Days After Exploiting Young Iowan’s Death, Ernst Asks for Privacy During Her Divorce

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On Monday, Joni Ernst’s office released a statement revealing that the senator was going through a divorce and asking for “privacy during this difficult time.” The news came less than a week after Ernst and several of her Iowa GOP colleagues cynically exploited the murder of Mollie Tibbetts, the 20-year-old University of Iowa student who went missing for over a month, because her apparent killer was an undocumented immigrant.

“Senator Ernst and her husband, Gail, are in the process of divorcing. They remain committed to their children and family, and ask for respect for their privacy during this difficult time,” the statement read in full.

Yet less than a week earlier, Ernst joined Gov. Kim Reynolds and other Iowa Republicans in seizing on the fact that the man who admitted to stalking and killing Tibbetts as she was jogging in rural Iowa was an undocumented immigrant, despite her family’s wishes that her death not be politicized and that a quick glance at her Twitter account showed that Tibbetts clearly did not have conservative political views.

Last week, Ernst called for the reintroduction of Sarah’s Law, a bill that would require undocumented immigrants involved in someone’s death to be detained by federal immigration authorities and named after Sarah Root, a young Iowan who was killed in 2016 by an undocumented immigrant who was racing a truck while drunk. Root’s parents supported the law, as well as Donald Trump’s campaign using their daughter’s death to call for changes to the immigration system.

Later, Ernst attacked Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren over Tibbetts’ death because of comments Warren made during a CNN interview in which she was asked about the murder and pivoted to a critique of the Trump administration’s child separations at the border as an example of “where the real problems are” after giving her condolences.

“As far as Elizabeth Warren trying to pivot, yes the separation of families at the border I don’t agree with that either,” Ernst replied in an interview with alt-right news website Breitbart (in fact, Ernst initially supported the policy). “But you know what, Mollie has been forever separated from her family. They won’t ever see her reach her 21st birthday, they will never see her graduate from the University of Iowa, they will never see her walk down the aisle to marry her sweetheart. They will never see that because she is permanently gone from the face of this planet because of an illegal alien.”

However, it’s clear that Tibbetts’ family, unlike the Roots, doesn’t appreciate the politicization of the murder. “The Hispanic community are Iowans,” Mollie’s father said Sunday at his daughter’s funeral service. “They have the same values as Iowans. As far as I’m concerned, they’re Iowans with better food.”

“You do not get to usurp Mollie and her legacy for your racist, false narrative now that she is no longer with us,” a cousin previously wrote on Facebook. “We hereby reclaim our Mollie.” She added: “He could have been a citizen, born in this country; he could have been an older, white man from anywhere…. He is a man who felt entitled to impose himself on Mollie’s life, without consequence…. Mollie was murdered because a man denied her right to say no.”

Ernst’s statement provided no hints about the reason for her divorce. There was some tension between the two when Ernst first ran for the US Senate in 2014 and Democrats dug up Facebook posts that had been on Gail’s page for months or longer. He called Hillary Clinton a “lying hag” and Janet Napolitano a “traitorous skank.”

Another post joked about violence against women: “What do you do if you see your ex running around in your front yard screaming and bloody? Stay calm. Reload. And try again.”

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.