GOP House Recruit Touted Obama Birther Video, Other Conspiracy Theories

U.S. President Donald Trump, flanked by Maximo Alvarez and Irina Vilarino, talks at a Roundtable Discussion on Tax Reform on Monday, April 16, 2018 at Bucky Dent Park in Hialeah, Fla. (Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/TNS)
CHARLES TRAINOR JR/Tribune News Service

A House candidate that national Republicans have touted as an example of improved diversity recruitment has a long history of touting conspiracy theories — including a video that’s deceptively edited to make it sound as if President Obama said he wasn’t born in the United States.

Restaurateur Irina Vilariño is running for a Miami-based House seat against Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-FL), who unseated three-term Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) last fall. National Republicans have highlighted the Cuban-born immigrant’s campaign to argue that they are recruiting a diverse class of candidates.

But while Curbelo frequently broke with his party and carved out a moderate image, Vilariño is a fierce supporter of President Trump, and her Twitter profile is packed with conspiratorial content that may not play well in the swing district.

In March, Vilariño retweeted a video that is edited to make it sound like President Obama says he was born in Kenya.

“It’s true, I’m not an American. I wasn’t born in Hawaii, I wasn’t born in the United States of America. I come from Kenya,” the first video makes Obama say.

In other recent tweets, she touted conservative provocateur Dinesh D’Souza’s suggestion that Obama cheated to get into Columbia University (“inquiring minds would like to know,” she said), highlighted a claim that liberal donor George Soros was behind an effort to torpedo Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation (“follow the money”), and promoted an unfounded claim that Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault, was a promiscuous alcoholic. That final claim comes from an account that touts QAnon, the far-right conspiracy theory that the “deep state” is out to get Trump.

Vilariño defended her decision to share and promote these claims.

“I don’t think any of these tweets warrant an apology, and I am not going to fearfully pander every time someone thinks they might be offended,” Vilariño told TPM via email when asked about the tweets.

She specifically defended many of the tweets on a case-by-case basis as well — including the Obama video.

“It was a very interesting video of the president in his own words. I can see how that could be controversial. However, I don’t see how rehatching [sic] this tweet could be beneficial to finding solutions to our pressing problems,” she said, before accusing her Democratic opponent, Mucarsel-Powell, of “doing the bidding for the socialist agenda.”

Vilariño was one of five female candidates that National Republican Congressional Committee recruitment chair Susan Brooks (R-IN) recently highlighted to her GOP colleagues to show the party was improving on recruiting nonwhite and female candidates. Brooks highlighted her campaign in a closed-door meeting, and later mentioned Vilariño as she talked up the NRCC’s recruitment efforts in a discussion with Roll Call.

Vilariño has been a major Trump supporter for some time, appearing on various cable news networks to defend him and tout the GOP tax cuts.

“I’ve been a supporter since day one you announced your candidacy, and I have Facebook to prove it,” she told Trump during an April 2018 event in southern Florida to tout the GOP’s tax cut proposals.

She also appeared alongside Trump at the White House during a Hispanic Heritage Month celebration last September, where she called for an “American heritage month.” Just days later, she appeared on CNN and dismissed Blasey Ford’s allegations against Kavanaugh.

“In the grand scheme of things, my goodness,” she said. “There was no intercourse. There was maybe a touch. Really? Thirty six years later, she’s still stuck on that?”

An NRCC spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for reaction to Vilariño’s past comments.

It’s unclear whether Vilariño will get national GOP support in the race, or even whether she’ll wind up winning the GOP nomination in her Miami-based district. Curbelo hasn’t completely ruled out a rematch, though it appears less than likely that he’ll run. A GOP source told TPM that a number of other Republican candidates with strong profiles are considering the race as well and may decide to run after it becomes more clear how the Miami mayoral race shapes up, though in a crowded field her Trump ties could help her.

It’s not clear how heavily national Republicans plan to play in this district. The NRCC has it on its initial list of 55 districts it aims to flip, and has been sending out regular press releases attacking Mucarsel-Powell. But Miami is an incredibly expensive media market, especially in a presidential year, and Trump lost the historically competitive district by 16 percentage points in 2016. Without a top-tier candidate, this district may fall off the map.

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