By Kara Voght
Republicans launched their control of the House of Representatives with a sprawling, paranoid new initiative: The Select Committee on the Weaponization of Government, an interrogation of alleged efforts to silence and punish conservatives across federal agencies. The undertaking signaled the obvious political goal among Republican lawmakers to score points against the Biden administration and their Democratic opponents. It also signaled something more ominous: that Republicans intend to use their newfound power to turn fringe theories into mainstream politics.
The most noxious online conspiracies, the ones that a public official would once have been exiled for relaying and disseminating with any gravity, are now the focus of official congressional inquiries. The committee would also have full freedom to investigate any civil liberties-related issue and scrutinize how the federal government collected and used information about Americans, fueling right-wing paranoia about government overreach. But it’s not just this committee from which Republicans are launching conspiracies into the mainstream. Such thinking has leached into every corner of the GOP House’s agenda, from the first bills it passed to which Democrats will potentially be stripped of their committee assignments.
Some in the party are sticking to the old model — use these to drum up controversy, and then pursue the usual Republican fare. For others, getting people focused on these theories isn’t a means, it’s an end. Here’s a guide to the conspiracies fueling the GOP-held House.
House Republicans voted last week to establish a new panel under the House Oversight Committee to investigate the U.S government’s response to Covid-19. The committee will interrogate the “development of vaccines and treatments,” a nod to unfounded vaccine skepticism that the GOP has embraced. Comer has specifically noted interest in investigating the “effectiveness of the vaccines and the concerns that people are starting to raise with respect to side effects,” he told The Washington Post last week, and has vowed congressional investigators would “talk to the researchers” and “all of the people that were involved” in vaccine development. Under Comer’s leadership, Oversight Republicans had also previously raised questions about the Surgeon General’s pandemic-related social media guidelines, which had been an effort to combat the disinformation now at the about the virus and vaccines. Comer had slammed the effort as “actively censoring medical information and opinions on social media” in a letter to Surgeon General Vivek Murthy last July.
The committees’ chief preoccupation, however, is an unsupported claim that the pandemic began when the virus — either created through bioengineering or obtained from bats — escaped a lab in Wuhan, China. Both Comer and House Judiciary Committee chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) have asserted that Dr. Anthony Fauci and other Biden officials misled Americans about the virus’ origins because the alleged Wuhan lab received U.S. funding. “Fauci was warned early on that the virus appeared manmade and pointed to a lab leak and instead of blowing the whistle may have attempted to cover it up,” Comer alleged. Under the new panel, Republicans will investigate “what the U.S. government knew regarding the origins of COVID-19 and when the government knew it,” he said.
The so-called “lab leak” theory has never been substantiated. There is no evidence that the virus had been in a laboratory prior to the start of the pandemic and peer-reviewed scientific papers have put forth overwhelming evidence that the pathogen likely lept from animals to humans. Nevertheless, Comer and Jordan sent requests to more than 40 government officials and academic scientists last month, including the president of the nonprofit that subcontracted a U.S. grant to the Wuhan laboratory and four co-authors on an academic study that concluded Covid-19 was not engineered in a lab. (Fauci, for his part, has previously said he has a “completely open mind” about whether the outbreak originated in a lab, though has pushed back against lawmakers who have asserted the lab-leak theory in past hearings.)
The new Select Committee on Weaponization of Government has included the Department of Homeland Security’s Disinformation Governance Board among its targets, Axios reported. The defunct effort had been charged with stopping disinformation from misleading Americans about threats to their safety. “Let’s say that there was a deep fake video about how to access disaster aid or how to get out of a city during a disaster released by a malign actor like Russia, China or Iran in order to put Americans in danger,” Nina Jankowicz, the board’s leader, told NPR last summer.
With an ominous-sounding name and a vague mandate, the board quickly fell victim to the very sort of campaign it was meant to combat. Right-wing lawmakers christened the effort as the “Ministry of Truth,” a nod to a government manipulation and propaganda effort in George Orwell’s 1984. Right-wing provocateurs, meanwhile, launched vicious, coordinated online attacks targeting Jankowicz. Just three weeks after the board’s efforts began, DHS announced it would suspend it. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas conceded that the board “could have done a better job of communicating what it is and what it isn’t” — enough for the board’s very brief existence to come under scrutiny from House Republicans looking to retread the falsehoods surrounding it. House Republicans have delighted over the prospect of grilling Mayorkas over his agency’s border enforcement efforts. This is yet another reason to haul him up to the Hill.
Almost a decade ago, the FBI informed the California Democrat that one of his campaign volunteers was working for Chinese intelligence. Swalwell cooperated with the FBI to remove the spy from the country and privately informed then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) of his efforts. That was the end of it … until a Trump intelligence official leaked details of the episode in 2020. The FBI repeatedly stressed that Swalwell did nothing wrong, but that didn’t stop conspiracies about Swalwell’s ties from taking root.
Now, McCarthy is repeating those claims as rationale for removing Swalwell from the House Intelligence Committee. “If you got the briefing I got from the FBI, you wouldn’t have Swalwell on any committee,” McCarthy said during a press conference on Thursday. “My cooperation was leaked out of vengeance for my role in impeachment and is now weaponized by McCarthy as political payback,” Swalwell tells Rolling Stone. The consequences are bigger than losing a committee seat: Swalwell has been fielding “thousands of death threats to me and my family” over McCarthy’s elevation of dubious ties.
Speaker McCarthy said that the new Select Committee on the Weaponization of Government will be tasked, in part, with interrogating how the Justice Department treated conservative protesters at school board meetings. The mandate stems from a warped interpretation of a memo Attorney General Merrick Garland issued in October 2021 that noted “a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence” against school officials and staff and asked the FBI to discuss “strategies for addressing threats.”
The “disturbing spike” arose at a moment when conservative parents had inundated school board meetings across the country under the banner of “parents’ rights,” a catchall for the anti-mask mandate, anti-critical race theory, anti-LBGTQ sentiment that emerged during the pandemic. Republicans claimed Garland’s words equated concerned parents with “domestic terrorists,” as Rep. Mary Miller (R-Ill.) said at the time, though no such assertion was made. It nevertheless became the Republican line: “Why did he go after parents, and call them terrorists, simply because they wanted to go to a school board meeting?” he told Fox News last year. Now, that false claim becomes a point of interrogation against Garland and his agency.
“Our very first bill will repeal the funding for 87,000 new IRS agents,” McCarthy promised after he finally ascended to the speakership. He made good on that vow when House Republicans voted last week to strip $71 billion from the IRS budget. Promises made, promises kept, it seems — save for the fact that the Biden administration never set out to hire 87,000 IRS agents “to go after families and small businesses,” as Republicans alleged in a one-page description of their legislation.
The conspiratorial claim took hold after Democrats added funding to the IRS last year to hire some new IRS agents to scrutinize the wealthy and businesses, not the middle class, for underpaying on taxes. GOP lawmakers nevertheless began pushing the talking point that nearly 90,000 “mostly armed” new agents would “hunt down and kill middle class taxpayers that don’t pay enough,” as Fox News commentator Brian Kilmeade put it. (In fact, only a fraction of IRS agents carry firearms.) Though Republicans have enshrined the falsehood in its first legislative act, the effort goes no further: The Democrat-controlled Senate refuses to take up the bill and Biden has vowed to veto it.
When Republicans assumed control of the chamber, there were obvious claims on which the party would train its attention, such as lawmakers’ obsession with Hunter Biden, his laptop, and whether Big Tech coordinated with Democrats to suppress important details about it before the 2020 presidential election. That effort began in earnest last week when House Oversight Committee chair James Comer (R-Ky.) sent letters to three former Twitter executives demanding details on the incident. But Hunter Biden’s laptop is but a narrow slice of the larger GOP conspiracies over Big Tech censorship. The origins of the new Weaponization of Government panel come, in part, from revelations shared in the Twitter Files, a collaboration between Twitter owner Elon Musk and conservative journalists to illustrate cooperation between government agencies and social media platforms to achieve that objective. Jordan and Comer jointly wrote letters in December to top tech platforms to inquire about “collusion” with the Biden administration on the suppression of conservative voices in December.
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