Updated at 3:39 p.m., June 5, 2020: to include letter of condemnation signed by 78 House Republicans, new Abbott comment, details of three more county GOP chairmen’s posts.
AUSTIN — In recent days, five Republican county chairmen in Texas have taken to Facebook to spread a conspiracy theory that George Floyd’s death was staged to hurt President Donald Trump, unfounded rumors about billionaire George Soros as mastermind of the country’s latest unrest or an image equating blacks with monkeys.
Top state GOP leaders such as Gov. Greg Abbott have scrambled to denounce the social media posts, which include juxtaposing a Martin Luther King quotation with a banana, as unacceptable.
Demands that most if not all of the county GOP chairmen resign mounted Friday, though top Texas Republicans have not in unison issued denunciations.
Instead, the response has been sporadic. And no leading figure in the Texas GOP has yet denounced state Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who said on Facebook last weekend, “I have no doubt in my mind that George Soros is funding these so-called ‘spontaneous’ protests. Soros is pure evil and is hell-bent on destroying our country!”
On Friday afternoon, Abbott, who’d already called for the resignations of two of the county GOP chairmen who’d posted disinformation that Floyd’s death was staged, said he wanted to make “a narrow point” about inflammatory posts by some of his party’s county officials.
“The death of George Floyd is a travesty,” Abbott said during a briefing in Austin about tropical storm Cristobal. “And it’s a result of a criminal act. And it should not be the subject of any of these conspiracy theories. And it’s irresponsible for anyone to promote some conspiracy theory of what is otherwise a brutal act of police violence.”
Also on Friday, 78 of the 83 GOP members of the Texas House signed a letter echoing calls by Abbott, U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker Dennis Bonnen for Bexar County GOP Chairwoman Cynthia Brehm to resign.
Meanwhile, Cruz and GOP U.S. Reps. Dan Crenshaw of Houston and Michael McCaul of Austin separately demanded the resignation of Harris County GOP chairman-elect Keith Nielsen, who early in the week posted next to a picture of a banana this King quotation: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Though the placement of the images could be seen as a racist trope equating blacks with monkeys, Nielsen removed the post and later said he’d been misunderstood, according to the Texas Tribune.
By week’s end, virtually all of Texas’ most powerful Republicans denounced as brutal Floyd’s death while being knelt on and surrounded by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day; praised peaceful protesters of the circumstances of his death; and welcomed discussions of racism and inequality in America’s justice system.
“George Floyd’s death was a tragic injustice that left an indelible wound on our nation’s history, and the conversation it has sparked about racism and inequality in America deserves to be met with compassion, understanding and respect for all Americans,” members of the Texas House Republican Caucus wrote Friday.
Texas Democratic Party spokesman Abhi Rahman, though, questioned whether the Facebook posts of Miller and the five GOP county chairmen are just the tip of an iceberg.
“There is a crisis within the Republican party,” Rahman said. “These six racist posts from Republican leaders prove that bigotry is a systemic problem in the Texas Republican party and it must be addressed. These leaders are just the ones who have been caught.”
Rahman called on Abbott and his allies to engage in “soul searching” to decide “whether they want to be the party of racism and tinfoil hat conspiracy theories.”
The fast-moving disclosures began Wednesday, when Brehm, the San Antonio party leader who drew attention last month for calling coronavirus a Democratic hoax, posted on Facebook a discredited conspiracy theory.
Of unknown origin, it hold that Floyd’s death was staged to reverse political gains Trump has been making with black voters, who could play especially important roles in key swing states in the upper Midwest in November’s election.
The unsubstantiated theory was the subject of a PolitiFact, published Friday, that said a similar social media post had been “flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed,” and that it had been “shared thousands of times and copy-pasted by other users.”
On her Facebook page, in a post that subsequently was removed, but not until after Gilbert Garcia, a columnist with the San Antonio Express-News, captured it in a screenshot, Brehm speculated that Floyd’s death was staged because Trump has been gaining some traction among black voters.
Though all four Minneapolis officers involved in the incident have now been charged with crimes, Brehm mused that one officer might be missing. The whole affair “has the smell of MK Ultra activation.”
MK Ultra is a reference to CIA mind-control experiments that were conducted between 1953 and 1973.
“These comments are disgusting and have no place in the Republican Party or in public discourse,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said. “Cynthia Brehm should immediately resign her position as chair of the Bexar County Republican Party.”
Prominent San Antonio Republicans such as former Speaker Joe Straus and U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, who represents part of Bexar County, joined the chorus demanding her ouster. Brehm’s “unfit,” Straus tweeted. “She has been an embarrassment for two years,” Travis County Republican Chairman Matt Mackowiak tweeted. Cornyn, Cruz, Patrick and Bonnen soon called for Brehm to step down.
But Brehm on Thursday told Spectrum San Antonio, the cable TV provider in Bexar County, that she posted the message at the urging of a black conservative activist who’s a friend. She said she has no intention of resigning.
Later Thursday, Abbott also called on the Nueces County GOP chairman, Jim Kaelin, to also resign after he shared the Facebook post about Floyd’s death being staged, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times reported. Kaelin, a former longtime sheriff of the county, shared the post on his Facebook page on May 29. Kaelin didn’t immediately return requests for comment to the Caller-Times.
Wittman, the Abbott spokesman, said Floyd’s death “was a crime and an act of police brutality and must be treated as such. Spreading conspiracy theories that the murder was staged simply defies reality; it is irresponsible, and unbecoming of anyone who holds a position in the GOP.”
On Friday morning, the Texas Tribune reported that a third county GOP chairman, Lee Lester of Harrison County in Northeast Texas, also recently spread the conspiracy theory. He presented it as “Food for thought” in a party Facebook group.
That came just hours after Democrats criticized Comal County GOP Chairwoman Sue Gafford Piner shared a post on Sunday that included an image of Soros and text that said, “I pay white cops to murder black people. And then I pay black people to riot because race wars keep the sheep in line.”
Adding to the furor was the post about Dr. King with the banana by Nielsen, the Harris County GOP chairman-elect.
Crenshaw told the Tribune Nielsen has “no place in our party. Not now. Not ever’ — and described his post as “a sad reminder that such blatant ignorance and bigotry still exists.”
McCaul, whose district stretches from Austin to Houston, called it “racist and unacceptable.”
Tweeting that Nielsen should resign, Cruz wrote, “Dammit, stop it. Stop saying stupid, racist things. Our country is grieving. Let’s come together for equal justice under law. Let’s unite behind Dr. King’s powerful dream, where all of us are judged, not by race, but by the content of our character.