Among Joni Ernst’s missteps in her campaign for re-election to a second term in the US Senate, one of the most glaring happened during a visit to rural Waterloo on the final day of August. Responding to an attendee’s baseless assertion that cases of the novel coronavirus had been overcounted, the Iowa senator agreed that she, too, was “so skeptical” of the official numbers.
“These health-care providers and others are reimbursed at a higher rate if COVID is tied to it, so what do you think they’re doing?” she said, appearing to suggest they were falsifying medical records in order to secure additional funding from the CARES Act, federal legislation enacted as a pandemic relief measure. When reporters asked for clarification after the event, Ernst dug deeper, claiming she’d heard this from providers themselves.
“They do get reimbursed higher amounts if it’s a COVID-related illness or death,” she said, according to a report in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. “I heard the same thing on the news. … They’re thinking there may be 10,000 or less deaths that were actually singularly COVID-19.” The newspaper later released an audio recording of her remarks, as national news outlets drew attention to how they echoed a belief among followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory, whose more bizarre core premise is that a demonic cabal of global elites is attempting to bring down President Donald Trump to prevent him from exposing a child sex-trafficking network.
It wasn’t the first time Ernst had lent credence to conspiratorial thinking. Six years ago, while first running for the Senate, she explicitly supported the false belief that Agenda 21, a non-binding plan for sustainable development adopted in 1992 by the United Nations, would undermine US sovereignty. But her comments in Waterloo were further evidence of the extent to which conspiracy theories and other misinformation that in the past may have been relegated to the fringes of the Republican Party have instead become widely accepted within its ranks, both nationally and here in Iowa, and particularly since Trump’s election in November 2016.
Ernst agreed that she, too, was “so skeptical” of the official numbers
In August, nearly two months before Facebook launched a major effort to ban user accounts, groups, and other content associated with QAnon, the Informer conducted an extensive search through the social media platform for false and misleading information that had recently been promoted by local chapters of the Republican Party throughout Iowa’s 99 counties. We also collected other examples including screenshots provided by tipsters of Facebook and Twitter posts, some of which were later deleted, made by state lawmakers and other members of the Iowa GOP.
This soon revealed dozens of examples of rampant misinformation posted to downplay or deny the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, false and misleading claims about a variety of other topics such as voter fraud and the Black Lives Matter protest movement, sexist attacks targeting Democratic congresswomen, and content plainly associated with QAnon. Many of the same county Republican pages that shared these posts also mocked mainstream news outlets and Facebook’s efforts to fact-check false information. As they did this, they routinely linked to articles from dubious news sources like WorldNetDaily, a fringe website that was one of the most vocal proponents of the debunked birther conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and forged his Hawaii birth certificate.
The widespread, casual acceptance of conspiracy theories among both the rank and file and party leadership of the Iowa GOP, considered in the context of their near-universal support of the current president and deep-seated, often irrational aversion to the mainstream press, is hardly surprising.
In early 2011, when he first seriously considered running for the presidency, Trump began conversing with the editor-in-chief of WorldNetDaily, Joseph Farah, about birtherism, going as far as to pitch to him the idea of sending private investigators to Hawaii. Although Trump would ultimately put off a campaign until 2016, his position in 2012 presidential primary polls rose dramatically as he became increasingly vocal in questioning Obama’s country of origin. When the White House released a copy of his birth certificate weeks later in an effort to put the theory to rest, Trump realized his political viability.
A significant amount of the misinformation that Iowa Republicans have spread in recent years has also been embraced by Trump. At a re-election rally in Wisconsin just the other week, he suggested — as Ernst did at the end of August — that hospitals were deliberately mislabeling patients’ cause of death as COVID-19 in order to “get more money.”
“Do you believe George Soros is behind all of this, paying these people to get you and your colleagues in elevators or wherever they can get in your face?” Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo asked Chuck Grassley during a interview in October 2018, when he still chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee. Bartiromo was referring to two sexual assault victims who’d confronted one of the Iowa senator’s Republican colleagues, Trump critic Jeff Flake, in an elevator the previous week about the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
“I have heard so many people believe that,” Grassley replied, lending his support to the latest conspiracy theory involving the billionaire philanthropist and Democratic Party mega-donor. “I tend to believe it. I believe it fits in his attack mode and how he uses his billions and billions of resources. I think it promotes incivility in American society.”
It was pure fiction. But just an hour later, Trump himself — an avid Fox News viewer — endorsed the theory, as The Daily Beast reported in an article that suggested the Grassley interview may have been his inspiration. “The very rude elevator screamers are paid professionals only looking to make Senators look bad,” the president tweeted. “Don’t fall for it! Also, look at all of the professionally made identical signs. Paid for by Soros and others. These are not signs made in the basement from love!”
Soros is a popular boogeyman for Iowa conservatives. As an example, in early August, the Facebook page Republicans of Black Hawk County shared a post from another page called Make America Even Greater that displayed an image with a photo of Soros above text that misrepresented a recent Supreme Court decision, claiming that a five-justice majority ruled he “could not use Federal Funds to pursue anti-American Campaigns.”
More accurately, the court had determined that foreign charities did not enjoy the same free-speech protections as domestic ones and therefore could be prohibited from receiving federal grants for AIDS relief work if they refused to adopt a George W. Bush-era anti-prostitution pledge. The Soros-founded nonprofit Alliance for Open Society International, among other groups, opposes the pledge on the grounds that it is ideologically motivated and would hinder crucial outreach to sex workers in the developing world.
The Facebook post also linked to a video of a report on the court’s decision from One America News, a far-right network founded in 2013 that has recently gained prominence for being more reliably pro-Trump than even Fox News. OAN frequently produces false and misleading news reports. At times, the president has spread misinformation from the network to a wider audience on Twitter — like when he tweeted the baseless suggestion that a 75-year-old protester who suffered a serious head injury after a police officer violently shoved him to the ground “could be an ANTIFA provocateur” who deliberately fell. The network has also promoted the debunked claim that Soros was a Nazi collaborator in his youth.
In response to a request for comment about the Soros image and OAN’s dubious credibility, an administrator for Republicans of Black Hawk County sent the Informer a photo recently published by the New York Post of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, passed out on a bed with a crack pipe in his mouth. When pressed for their name and role in the county party, the administrator this time responded verbally: “Fact check that, and get back to me.”
The Facebook page links to the northeast Iowa party’s official website and lists contact information for its chair, LeaAnn Saul, who recently launched an unsuccessful bid for the Cedar Falls City Council. Saul did not respond to requests for comment about the Soros post and asking if the administrator’s photographic reply was representative of the party’s thoughts on the matter.
On the first day of October, Steve King took to the House floor with a collection of notes and oversized charts. The congressman referenced them over the course of nearly an hour as he repeated past grievances about his primary loss to state Senator Randy Feenstra and his paranoid belief that he was the victim of a grand conspiracy. At one point, he alleged that Democrats, in concert with George Soros, “strategically decided we’re going to launch white nationalism and white supremacy as weaponized terms and we’ll use them against Republicans.”
The Iowa GOP, more or less, has finally cut ties with King over the fallout from his longstanding promotion of white nationalist views. But it hasn’t made any serious effort to distance itself from using Soros as a political foil, as the congressman often has, despite the anti-Semitic implications of the philanthropist’s portrayal as a powerful puppet master. (Another example of this apparent lack of concern happened in 2017, when Secretary of State Paul Pate defended a new voter ID law he’d championed in a fundraising email spuriously claiming that the legislation’s passage made Soros “howl.”)
Regardless, King loyalists do remain. Two months after the congressman’s defeat in the June 2 primary, Tammy Kobza announced her resignation as chair of the Sioux County Republican Party in northwest Iowa. Feenstra, she claimed, had “adamantly insisted” that King be uninvited from a fundraiser she’d organized, saying he would otherwise skip the event. Kobza refused.
“Do not let the tide of public opinion sweep you away down a dangerous current that ends up destroying our nation.”
Her nine-paragraph resignation letter reiterated several of King’s arguments about why he wasn’t racist and decried what she saw as the Republican Party’s lack of unity in its failure to come to his defense. “Be discerning with the onslaught of media information that comes across your radar every day,” she concluded. “Stand for what is right and noble. Do not let the tide of public opinion sweep you away down a dangerous current that ends up destroying our nation.”
Kobza’s resignation received a fair amount of news coverage, but none of it investigated the sort of “media information” that had come across the radar of the recent chair of a county party in a Republican stronghold home to roughly 35,000 Iowans. Before stepping down, Kobza routinely posted blatant misinformation on her Facebook profile, much of it focused on the coronavirus pandemic.
One post linked to an article published on a website named for the late social-conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly that was titled, “Wuhan Virus Takes Life of Herman Cain.” Kobza suggested that the former presidential candidate may have been denied life-saving hydroxychloroquine — a potentially deadly anti-malarial medication touted by President Trump as a miracle cure for COVID-19 despite serious doubts about its effectiveness — due to his political beliefs. She’s also argued that Trump “should order immediate public access” to the drug by making it “available over-the-counter.”
“Masks are the hallmark of Satanism,” she commented on a post displaying an image of an occult ritual. She linked to an article casting doubt on the effectiveness of masks published by the Centre for Research on Globalization, a website that for many years has promoted misinformation and conspiracy theories on a range of topics including the nonexistent link between vaccines and autism and the 9/11 terror attacks. Another post shared an article from Alpha News, a race-baiting website that actively peddles conservative misinformation, supportive of a doctor under fire for spreading false rumors about the COVID-19 death count. “Sickening confirmation that we’re truly at the 11th hour,” she bemoaned in a comment alongside a screenshot of a notification from Facebook informing her that something else she had shared about the pandemic “was removed because it had harmful false information.”
Since leaving her county position, Kobza has kept up with her Facebook habit. On October 12, she posted the text of an article claiming that the coronavirus “has never been proved to exist.” It was written by Jon Rappoport, a repeat guest on Alex Jones’ Infowars who wrote a book in the late ’80s with the unsupported premise that AIDS was not caused by HIV.
That same day, Trump retweeted a conspiracy theory from a QAnon Twitter account alleging that “Biden and Obama may have had Seal Team 6 killed!” The Democrats ordered the hit, the theory goes, to cover up the fact that Osama bin Laden was still alive. Two days later, Kobza posted a YouTube video promoting the same theory. Although it is clearly labeled as false information by Facebook fact-checkers, she questioned why not even Breitbart News or OAN had covered the story. Doubling down in a comment on her own post, she linked to a Daily Beast article debunking the conspiracy theory as evidence that “the more they try to cover it up, the more we know the truth will get out.”
It might be easy to dismiss Kobza, who did not respond to requests for comment, as just another of the countless kooky activists who exist across the political spectrum at the grassroots level. However, setting aside the fact that the president has endorsed several of the same theories, her prolific posts (not all of them conspiratorial) are frequently shared by other Iowa Republicans. Among those who interact with the posts are Steve Scheffler and Tamara Scott, who represent Iowa as members of the Republican National Committee along with state chair Jeff Kaufmann and who both approved of a recent comment Kobza posted suggesting the official COVID-19 death count was “a lie.” Kobza herself is one of 12 District Executive Committee officers recognized on the leadership page of the state party’s website.
Jacob Hall, a fellow Steve King sympathizer whose right-wing news website The Iowa Standard frequently criticized Feenstra during the 4th District primary, also vouched for Kobza when she resigned as chair of the Sioux County GOP, agreeing with her stance on party unity. Articles on Hall’s website are widely shared by Iowa Republicans on Facebook, including on many of the county party pages the Informer searched. The White House’s official Twitter account, which has 25 million followers, shared one of his articles in mid-July, and on August 10, Hall claimed that his site had surpassed two million page views for the year.
In early October, a Democrat named Shawna Anderson tweeted screenshots of accounts that her opponent for western Iowa’s House District 22, incumbent Republican Jon Jacobsen, was following on Parler, the self-proclaimed “Free Speech Social Network” that’s become a popular safe haven for far-right figures banned from mainstream platforms. They included at least four QAnon adherents, whose profile descriptions prominently bore its unmistakeable hashtags, and an apparent supporter of the Proud Boys, a white supremacist group whose members are a regular and often violent presence at far-right rallies.
(At the end of May, Jacobsen posted a Facebook message thanking armed militia members, including a man named Cory Damgaard from his hometown of Treynor, for embedding with police in Council Bluffs in response to unsubstantiated rumors about plans for a riotous anti-racism protest. Some of the militia members were later accused of being associated with a far-right, anti-government movement. Damgaard, a Marine veteran who runs a gun business called Valkyrie Arms and whose Facebook profile image is a valknot symbol, reportedly said that the accusation arose from satirical social media posts he’d made that had been misinterpreted.)
“The problem is that a lot of places on the internet, such as Facebook and YouTube, have started to shut down these groups and their nonsense and it only feeds into the idea that it’s all true.”
“Personally, these conspiracy theories have infiltrated family members,” Anderson told the Informer when asked for her thoughts on QAnon. “It’s a really tough position to be in. The problem is that a lot of places on the internet, such as Facebook and YouTube, have started to shut down these groups and their nonsense and it only feeds into the idea that it’s all true.”
Jacobsen, she added, had blocked her from his social media accounts and turned down invitations to candidate forums, “so I haven’t been able to formally confront him about any of these issues. However, I’m sure he blocked me because I was stating the obvious: that he believes in conspiracy theories, or, at the very least, is willing to let them propel his campaign.” The Informer reached out to Jacobsen about his Parler account, which he made private after Anderson’s tweets drew unwanted attention to it. He did not respond.
Although Jacobsen apparently did not directly promote QAnon, the Facebook pages of several county parties have. The Informer previously reported on how Connie Schmett, co-chair of the Polk County GOP, has shared posts involving QAnon and other misinformation on its page.
So has the official page for the Wayne County Republicans in southern Iowa, which twice in June posted a video called COVID 911 that was produced by a YouTuber and QAnon conspiracy theorist going by the name Joe M. The video claims that the news media and Democrats invented the COVID-19 pandemic narrative to advance the agenda of the deep state, a shadow government secretly working to undermine Donald Trump’s presidency. One of the posts was shared from a pseudonymous alt-right profile with a large following and included a comment with the QAnon hashtags #WWG1WGA, #QAnonArmy, and #TheGreatAwakening. An administrator of the Facebook page did not respond to a request for comment about the videos, which remain posted, nor did the Wayne County GOP’s chair, David Wampler, or treasurer, Jane Cooley.
The Boone County Iowa Republicans page has also posted content from QAnon, among numerous other clear examples of misinformation including blatantly inaccurate claims about COVID-19, the baseless suggestion that Democrats plan to commit massive voter fraud in Tuesday’s election, a post criticizing calls for police reforms that’s falsely attributed to actor Kurt Russell, and another exploiting Rosa Parks’ bus protest to slam the Black Lives Matter movement. On June 27, an article critical of the movement was posted from a website called Puppet String News, which describes itself as an “anti mainstream news source” that is “#MAGA as fuck” and openly supports QAnon. A month later, a meme was posted arguing that the “mainstream media is not always reliable” because Time named Adolf Hitler the Man of the Year in 1938. In that issue, the magazine called him “the greatest threatening force that the democratic, freedom-loving world faces today.”
A request for comment sent to the Facebook page went unanswered, as did emails to county party leaders including its chair, Gary Nystrom, a former member of the Boone City Council and Branstad-appointed secretary of the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Commission.
While conspiracy theories about QAnon and George Soros are similarly rooted in anti-Semitism, Chuck Grassley has not been as credulous about the former. That hasn’t stopped QAnon followers from latching on to him anyway. The senator’s annual social media posts about the corn harvest, to which he adds the hashtag #CornWatch, have been interpreted as coded language signaling that Trump’s deep-state enemies will soon be arrested. Innocuous posts Grassley has made about “doing ‘you know what'” at Dairy Queen (ordering ice cream) and a stopped clock visible in a Fox News interview with Trump’s press secretary were also seen as messages.
“Twitter goes full Orwell,” the subject line of a recent email to Parler users read. It was a reference to the headline of a blog post shared on the social media platform from ZeroHedge, a libertarian website known for publishing a mix of breaking news and gossip about the financial industry as well as conspiracy theories. The ZeroHedge Twitter account was banned for several months earlier this year, a decision apparently involving an article the website published that included personal information about a Chinese scientist from Wuhan, where the novel coronavirus was first identified, and alleged the virus had been “concocted as a bioweapon.”
The blog post criticized Twitter for its reported decision to alert users about “topics that are likely to be the subject of election misinformation,” predicting that this would be interpreted as “literally anything that would be detrimental to Democratic nominee Joe Biden” with a blind eye toward “negative press and conspiracies” targeting Trump. The post also criticized the “mainstream media” for ignoring the New York Post‘s reporting on compromising files — including the crack pipe photo the Republicans of Black Hawk County Facebook page administrator sent the Informer — purportedly found on a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden that he abandoned at a Delaware computer repair shop, and “big tech” for its controversial censorship of the story on social media.
Controversial decisions by mainstream social media networks, as they seek to dampen criticism over having allowed misinformation to proliferate largely unchecked during the 2016 election, have reinforced conservative narratives about censorship. Twitter, for instance, temporarily suspended the Post‘s account over the Hunter Biden story, lifting it after Republicans grilled its CEO, Jack Dorsey, in a Senate hearing. But even after efforts by Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to crack down on QAnon accounts, the conspiracy theory is still actively promoted on the networks. On Facebook, the list of top-performing posts is regularly and almost entirely dominated by ones promoting conservative viewpoints.
“Just sick of the censorship.”
The Hunter Biden story is also not the bombshell the right has made it out to be, nor have journalists been ignoring it. The reporter who wrote the Post‘s initial article refused to allow his byline on the story over doubts about its credibility. Even conservative outlets have either kept their distance or contradicted claims by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer and the source for the laptop’s documents, about what they reveal. Other outlets have attempted to obtain the files in order to properly vet them but had their requests declined.
WHO Radio talk show host Simon Conway, an influential personality with close ties to prominent Iowa Republicans, has made a habit of giving air time to narratives similar to ZeroHedge‘s about the alleged nefarious censorship of conservatives. He has repeatedly claimed that Twitter and Facebook have been censoring him for his own views, providing only speculation as evidence. He’s argued that Twitter removed followers from his account and those of fellow conservatives over their political views, although this commonly happens to users for reasons as simple as the purging of fake accounts. He also expressed disbelief that his Facebook page was temporarily disabled due to a “technical glitch,” as he was told, but there are other examples of this having been caused by the unintended behavior of automated spam filters. “Pretty much moving my social media – Follow me on Parler if you would be so kind,” he tweeted on June 4. “Just sick of the censorship,” he added, responding to a listener’s reaction to his initial tweet.
Conway’s profile information shows that he’d already joined Parler one year earlier. But since that time, he’s gained about 3,000 more followers than he has on Twitter, where his account was opened over a decade ago. Although he never actually left Twitter, Conway has occasionally shared thoughts on Parler that he hasn’t on his other social media accounts.
“Great news out of Florida,” he posted on August 18, when the far-right conspiracy theorist-turned-congressional candidate Laura Loomer “scored a decisive primary victory tonight despite being banned by just about everyone.” Although she has virtually no chance of defeating Lois Frankel, the Democratic incumbent, Loomer’s initial electoral success was another sign of how mainstream the Republican Party’s acceptance of conspiracy theories has become.
Shortly after the mass shooting on Valentine’s Day in 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead and another 17 injured, Loomer was dispatched by Infowars, the popular conspiracy theory website founded by Alex Jones, to the grieving community, where she accused survivors of having talking points fed to them by the media in the interest of advancing a gun-control agenda. Loomer had previously falsely claimed that a gunman who massacred 58 people at a Las Vegas music festival in 2017 was affiliated with the terrorist organization ISIS and that another shooting in Santa Fe the following year had been staged. Jones himself recently conceded, during an ongoing defamation lawsuit filed by eight families of the victims, that he was wrong to suggest the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut was a hoax.
Loomer was permanently banned from Twitter in November 2018 after criticizing Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar’s Muslim faith. She continued to harass the congresswoman thereafter, blaming Omar for the 9/11 attacks and proclaiming, “Muslims should not even be allowed to seek positions of political office in this country.” She also traveled to Minnesota with conservative operative and fraudster Jacob Wohl, a former contributor to The Gateway Pundit — another conspiratorial website whose articles have been shared by the Facebook pages of several Iowa GOP county parties — to pursue the baseless rumor that Omar had married her brother so that he could become a US citizen.
In May 2019, Loomer, Jones, and Infowars itself were also banned from Facebook for violating its policies prohibiting the promotion of violence and hate speech.
Loomer is far from the only conspiracy theorist Conway has openly supported. In addition to Donald Trump Jr. and other members of the family including the president himself, guests on his show have included Jerome Corsi, Dinesh D’Souza, and, more recently, Simone Gold, a discredited doctor who appeared in a notorious video censored by social media networks because it falsely claimed that hydroxychloroquine was a COVID-19 cure. (Another doctor appearing in the video, Stella Immanuel, has made claims about alien DNA, health benefits of having sex with demons in your dreams, and “reptilians” who run the government.)
“A frightening simulacrum of the Nazi Party.”
Corsi is an Infowars and former WorldNetDaily contributor who helped popularize Obama birtherism and now spreads QAnon myths about the deep state. Conway backed Corsi’s claim that the FBI entrapped him by attempting to pressure him into admitting he’d lied to federal prosecutors during Robert Mueller’s probe into the Trump campaign’s ties to the Russian government, despite documented evidence he failed to disclose of his communications with Trump operative Roger Stone about WikiLeaks’ plans to release the hacked emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign boss.
D’Souza has made numerous appearances on Conway’s show to promote his books, films, and related dubious theories about liberals. In September 2017, for instance, he came on shortly after publishing his latest book, The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left, a work of disjointed historical revisionism comparing Trayvon Martin to a martyred Nazi stormtrooper and arguing that today’s Democratic Party is fascist and “a frightening simulacrum of the Nazi Party.” A year later, Trump Jr. advanced one of its many falsehoods during an interview with One America News on site at the premiere of the film based on the book, claiming the Democratic Party platform was “awfully similar” to the Nazi’s under Hitler “to a point where it’s actually scary.”
On at least eight occasions since the coronavirus pandemic hit Iowa, Conway has also welcomed Governor Kim Reynolds as a guest on his show, tossing her softball questions plainly intended to defend her from criticism of how she’s handled the crisis. The two have had a friendly relationship for years, dating back to her time as lieutenant governor under Terry Branstad.
On April 17, 2018, Kim Reynolds abruptly canceled a trip to New York City, where she had planned to attend a series of meetings scheduled through the end of the week focused on economic development. A press release from her office explained that the governor had decided to send Adam Gregg, her acting lieutenant governor, in her place so that she could “stay in Des Moines to work with House and Senate leaders on tax reform and other legislative issues.”
Instead, Reynolds quietly boarded a plane for a trip arranged by Republican agribusiness magnate Bruce Rastetter to a political fundraiser that evening in Rhode Island. The event was hosted by a man named Russell Taub, a former congressional candidate and generous recent donor to the campaigns of Joni Ernst and Steve King. Two days later, Associated Press reporter Barbara Rodriquez blew the governor’s cover thanks to Taub, who had posted a Facebook photo of himself with her at the event.
This wasn’t the only thing Rodriquez discovered on Taub’s Facebook profile. In February, just days after the gun massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Taub had shared two images of a student who survived the attack. One showed the student being interviewed about the tragedy, the other the same student in California the previous year. “The media is scamming us once more if this is legitimate?” Taub added — a nod to the conspiracy theory that survivors of mass shootings are crisis actors perpetrating hoaxes for political ends.
Campaign finance disclosure reports would later reveal that Taub had cut Reynolds a check for $25,000 the month before the fundraiser. He donated another $1,000 to the governor’s campaign upon her arrival in Rhode Island, on top of the nearly $3,000 reported as an in-kind contribution for costs associated with hosting the event.
Ten months later, federal prosecutors charged Taub with wire fraud for allegedly establishing scam political action committees from which he funneled over $1 million to spend on personal travel, clothes, cigars, strippers, and escorts. Five months after that, Taub was sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay back the money he stole as restitution.
Reynolds’ experience with Taub was not enough for her to distance herself from another shady GOP donor, a West Des Moines businessman named David Greenspon who owns the advertising company Competitive Edge. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the governor awarded Greenspon three no-bid contracts worth a combined $7.2 million in April to obtain protective equipment including masks from China, despite that his business had no experience in the area.
The next month, Greenspon was charged with felony assault for allegedly striking a woman repeatedly in the face at his mansion the previous November. He pleaded the charge down to an aggravated misdemeanor and was sentenced to probation in July. The month after that, Iowa Starting Line broke the news that police were investigating Greenspon on suspicion of child pornography and sex trafficking based on evidence obtained with a search warrant during the assault case. (It’s not clear that Reynolds knew about any of this in April when she awarded Greenspon the contracts.)
On several county GOP Facebook pages, sexism has gone hand in hand with dismissive attitudes toward the pandemic. The official page Carroll County, Iowa Republicans shared posts calling House Speaker Nancy Pelosi an 80-year-old virus; picturing her with a duct-taped mouth next to Anthony Fauci, the infectious disease expert attempting to advise President Trump on the pandemic, with the text, “Dr. Fauci Announces a new mask that will save thousands of lives”; and mocking her with a satirical news write-up describing how a “major research institution has just announced the discovery of the densest element yet known to science,” Pelosium. Another post pictures Pelosi’s Democratic colleague, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, with a Norton AntiVirus CD attached to her mouth with a rubber band. The page has also promoted the Clinton Body Count conspiracy theory, joking that Hillary Clinton should have waited for COVID-19 to kill Jeffrey Epstein and that Trump should kill her.
Another post linked to a Google document titled, “Bill Gates Laying Foundation for Mark of the Beast.” It weaves a paranoid tale of the “atrocities” the Microsoft co-founder has committed “around the globe … in the name of vaccination and population control” as part of a plan that he’s now using the pandemic to exploit in order to enroll “every single person on the planet in a global ID database.” The document references Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who’s known for supporting the thoroughly debunked myth that vaccines cause autism — a theory once championed by Trump — and cites the Book of Revelation from the Bible.
Craig Williams, who chairs the Carroll County GOP and is running for the state Senate, responded to a request for comment to explain that the “page is open to anyone wishing to post and we don’t typically censor.” He said he was unsure who added the posts mentioned above. “I reviewed your list and agreed some posts are objectionable and not representative of the fine people who donate their time to the conservative cause,” he said. “Initially, I deleted a few, like the Gates article, but stopped so that our executive committee can meet and discuss further using some of your examples. We meet the first Monday of every month and will discuss it at that time.” (The Pelosium post was also deleted, but the others remained up at the time this story was published.)
“Half of our executive committee is made up of women,” Williams added, addressing the posts targeting the Democratic politicians. “Iowa Republicans elected the first female governor in state history, the first female speaker of the House, and the first female Iowa senator. The Democrat [sic] Party dropped Andy McGuire, replacing her with Troy Price, who may have cost Iowa its first-in-the-nation [caucus] status. When he stepped down, they replaced him with Mark Smith. At the national level, the DNC dropped Debbie Wasserman Schultz for Tom Perez.”
Jeff Shipley, a 32-year-old state representative from Fairfield, participated in a June rally outside the state Capitol building in Des Moines with fellow opponents of mandatory vaccination laws. He suggested that the coronavirus might have originated as an effort by the Chinese government to develop of a chemical weapon, accused lawmakers who wore masks of “virtue signaling,” claimed the media was misleading the public about the pandemic, and asserted: “It doesn’t matter that this vaccine doesn’t exist. It’s probably impossible to develop a safe vaccine. It’s hardly going to work anyway and this virus isn’t even killing anybody.”
“I’ve attempted to clarify my comments that in context, the point I was trying to make is mandatory vaccination is never appropriate,” Shipley told the Informer. “And this idea that there is going to be some sort of vaccine permission slip to get our lives back to normal is ridiculous.” He noted that his comment about the virus not “even killing anybody” was “technically true” for the southeastern House district he represents, which has since had a single fatality, and said he had warned his constituents in March that it could be “10 times worse than the yearly flu.”
Other lawmakers who attended the rally have taken similar stances on the pandemic, arguing, for example, that business shutdowns were ineffective and caused needless harm to the state’s economy. One of them, Denison Representative Steven Holt, has also promoted hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment and, along with his wife, high school government teacher Crystal Holt, shared views on social media of conspiracy theorists including Infowars personality Paul Joseph Watson and Jack Posobiec, a One America News correspondent who supported the QAnon-adjacent Pizzagate sex trafficking theory and has close ties to white supremacists.
“I don’t view the term ‘conspiracy theories’ useful in helping comprehend the world.”
Shipley’s past controversial remarks have included calling a pediatrician who criticized him as an anti-vaxxer a “medical rapist” and claiming that the HPV vaccine is deadlier than COVID-19 (he defended both comments, saying in part, “The fear some young people have of COVID does not match the reality.”) He returned to the June rally later in the day, questioning the credibility of medical experts “bought by Bill Gates,” a “monster” who “will experiment on our population” if not held “accountable.”
“Bill Gates and his associated NGOs, business dealings, and associations have been credibly accused of crimes against humanity in the developing world,” Shipley said in response to a question about the remark. He linked to a post on the website for the Children’s Defense Fund written by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who chairs the nonprofit, that contained several dubious claims about deaths and paralysis supposedly caused by vaccine trials sponsored by the Gates Foundation in the developing world.
“As a trained political scientist,” added Shipley, who has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Iowa, “I analyze current events primarily though an ‘elite’ model of political theory, essentially meaning that elites, whether in politics, media, business, industry, etcetera, will act in a way that consolidates and expands their power.
“I don’t view the term ‘conspiracy theories’ useful in helping comprehend the world.”
Meanwhile, the first female governor in state history has done nothing to push back against the misinformation her party has spread about the pandemic, among a host of other issues including those highlighted in this story. As positive coronavirus cases hit their first peak in early May, she joined four other Republican governors in a Washington Post op-ed about “why our approach worked.” Its opening paragraph boasted, “Here in the country’s heartland, decisions have been made based on sound medical and social science, positioning our states to thrive individually as our economies reopen.”
Since the op-ed’s publication, Reynolds has repeatedly disregarded her own recommendations about mitigation measures such as mask use and social distancing. She’s been scrutinized by the national press for ignoring the advice of infectious disease experts and the White House’s own coronavirus task force. On the campaign trail, she recently mocked Theresa Greenfield, Joni Ernst’s Democratic challenger for the Senate, for taking precautions against the virus when campaign staffers were exposed to someone who tested positive.
All the while, the governor has praised Trump and his handling of the pandemic. Along with Ernst, she made an appearance at the Republican National Convention in August. In mid-October, as positive coronavirus cases and COVID-19 hospitalizations were on their way to new heights in the state and just three days after the president claimed he’d recovered from COVID-19 himself, Reynolds attended a crowded Trump rally at the Des Moines airport.
Iowa GOP chair Jeff Kaufmann also made an appearance, launching into a Trumpian attack on the press in front of an audience that was likely full of voters who believe that misinformation from right-wing blogs is more accurate than that reported by professional journalists, and that efforts by social media platforms to fact-check these sites are little more than an extension of the deep state’s plot to oust the president by hyping a pandemic that some of them probably think is nothing but a hoax.