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Why Ramaswamy’s Team Is Hopeful His 9/11 Scandal Is Behind Him and Why It May Not Be

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Apoorva Ramaswamy was afraid she had slipped up.

Talking to TIME a month ago, the wife of presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy was asked about the most challenging aspects of the campaign. She brought up claims that her husband was a conspiracy theorist. 

“There was all this stuff about whether or not he believes 9/11 happened," she said. 

After that conversation, she called back to clarify a point. "He does not think that 9/11 was planned by the United States government," she stressed.

A week and a half later, the political world would be consumed by Ramaswamy’s thoughts on the Sept. 11 attacks, as his rising poll numbers and standout performance in the first Republican presidential debate drew a stronger spotlight on the right-wing candidate’s views. Ramaswamy's team believes he has weathered the controversy in stride, largely by refusing to back down from comments he maintains were twisted to falsely frame him as a "9/11 truther." Yet critics argue that the image of Ramaswamy as a conspiracy theorist is a damaging one that will be difficult to shake, and could draw more fire on him this month—both around the anniversary of the attack that killed nearly 3,000 people, and the next debate on Sept. 27.

“I think a lot of people are turned off,” says Will Hurd, a former CIA officer and Republican congressman who is also running for president but did not qualify for the first debate. “I was just in New Hampshire and folks that have seen him were saying things like, ‘He doesn't know what he’s talking about.’”

Ramaswamy's comments about Sept. 11 align with his contention that public officials are regularly misleading the public, a central theme of his campaign. Apoorva Ramaswamy said that her husband's focus on those issues has helped him connect with everyday voters, many of whom are distrustful of the federal government.

“Vivek considers himself a conspiracy realist,” she said. “Because so many of the conspiracies that we have heard about have ended up having some kernel of truth, because our government has been keeping so many parts of basic aspects of the truth from us.”

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The drama over Ramaswamy’s views on Sept. 11 began with an early August interview with the right-wing site The Blaze in which Ramaswamy was asked if he thought the 2001 attack was an “inside job” or if things were exactly as the government said. “I don’t believe the government has told us the truth,” Ramaswamy replied, continuing, “Do I believe the 9/11 Commission? Absolutely not.”

Those comments incited widespread condemnation from media figures and some of Ramaswamy’s Republican rivals, with former Vice President Mike Pence saying he was “deeply offended.” Ramaswamy wrote an essay for The Wall Street Journal in which he clarified that he was talking about FBI documents declassified by the Biden administration in 2021 that revealed a Saudi agent supported two of the hijackers. That might have been the end of it if not for an Aug. 21 profile published in The Atlantic in which Ramaswamy compared the investigation of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and the investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks, again bringing up the idea that the public is being misled.

“I think it is legitimate to say how many police, how many federal agents, were on the planes that hit the Twin Towers,” he said. “Maybe the answer is zero. It probably is zero for all I know, right?”

Critics lambasted Ramaswamy for seemingly suggesting that federal agents had been involved in the attacks. On CNN with Kaitlan Collins that night, Ramaswamy said the quote was wrong, explaining that he had asked the reporter for a recording of the interview, and the reporter refused. He clarified that he believes there were federal agents in the field on Jan. 6, 2021, and, separately, that the government lied about Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks. Asked directly if he thought 9/11 was an inside job, he replied, “Of course not, and I’ve never said that.” 

The next day, the Atlantic reporter who had interviewed Ramaswamy published the audio of his interview. Headline after headline declared that Ramaswamy had got it wrong; he had indeed said the words he claimed to have been misquoted on. 

Tricia McLaughlin, Ramaswamy’s senior adviser, says the campaign saw the situation differently, with the audio proving that Ramaswamy was making a point about blindly trusting government narratives that was widely misinterpreted.

“Vivek says controversial things enough,” McLaughlin says. “You don't have to manufacture things that he didn't say, or at least in a context he didn’t say them in.”

Read more: Is Anyone Having More Fun Running For President Than Vivek Ramaswamy?

Prominent figures came to Ramaswamy’s defense, including podcaster Joe Rogan, who devoted part of an episode of his popular show to Ramaswamy’s comments. Meanwhile, Ramaswamy’s opponents have kept up the criticism.

Hurd is among those who believe Ramaswamy’s rhetoric is giving credence to conspiracy theories in a way that causes long-term damage.

“Asking what seems like an innocuous question is the part that erodes trust and tries to create doubts,” says Hurd, who posted a video on YouTube late last month with the title, “Hey, Vivek - 9/11 was real!”

Ramaswamy’s team, on the other hand, feels vindicated, and believes the saga enhanced his reputation as a “truth-teller” among some GOP voters.

“I think it ended well, which we're glad about—maybe,” McLaughlin says. “Who knows? Maybe this thing won't go to bed anytime soon. We'll see.”

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Write to Mini Racker at mini.racker@time.com