March 23, 2023

The looming GOP primary is leading to some wildly conspiratorial right-on-right violence.

Ron DeSantis is widely expected to launch a White House bid, and the Republican Florida governor has begun to take preemptive, incoming fire from former President Trump and his allies. On Monday night, Roger Stone, the far-right former Trump adviser and infamous political dirty trickster, used a fake photoshopped image to attack one of DeSantis’ top aides, Christina Pushaw. 

In a tweet, Stone shared a picture that — at first glance — appeared to show Pushaw alongside billionaire financier George Soros.

“Ron DeSantis’s Ukrainian Handler and her real boss.…” Stone wrote. 

Soros, who donates to progressive causes, has long been a fixture of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on the far right that paint him as a nefarious global force. There’s a lot to unpack here, but, first off, the picture was a fake. 

John Cardillo, a former host on the ultra-conservative cable channel Newsmax, quickly debunked Stone’s photo by tweeting it side by side with what appeared to be the original image of Pushaw that it was taken from. In the real photo, Pushaw was standing with Cardillo, not Soros. 

Cardillo was a prominent pro-Trump pundit. However, more recently, his social media posts have taken a turn, criticizing the former president while boosting DeSantis. 

Stone, who did not respond to a request for comment, is no stranger to disinformation. He was a particularly influential figure in the 2020 election denial movement and was present in Washington D.C. as protests against Trump’s loss turned violent on Jan. 6, 2021. Soon after posting the image, Stone began to receive a steady stream of messages noting it was fake. He deleted his tweet a few hours later. 

Pushaw, who also did not respond to a request for comment, is an interesting figure in her own right. She came into DeSantis’ orbit in early 2021 after writing an article on a right-wing website that attacked one of the governor’s critics and pressing for a job with his team. She became the governor’s press secretary in May 2021. Last August, as speculation about a potential presidential bid ramped up, Pushaw left his office to join his reelection campaign team. 

During her stint with the governor, Pushaw has become one of DeSantis’ most high-profile allies. She has earned a reputation for brawling with reporters and Democrats on Twitter, often using incendiary rhetoric. Pushaw was influential in promoting the use of the term “groomer,” which had become popular in QAnon circles to target individuals who its conspiracy theorist adherents believed to be pedophiles. Pushaw employed the term as a catch-all slur for critics of DeSantis’ legislation that prohibited discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. During her time with DeSantis, Pushaw has also helped connect him with far-right figures, including election deniers and anti-vaccine conspiracists. 

Prior to joining DeSantis’ team, Pushaw worked in Eastern Europe, including for Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian president and Ukrainian politician who is currently imprisoned under conditions that have been decried by international observers. Last year, after being contacted by the Justice Department, Pushaw belatedly registered as a foreign agent for work she did for Saakashvili between 2018 and 2020. At the time, DeSantis criticized coverage of Pushaw’s foreign lobbying as a “smear.”

Stone’s tweet seemingly referenced Pushaw’s past foreign work. The right has become increasingly critical of the U.S.’s relationship with Ukraine as America has provided financial and military aid to that country in its ongoing conflict with Russia.

While it was just a small social media spat, the episode is a telling one. When Trump announced his re-election bid last November, he was the only major Republican candidate in the field. On Wednesday, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who was Trump’s U.N. ambassador, threw her hat into the ring and became his first real, official rival.  

As the field becomes more crowded and some Republicans break from Trump, there is surely going to be more intra-right-wing infighting. And, with conspiracy-minded political brawlers like Stone and Pushaw involved, those fights are likely to push the boundaries of both taste and facts. In other words, it’s going to get ugly out there.

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