The seemingly “organic” protests against COVID-19 public health orders that have spread around the country in recent days were propped up by deep-pocketed right wing groups — a story that new reporting from the Washington Post, New York Times and other media outlets has started to piece together.
The protests have, to some extent, worked, receiving outsized media coverage and forcing answers from governors on their timelines for “reopening” states’ economies despite public health risks.
Behind the advocacy lies a murky web of billionaires, Tea Party groups, and ties to the Trump administration. Here’s what we’ve learned.
Familiar Tea Party names are fueling protests and sharing info with Trump’s task force
The New York Times reported Tuesday that some of the same billionaire-funded groups that fueled the Tea Party during the Obama administration have thrown their weight behind the protests of COVID-19 orders in various states.
FreedomWorks, for example, is helping protesters connect with each other and set up websites, the Times reported. The group is also reportedly conducting weekly tracking polls in swing districts on support for “reopening” certain parts of the country — and sharing that information with members of President Donald Trump’s economic task force.
Deep-pocketed Libertarians and militia extremists have united against public health orders
On Easter Sunday, the anti-government extremist Ammon Bundy held a church service in defiance of Idaho’s Republican governor’s order barring large crowds from forming. In between the prayer and political organizing, though, the service had a special guest: Wayne Hoffman, president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation.
The group has received a large chunk of its funding from DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund, national groups that many deep-pocketed right-wing funders use to keep their political donations secret. Between 2010 and 2017, the Idaho Statesman reported last year, IFF received nearly $700,000 from the two organizations. It received nearly $400,000 more from State Policy Network, a group of conservative think tanks.
“Fear is the embodiment of Satan,” Hoffman said at Bundy’s Easter service, referring to fear of COVID-19. The group has since advocated on behalf of people arrested for breaking COVID-19 orders, published a map of businesses violating the governor’s order, and promoted protests.
A White House adviser is cheerleading the movement
Wouldn’t you know, the famously wrong economist and White House “re-opening” council member Stephen Moore is knee-deep in the movement against COVID-19 public health orders. Moore’s coordinated with FreedomWorks, the Tea Party Patriots and the American Legislative Exchange Council on “Save Our Country,” a group that’s advised the White House on “reopening” the economy, the Times reported.
“We have one big donor in Wisconsin, I’m not going to mention his name, and I told him about this [planned protest in the state], and he said ‘Steve, I promise I will pay the bail and legal fees for anyone who gets arrested,'” Moore said. “This is a great time for civil disobedience. We need to be the Rosa Parks here.”
When conservative bigwigs asked for help, the Trump administration provided it
It’s not just Tea Party dark money groups fueling the “spontaneous” revolt against public health orders. Conservative big shots from multiple advocacy fields, including anti-abortion groups and evangelists, have contributed to the movement.
Last week, the Times noted, a group called the “Conservative Action Project” sent a letter to Attorney General Bill Barr asking for the DOJ to review states’ emergency orders, to “ensure that every order is narrowly tailored to address specific, identified and identifiable risks, and are not wholesale restrictions on the rights of citizens.”
The letter, which advocated litigation if states didn’t comply, was signed the leaders of the American Conservative Union, Judicial Watch, March for Life Action, the American Legislative Exchange Council, Susan B. Anthony List, and other organizations deeply embedded in the conservative media ecosystem and donor circuit.
Just days later, Barr delivered: “To the extent that governors don’t and impinge on either civil rights or on the national commerce — our common market that we have here — then we’ll have to address that,” he said in an interview.
Trump fuels supporters’ rage even as the White House claims ignorance of protests
Trump gave the scattered protests against public health orders their biggest boost yet with three tweets recently: “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA.”
Following those tweets, tens of thousands of people joined Facebook groups protesting public health orders cross the country, the Post reported.
And yet, the White House denied to the Post and Times any involvement with the protest movement itself. In this case, as in many others, the President’s words speak for themselves.
“These are great people,” Trump said of the demonstrators Sunday, contradicting his own public health advisors’ commentary that the protests were dangerous. “They’ve got cabin fever. They want to get back. They want their life back. Their life was taken away from them.”