In Chevy Chase, Comet Ping Pong is known for its pizzas, concerts, and ping pong tables. On the grimiest corners of the rightwing internet, though, the restaurant has earned another reputation this election cycle: as the potential home base of a global Democratic sex ring.
In what might be one of the strangest stories of the 2016 election, alt right Donald Trump supporters have become obsessed with a purported connection between the pizzeria and the Hillary Clinton campaign, with forum posters obsessing over everything from the restaurant's decor to its owners.
"There are many strange coincidences surrounding it," one prominent Trump supporter, Twitter personality "Pizza Party Ben," tells Washington City Paper about the pizzeria on Twitter.
For Comet owner James Alefantis, the conspiracy theories about his restaurant are just another symptom of 2016.
“The whole election has really just been insane," Alefantis says.
Trump supporters on sites like Reddit and 4chan have long been looking for a stronger connection between Clinton and Jeffrey Epstein, a financial tycoon and sex offender whose plane Bill Clinton sometimes used. The Wikileaks release of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta's hacked emails inspired a feverish, and mostly hapless, search for salacious scandal evidence, while PolitiFact calls the evidence for a Clinton sex network "ridiculously thin."
Late this week, Trump supporters on 4chan and Reddit began to focus on "Pizzagate"— innocuous connections between Podesta and emails mentioning pizza that they claimed were far more sinister than they initially appeared.
Why, they wondered, did Podesta have a handkerchief with a "pizza-related" map on it? And why did Podesta get so many emails about eating pizza?
The answer to any reasonable person would be that Podesta eats pizza sometimes. Indeed, Alefantis says, "pizza's always a big thing in politics."
To the alt right, though, "pizza" became a suspected code word for illegal sex trafficking. Pizza Party Ben, an associate of Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, writes in a Twitter message to WCP that Podesta's use of "pizza" is in "weird cryptic language."
In one 2008 email released by Wikileaks, Alefantis thanked Podesta for attending a fundraiser at the restaurant but regretted not making him a pizza. That drew amateur theorists' attention to the restaurant's murals, which they declared "creepy," and the sliding doors in front of the restaurant's bathrooms, dubbed "hidden rooms."
Pizza Party Ben posted a lengthy Twitter thread urging readers to "investigate" the restaurant for themselves. One person even made a "crazy wall" map of the conspiracy, with Comet at its center.
The conspiracies were fueled by the fact that Alefantis is the former romantic partner of David Brock, the longtime Democratic operative behind Media Matters and Correct the Record, a rapid-response outfit created to counter anti-Clinton theories on the internet. Given the nature of its operation, Correct the Record takes up an outsized space in the minds of righty conspiracy theorists.
"Does anyone want to run surveillance on Comet Ping Pong?" asked one Reddit user in a popular post on the Trump section of the site. "Who the fuck do we tell in DC Police that would be competent?"
It's not clear how much of the speculation is serious, how much is joking, and how much is just a desperate attempt to slime Clinton's campaign a few days before the election. But a Twitter user with a handle too vile to publish apparently went so far as to visit the restaurant, posting a picture he took from its interior and claiming that he had gone there and tried to open a locked door. "Spooked," the user posted that he fled the restaurant.
The conspiracy theorists weren't deterred by compatriots familiar with the pizzeria, who insisted that it's just a restaurant. "Nothing satanic about it," wrote one 4chan user.
For his part, Alefantis blames the bizarre theories around his restaurant on the presidential campaign.
"It has everyone on edge and just doing bizarre things," he says.