Politics

How One Florida Woman With Twitter Problems Plunged Us Into a Nightmarish National Conversation About “Grooming”

Who is Christina Pushaw and what is she talking about?

Side by side photos of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his press secretary Christina Pushaw.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his press secretary, Christina Pushaw (pictured with Twitter device). Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Joe Raedle/Getty Images and AP Photo/Marta Lavandier.

Grooming—a sexual abuser’s effort to prepare a minor for abuse—has become the buzzword of the season for the right-wing media figures who both channel and create the concerns of the Republican Party’s base voters.

Why? The ostensible answer is a Florida state bill that allows parents to sue school districts over any instruction related to “sexual orientation and gender identity” that is not “age-appropriate,” particularly in grades K–3. The idea that this vague restriction is related to sexual predation was launched into the national conversation not by the bill’s sponsors, though, but rather by Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ press secretary—a suddenly high-profile woman named Christina Pushaw who, until about a year ago, was a freelance political consultant whose specialty was Eastern European geopolitics.

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The story of how Pushaw came to prominence stateside, and then helped create a swirling vortex of pedophilia chatter, is a colorful one that speaks to the extent to which frenetic, accuracy-optional social media posting—and immersion in the world of obsessive niche accounts like Libs of TikTok—is rewarded in the contemporary political environment.

Sounds fun, right? Let’s dive in.

Who is Christina Pushaw?

Pushaw got her start in the world of international development, and, according to the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald, her résumé also lists a stint with a philanthropic organization started by the conservative megadonor Charles Koch.

According to her LinkedIn page, Pushaw graduated from the University of Southern California in 2012 and received a master’s degree in international relations from Johns Hopkins in 2017. Her signature pre-DeSantis achievement is what she describes as a tenure advising the political party affiliated with former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. She has called Saakashvili her “mentor.”

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In a 2017 interview with the Georgian Journal English-language news site, Pushaw said that she became interested in Georgia in 2008 when then–Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke about supporting it during its war with Russia. She told the Journal that she first traveled to Georgia after graduating from school—this would appear to refer to her undergraduate work at USC—to teach English. Later, she founded a nongovernmental organization called the New Leaders Initiative that held events for young Georgians on subjects related to democracy and international affairs. Pushaw later published several op-ed articles praising Saakashvili, and her website features an image of herself with him.

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That sounds normal and respectable.

Yes. On the other hand, Pushaw said in a November 2018 interview with the English-language news site Georgia Today that she was in the country working with NGOs—and said expressly that she was not being paid to speak on Saakashvili’s behalf. She was, in her own words, “not working for anyone who’s running for office in Georgia or who is holding office in Georgia or any foreign country.” This would seem to contradict her LinkedIn page, which says that beginning in January 2018, she was employed on a “contract” basis as a campaign strategist by Saakashvili’s Georgian opposition party.

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The page further says that from June 2017 to July 2019 she worked full time in Washington for an advocacy network that the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald’s joint Tallahassee news bureau—citing a copy of her résumé that was obtained through a public records request—identified as the Koch-backed Stand Together organization.

This in turn contradicts a tweet she sent this February in which she wrote, “From 2018 to 2020, I spent most of my time in foreign countries.” The Florida governor’s office respectfully declined a request to clarify this timeline, and Stand Together did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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How did she get from Georgia, but not the Georgia that’s next to Florida, to Florida?

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According to LinkedIn, Pushaw’s work with Saakashvili’s party ended in November 2020. She then seems to have punched her ticket to Tallahassee by engaging in a scorched-earth Twitter beef with one of Ron DeSantis’ more well-known liberal critics, who has her own, uh, novelistic backstory.

Specifically, Pushaw wrote an article for the conservative publication Human Events in February 2021 that attacked the credibility of a former Florida Department of Health employee named Rebekah Jones, who had become a COVID whistleblower. The biography attached to the Human Events piece identifies Pushaw as “an international political consultant and writer based in Washington, DC.”

Rebekah Jones—I vaguely recall that name.

Jones specialized in data mapping and helped operate Florida’s COVID dashboard when the pandemic began. She was fired in May 2020 for what the state said was insubordination‚ but what she said was retaliation for her refusal to help manipulate data in a way that would justify the DeSantis administration’s decision to quickly “reopen” public spaces across the state.

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After being fired, she went very public with her accusation, becoming a liberal-hero Twitter personality who criticized DeSantis in frequent TV interviews. (Jones’ own site documents dozens of appearances on MSNBC, CNN, and more.) She launched her own, purportedly more accurate Florida COVID dashboard, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars on GoFundMe, and announced a run for Congress against Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz.

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At some point after Jones became a public figure—and for reasons that I’ll explain in a second, it’s difficult to tell exactly when—Pushaw became convinced that Jones was a fraud and launched a very active online campaign against her. One of its manifestations was the Human Events article, which led to Pushaw’s job with DeSantis.

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What do you mean by “very active” online campaign?

Pushaw is an aggressive Twitter user. On an indicative day this month, she posted on the site 83 times—a mix of original comments, retweets of conservative media figures and outlets, and replies to other right-wing users. Unfortunately for the historical record, she appears to have deleted all her tweets from the time before she was hired in Florida, which was in May 2021. But a document that Jones posted online appears to show, for example, that at one point Pushaw wrote at least 63 derisive Jones-related tweets over a four-day period alone (from April 7 to April 10, 2021).

How derisive are we talking here?

In the tweets available via the document Jones posted and the snapshot of Pushaw’s April 7, 2021, timeline that the Wayback Machine happens to have saved, Pushaw accused Jones of “grifting” and “lying”; argued that Jones was “Fatal Attraction–level obsessed” with her; retweeted another user calling Jones “crazy”; referred to Jones as an “unstable grifter,” a “stalker,” and a “pathological liar”; and responded approvingly to other users who referred to Jones as a “sociopath,” a “hot mess,” and a “shyster.” Pushaw also posted a screenshot that appeared to show her making a stalking claim against Jones in civil court in the District of Columbia, and urged her followers to contact authorities in both Leon County, Florida (where Jones had previously lived), and Montgomery County, Maryland (where Jones lived at the time), if they felt Jones was harassing them.

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Again, this was all just in a period of four days. I could not find any record of civil or criminal action being taken against Jones for harassment of Pushaw in any of the three jurisdictions mentioned.

Pushaw also claimed during that period that, going forward, she would no longer be discussing Jones online. Despite this promise, she has tweeted about Jones at least 70 times since then, including as recently as last week, when she asserted that Jones is “sad” and “needs to get back on her meds.” (I have no reason to know whether Rebekah Jones is or is not taking any medication.)

That’s a lot. And Ron DeSantis liked what he saw?

Pushaw’s original takedown article in Human Events was posted approvingly on Twitter by DeSantis’ lieutenant governor, and in March 2021—according to the documents the Times and Herald obtained—Pushaw wrote an email to someone in the Florida governor’s office touting her work on the piece and seeking employment. She was hired as press secretary in May 2021. Records show she registered to vote in Florida in September 2021.

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And what happened with Rebekah Jones? Was she vindicated?

Yes and no. An investigation the Miami Herald published in June 2021—citing emails, material obtained through public records requests, and interviews with Florida Department of Health employees—concluded that DeSantis’ administration was often evasive and misleading in its communications about COVID and its presentation of COVID data to the public.

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It also confirmed some details of Jones’ accounts of two events that preceded her firing. One involved “readiness” data about local COVID trends that she had helped mock up at the request of the governor’s office while it was planning its push to reopen public spaces in April 2020. (That push, just over a month into the pandemic, was arguably the biggest of the attention-grabbing right-wing gestures that have helped the 43-year-old DeSantis become a plausible 2024 presidential candidate.) The other event the reporting confirmed involved the removal of data from the state’s website which showed that individuals in Florida had reported COVID symptoms two months earlier (in late 2019 and early 2020) than had been previously known. The removal took place, emails show, in direct response to questions about the data that had been submitted by a Herald reporter.

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The state’s inspector general ruled in June 2021 that Jones met the criteria to be considered a whistleblower; its investigation of her case appears to remain open. (The inspector general’s office referred a query about the matter to DeSantis’ office, which did not respond to a request for comment on that issue either.)

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So some of her accusations about DeSantis’ regime appear to be credible.

What is the “no” part about her being vindicated, then?

Jones’ post-firing claims about Florida’s COVID data, many of them made via Twitter, were frequently unsupported. Among those that did not stand up to scrutiny were assertions that she had been ordered to “delete” records of COVID deaths, that health officials were removing 1,200 cases each day from the state’s totals, and that Florida had compiled more COVID deaths than New York state. Overall, there does not appear to be any reason to think that Florida’s top-line COVID infection and death figures are inaccurate.

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Twitter, you say. Is Rebekah Jones also a bit out there, as a social media user?

According to her own account, Jones was suspended from Twitter in June 2021 for posting the link to the Miami Herald story—the one I described earlier that vindicated some of her claims—several dozen times. Her account remains inactive, but in a Wayback Machine snapshot from March 2021 she refers to Pushaw as a “stalker,” “harasser,” and “alt-right smear campaign coordinator.”

OK.

Also in the spring of 2021, as summarized in a National Review piece, Jones filed for a restraining order in Montgomery County, Maryland, against Pushaw, then filed a second claim alleging Pushaw had violated the first order by engaging in continued “online stalking and harassment.” Per National Review’s interview with a Montgomery County prosecutor’s office public relations officer, though, both claims were dismissed because there was insufficient evidence to justify an order.

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Got it. Can we move on?

We cannot. Florida authorities have also charged Jones with accessing a state computer system without authorization after she was terminated, allegedly to send a mass message urging others to speak up against DeSantis. Jones denies doing so and that case is still pending.

Is there more?

According to reporting by the Florida public broadcasting station WUFT, prior to being hired by the state, Jones was dismissed from a Ph.D. program at Florida State University in 2019 because of behavior related to a sexual relationship she had with an undergraduate after he’d been her student. According to the Leon County state attorney’s office, she also faces an open misdemeanor stalking charge related to the relationship. The charge, according to a probable cause affidavit filed in 2019, concerns an explicit 342-page document that Jones wrote about the relationship and posted excerpts from online. (Jones disputes the allegations that she behaved inappropriately and is contesting the stalking charge.)

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Is there more still?

According to the Louisiana State University student newspaper’s police blotter, Jones was also criminally charged in 2016 with four counts related to an encounter with police at LSU, where she received her master’s degree; that occurred after she refused to leave a campus building. A personnel file obtained by WUFT indicates that those charges were dropped after Jones completed a pretrial diversion program. In an email to Slate, Jones did not respond to a request for comment about the incident.

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Let’s get back to Pushaw. How has her work for DeSantis gone?

Pushaw’s M.O. as press secretary is, not surprisingly, to pursue intense online campaigns against anyone she perceives as being hostile to herself or DeSantis. In August 2021, she too was briefly suspended from Twitter; the site determined that she had violated its rules against “abusive behavior” by sending what another outlet estimated were 200 tweets about an Associated Press reporter in an 18-hour period, which is an average of 11 per hour. (Imagine thinking about anything 200 times in 18 hours! Exhausting!) The reporter’s offense was writing a story about a DeSantis donor who invested in a company that made the anti-COVID drug Regeneron, which DeSantis had spoken positively about.

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In November 2021, Pushaw suggested in a tweet that the current government in Georgia (the country) had adopted policies related to COVID testing and vaccination because of financial pressure from the Rothschild & Co investment bank, which is related to the family that features in various conspiracy theories about Jews using money to control world events.

She later deleted the tweet, saying she denounces antisemitism and regretted “making an uninformed and offensive social media post.” (She said she had been “educated about something that was a blind spot for me” after speaking to a representative of the Anti-Defamation League.) In January 2022, she also deleted a tweet which suggested that a small Nazi rally in Orlando may have been staged by Democratic staffers attempting to associate DeSantis with right-wing extremism.

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And then … grooming?

And then grooming indeed.

Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” bill first began to move through the Legislature in January 2022, without any discussion of grooming or sexual abuse. Its sponsor in the state house, Joe Harding, told CNN he objected to “sensationalizing this age to have all these questions and to force so many questions on gender on these children.” Its sponsor in the state Senate, Dennis Baxley, said he is concerned that schools are encouraging children to identify as gay. (He has said elsewhere that he believes homosexuality is immoral.) “Why is everybody now all about coming out when you’re in school?” he asked during a floor debate.

Thus, the piece of legislation became known as the “don’t say gay” bill.

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Some conservative pundits and legislators objected to this characterization, and emphasized that the word “gay” did not appear in the bill. This was confusing, one might say, given that its sponsors were open about wanting to reduce the amount of discussion of nontraditional sexual identities in the classroom. They felt nonetheless that “don’t say gay” was pejorative and diminished the bill’s overall intent, which was, in their view, strengthening parents’ control of what their children hear about sexuality-related topics.

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It was in this context that a few conservative accounts with large followings, like this one from the managing editor of the evangelical Christian satire site Babylon Bee, started suggesting that the bill was actually about preventing grooming:

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The conservative Heritage Foundation said something similar in a Feb. 14 website post and a Feb. 24 tweet:

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Pushaw follows both accounts, though it’s not possible to see whether she followed them at the time of those posts. She and Joel Berry also follow a popular right-wing account called Libs of TikTok that has been posting videos of teachers purportedly admitting to “grooming” behaviors since at least December 2021.

In any case, on March 4, Pushaw took Berry’s advice:

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The accusation of grooming, which had been bubbling on right-wing Twitter, went national after DeSantis gave it his implicit endorsement; the Disney corporation has become a target after issuing a critical statement about the bill. (Over the weekend, far-right activist and Florida congressional candidate Laura Loomer held a protest in Orlando at which she taped a hand-lettered banner that read “Pedo World” to a sign outside Disney World and posed with an individual wearing a mouse costume and a MAGA shirt who was holding a sign that said “DeSantisland.” Classic grassroots campaign stuff!)

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Do all these people really think that millions of teachers, Democrats, and corporate entertainment creators are complicit in a long-term plan to sexually abuse minors?  

Some might. The premise overlaps with QAnon beliefs and paranoia about child trafficking that have existed on the right for years. Others may understand that they are being hyperbolic. To quote an admission by right-wing writer Rod Dreher that was cited in the Atlantic:

About the term “groomers”: it’s usually used to describe pedophiles who are preparing innocent kids for sexual exploitation. I think it is coming to have a somewhat broader meaning: an adult who wants to separate children from a normative sexual and gender identity, to inspire confusion in them, and to turn them against their parents and all the normative traditions and institutions in society. It may not specifically be to groom them for sexual activity, but it is certainly to groom them to take on a sexual/gender identity at odds with the norm.

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Is this better than being an outright conspiracist? To use an extremely loaded and arguably libelous term with the understanding that you don’t really mean what people “usually” understand it to mean? I don’t think so.

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Is there anything else?

[Deep sigh.] Yes. In the course of reporting this story, I sent an email to a Georgian journalist who had interviewed Pushaw in 2017 and 2018. One of the questions I asked was whether he could tell me how active her NGO was, given the possibility that it “could have just existed on paper.” Résumé inflation is common in the MAGA community, and the foreign aid/development world is known to be populated by cardboard-cutout entities that are created as part of larger influence campaigns, so it was, I think, a fair question.

The Georgian journalist said the NGO did legitimate work, which is why it is described as doing such above, but also contacted Pushaw about my query. She has since sent at least 26 tweets related to her accusation that “Slate assigned @benmathislilley to write a smear piece about me, including the falsehood that my Georgian [non-]profit ‘only existed on paper.’ ”

Needless to say, Slate did not assign such a story, nor did I ever assert to anyone as a fact that her nonprofit “only existed on paper.” In fact, I had already drawn the tentative conclusion that Pushaw may be unlike many figures in the Trump-era Republican Party in that she appears to have both substantive expertise on a government-related topic (international affairs) and a willingness to sometimes admit that she has made a statement in error (e.g., the Rothschild affair).

Nonetheless, she appears to succeed and have influence in the current political environment not because of those attributes, but because of less laudable ones—being factually reckless, needlessly accusatory, and (in Twitter’s own words) “abusive” on social media.

Is that it?

I hope so!

For more on the battle between Governor DeSantis and Disney over LGBTQ issues, listen to this recent episode of What Next.

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