes across as a true believer in the lunacy he peddles. And the depth of his battiness has not received the attention it warrants. Kennedy is not just a possible spoiler candidate; he is a crackpot candidate. The less that is covered, the greater his opportunity to spoil. 

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MOTHER JONES NEEDS YOUR HELP

We have about a $200,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, this week so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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