NEW YORK — It was a question that most major presidential candidates would have quickly dismissed as absurd, even offensive: What do you make of these theories that Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered?
For Donald J. Trump, it appeared unavoidably juicy, and possibly the next big pop-culture fixation. "You know, I just landed, and I'm hearing it's a big topic," Trump told the radio host Michael Savage from South Carolina, in an interview just a few days after the Supreme Court justice's unexpected death.
Even as he said he could not speak to whether a special commission should investigate the death, he added, "They say they found a pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow."
Trump, unlike most presidential candidates, does not shrink from addressing, and in some ways legitimizing, the wildest of hypotheticals.
He has declared on a presidential debate stage that he knew a 2-year-old who immediately developed autism from a vaccination. He has appeared on the radio show of the noted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has suggested the government played a role in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
Trump has said on Twitter that President Obama might have attended Scalia's funeral had it been held at a mosque, feeding into the pervasive rumor that the Christian president is actually a Muslim. And he shared with a rally crowd a dramatic story of a US general executing Muslim insurgents with bullets dipped in pigs' blood, which has been dismissed as an Internet rumor.
Part hair-salon gossip, part purveyor of forwarded conspiracy e-mails, Trump has exploited the news cycles of an Internet era in which rumors explode like fireworks and often take a long time to burn out. Trump's willingness to touch on what passes for fact on fringe websites puts him in a unique class for a national major party front-runner.
"It's like a walking, talking Enquirer magazine," said Erick Erickson, former editor in chief of the conservative website RedState, referring to the popular supermarket tabloid National Enquirer. Erickson often shut down interest in conspiracy theories on his website, such as the so-called birther rumors that Obama was born in Kenya.
Such supermarket tabloids "do very well — people do like the stories of aliens meeting with presidents," said Erickson, who has often clashed with Trump.
It is not a total surprise that Trump is the candidate most likely to use the phrase "I hear" before stating something as fact, no matter how flimsy the information he passes along.
A man who reveled in his presence in the New York tabloid pages for decades, he saw firsthand the power of stories, especially those that shock people, to command attention. But the expectations for what a presidential standard-bearer would pass along have typically been higher.
It was the "birther" theories that Trump used to stoke interest in his own potential candidacy in 2011. That year, he repeatedly demanded that Obama produce his Hawaiian birth certificate.
In April of that year, he claimed to have sent investigators to the state: "They can't believe what they're finding," he said, although he has never made public any such findings, and Obama later released his birth certificate.
Trump has since tried to steer clear of the birthplace claims about Obama. But he used similar questions to try to inject doubt about Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who was born in Canada to a US citizen.
The candidate has used his Twitter feed to pass along other dubious theories, including false crime statistics about blacks and questions about Senator Marco Rubio's eligibility to be president. Rubio was born in the United States.
Pressed about passing along such conjecture by the ABC News host George Stephanopoulos on Feb. 21, Trump gave a response he frequently uses to deflect responsibility for sharing inaccurate information. "Somebody said he's not, and I retweeted it," Trump said. "We start a dialogue, and it's very interesting."