Right-Wing Dark Money Groups Seek to Undermine Biden’s Coronavirus Response — with a Stark Human Cost

Right-Wing Dark Money Groups Seek to Undermine Biden’s Coronavirus Response — with a Stark Human Cost

By Evan Vorpahl

In The Hill, Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) visiting fellow Natalie Goodnow criticized President-elect Joe Biden’s appointment of Ezekiel Emanuel, chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, to the coronavirus taskforce. At the heart of IWF’s attack is an article Emanuel wrote six years ago that provided reasons why he personally would stop visiting his doctor after he was 75 years old. 

IWF used Emanuel’s position to raise the alarm over how the Biden Administration may handle the pandemic and distribute the vaccine, even though IWF has ignored the Trump Administration’s catastrophic inaction, obstruction, and disinformation, which has undermined efforts to prevent the spread of this deadly disease. Trump’s disastrous approach to both the disease and to needed economic relief has devastated our communities as the virus has killed more than 250,000 Americans and injured millions. 

This isn’t the first time that the right-wing has taken Emanuel’s positions out of context in an effort to derail public health measures. In 2009, Betsy McCaughey falsely charged in the New York Post that Emanuel supported medical discrimination against disabled and elderly patients. Prominent Tea Party Republicans picked up the story and began to claim that President Obama’s health care reforms would encourage “government-sponsored euthanasia.”

Sarah Palin popularized the misleading claim of so-called Obama “death panels.”

IWF itself added to the frenzy surrounding healthcare reform, calling the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) Independent Payment Advisory Board a “special death panel just for seniors.” Another referred to Emanuel as “Doctor Death Panel.” IWF and its related organization have cumulatively spent millions to attack the ACA from the time it was a proposal up through the present.

IWF claims to be independent, but its operations distinctly aid the GOP agenda. The organization is also a pay-to-play front group for corporate interests, like the tobacco industry, and it plays a key role in the Koch network which spreads billionaire Charles Koch’s fringe right-wing agenda. This network has been mobilized against both important public health measures to limit the spread of coronavirus and public spending that would give Americans needed economic aid during this ongoing crisis.

IWF’s Goodnow told Hill readers that “Emanuel should not help shape the national response to a pandemic that disproportionately affects the elderly and vulnerable,” but during the pandemic IWF has been a leading voice opposing science-backed public health measures like mask requirements and shelter-at-home rules, sometimes using extreme rhetoric in opposition to policies that would protect these vulnerable populations. 

In April IWF chair Heather Higgins compared Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer to the “despotic” Dolores Umbridge and Tammy Bruce, President of IWF’s sister organization Independent Women’s Voice (IWV), called Whitmer a “little tyrant” for measures taken to slow the spread of coronavirus. IWV did not call for violence along with that rhetoric, but others acted on claims the governor was a tyrant and plotted to kidnap and assassinate her, as detailed in federal charges. 

IWF also posted misleading charts, which were removed by Facebook, about coronavirus death rates, that downplayed the risk of contracting the virus. IWF also pushed for the U.S. to follow Sweden’s dangerous “herd” immunity approach, and promoted scientists who have endorsed that concept–which would result in millions of deaths– while opposing stay-at-home rules and echoing Trump’s much-criticized demand for school reopenings.

While supporting deregulation and quick reopening, IWF has also aggressively opposed vital economic support for workers like expanded unemployment or paid sick leave to Americans who are laid off or ill due to the pandemic. Heather Higgins recently said, “We are also almost alone in the fight against the destructive new state and federal paid leave entitlement programs,” describing her organizations as the tip of the spear in this fight. 

That is, IWF is a “leader” in fighting to deny millions of Americans access to paid time off for a medical emergency or illness. And its proposal for funding time off for the birth or adoption of a child is based on raiding the Social Security Trust Fund to issue loans that may require parents to work longer before they can retire, in addition to creating a precedent for other programs to take money out of Social Security. 

Beyond IWF, the Koch network’s fingerprints were all over the early reopen protests. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a Koch-funded corporate bill mill, played an early role in pushing state reopenings amid the first wave of cases in the U.S. While seemingly acknowledging the risk of holding an in-person conference by going virtual, the legislative agenda from ALEC’s summer meeting included covid-related corporate immunity to shield corporations from lawsuits if their employees or customers contracted the virus, and other bills that sought to strip Democratic governors of emergency powers to combat the spread of the virus. ALEC, which has long sought to expand digital learning, shifted gears during a pandemic, and passed a model bill to reopen schools.

The Save Our Country Coalition was also an early voice in calls to reopen after its formed this spring, and advised the Trump Administration on reopening. The coalition included prominent rightwing operatives like ALEC CEO Lisa Nelson, FreedomWorks’ Stephen Moore, Ginni Thomas (the spouse of right-wing Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas), as well as former Trump officials. Another member of the coalition, the Council for National Policy Action, recruited pro-Trump doctors to push reopening in May. Heather Higgins is a Gold Circle member of CNP. 

Other right-wing groups have challenged governors who have tried to fill the gap where their state legislatures have failed to act. In Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), a Bradley-funded litigation center where Goodnow was a research fellow in 2018, has worked with Republican legislators to file lawsuits to keep schools open, and restrict Governor Tony Evers’ emergency powers to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. Because of the state legislature’s inaction, and lawsuits filed by WILL preventing the Governor from addressing this public health crisis, Wisconsin now has one of the country’s highest rates of infection. Koch’s Americans for Prosperity also joined efforts to block some of the governor’s orders through the state Supreme Court, which has been captured by dark money.

Goodnow’s stated concerns for vulnerable populations in a Biden administration ring hollow given her own organization’s approach to the covid-19 crisis, which has advanced a number of policies opposed by well-regarded public health experts.

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