WASHINGTON — An informal coalition of influential conservative leaders and groups, some with close connections to the White House, has been quietly working to nurture protests and apply political and legal pressure to overturn state and local orders intended to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
The groups have tapped their networks to drive up turnout at recent rallies in state capitals, dispatched their lawyers to file lawsuits, and paid for polling and research to undercut the arguments behind restrictions that have closed businesses and limited the movement of most Americans.
Among those fighting the orders are FreedomWorks and Tea Party Patriots, which played pivotal roles in the beginning of Tea Party protests starting more than a decade ago. Also involved are a law firm led partly by former Trump White House officials, a network of state-based conservative policy groups, and an ad hoc coalition of conservative leaders known as Save Our Country that has advised the White House on strategies for a tiered reopening of the economy.
The effort picked up some influential support Tuesday, when Attorney General William Barr expressed concerns about state-level restrictions potentially infringing on constitutional rights and suggested that, if that occurred, the Justice Department might weigh in, including by supporting legal challenges by others. Separately, in Wisconsin, Republicans in the state legislature sued to block the Democratic governor’s order extending stay-at-home rules through May 26.
Those helping orchestrate the fight against restrictions predict the effort could energize the right in the same way the Tea Party movement did in 2009 and 2010 and potentially be helpful to President Donald Trump as he campaigns for reelection. But the cause has yet to demonstrate that kind of traction. Polls show a majority of Americans are more concerned about reopening the country too quickly than they are about the damage to the economy. And coronavirus protests have drawn smaller crowds ranging from a few dozen to several thousand at a rally in Michigan last week.
Conditions are hardly ideal for a protest movement related to the virus. In addition to the health risks, demonstrators potentially face legal exposure for violating the very measures they are protesting. Plus, some key Republican leaders have embraced the types of restrictions being targeted, while powerful grassroots mobilizing groups, including those spearheaded by billionaire activist Charles Koch, have so far not embraced the protests.
Still, the fight has emerged as a galvanizing cause for a vocal element of Trump’s base and others on the political right. Organizers see it as unifying social conservatives, who view the orders as targeting religious groups; fiscal conservatives who chafe at the economic devastation wrought by the restrictions on businesses; and civil libertarians who contend that the restrictions infringe on constitutional rights.
“Groups are united in purpose on this,” said Noah Wall, advocacy director for FreedomWorks, which in 2009 organized a Tea Party protest that drew tens of thousands of people or more to Washington. He described the current efforts as appealing to a “much broader” group. “This is about people who want to get back to work and leave their homes,” he said.
More than 10 protests are planned for this week, Wall said, adding that elected officials “are going to see a lot of angry activists, and I think that could change minds.”
The protests mostly appear to have been organized by local residents and are framed primarily as pushback against what they view as government overreach. But some rallies have prominently featured iconography boosting Trump and Republicans and denouncing Democrats, as well the occasional Confederate flag and signs promoting conspiracy theories.
As was the case with the Tea Party movement, established national groups that generally align with the Republican Party have sought to fuel the protests, harnessing their energy in a manner that can increase their profiles and build their membership base and donor rolls.
Nonprofit groups including FreedomWorks and Tea Party Patriots have used their social media accounts and text and email lists to spread the word about protests across the country.
Most of FreedomWorks’ 40 employees are working remotely on the effort, helping to connect local protesters and set up websites for them. The group is considering paid digital advertising to further increase turnout and has been conducting weekly tracking polls in swing suburban districts that it says show support for reopening parts of the country. It is sharing the data with advisers on the president’s economic task force and other conservative allies on Capitol Hill.
While social media has been a key platform for organizing the protests, those efforts have drawn scrutiny. Facebook removed some posts devoted to the protests Monday for encouraging violations of social distancing laws. And similarities in online organizing efforts behind different protests have sparked accusations that they are not, in fact, organic grassroots campaigns but “astroturfing” efforts that are manipulated by Washington conservatives to appear locally driven.
Organizers of recent protests in Oklahoma acknowledged that FreedomWorks helped arrange the events and said they hoped the “rolling protests,” which were intended to keep people in their vehicles, helped Trump politically. But they stressed that the events reflected real concerns from real people about the economic damage inflicted by mitigation measures.
Carol Hefner, an Oklahoma co-chair of Trump’s 2016 campaign who helped organize a protest last week in Oklahoma City, cited the state’s flat terrain as a factor in any decision to ease restrictions. “We have a lot of wind, and the wind has pretty much helped us here,” she said. “We are in a much better position than many of the other states to go ahead and open back up.”
Ronda Vuillemont-Smith, an Oklahoma heating, ventilation and air conditioning contractor who helped with the capital rally and another one Monday in Tulsa, said she encouraged protesters to remain in their vehicles. But Vuillemont-Smith, who serves on FreedomWorks’ activist advisory council, added, “I see absolutely no risks whatsoever” for open-air protests. “We are adults. We assume personal responsibility for the decisions that we make,” she said.
The Oklahoma organizers and Wall, as well as the White House and the Trump campaign, said there was no coordination between the protests and Trump’s team.
But the protests coincide with messages from Trump and have been helped and organized by his supporters, some of whom have begun ventures to advance the cause.
One of them is Reopen America Political Action Committee, which aims to bring small-business owners to Washington to lobby lawmakers to reopen, starting with a 24-hour rally at the White House on May 1 — the target Trump set for reopening.
The group, which was created this month, has yet to report any financial activity. But its founder, Suzzanne Monk, who is active on Twitter with the handle @Trumpertarian, called the idea for the rally “pushback against these governors who want to stay shut down far beyond their economic capacity to do so.”
Support for the protests features more direct ties to the White House than simply support for Trump. The administration recently formed an advisory group for reopening the economy that included Stephen Moore, the conservative economics commentator. Moore had been coordinating with FreedomWorks, the Tea Party Patriots and the American Legislative Exchange Council in a coalition called “Save Our Country,” which was formed to push for a quicker easing of restrictions.
At the same time, Moore was communicating with a group of local activists in Wisconsin involved in organizing a protest at the state Capitol set for Friday. On a conservative YouTube program that went online the day Trump named him to the task force, Moore said he had “one big donor in Wisconsin” who had pledged financial support for the protesters, telling him, “‘Steve, I promise, I will pay the bail and legal fees of anyone who gets arrested.’”
In an interview with The New York Times, Moore declined to identify the donor but said, “I do think you’re going to see these start to erupt.”
He said he would probably turn down an invitation to speak at the protest in Wisconsin because “it’s important that no one be under the impression that it’s sponsored or directed by national groups in Washington.”
A legal offensive against the restrictions is also being waged by groups and individuals supportive of Trump.
Barr’s comments Tuesday came a few days after a letter sent by groups including FreedomWorks, the Tea Party Patriots and the anti-abortion-rights group Susan B. Anthony List urging the Justice Department to consider intervening to block restrictions that the officials said were unconstitutional infringements on civil liberties.
Lawyers aligned with socially conservative causes have filed their own lawsuits against governors.
Many are focused on allowing smaller churches to keep holding services, but the objections cover a range of other activities. In Michigan, a lawsuit is challenging provisions of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order banning travel to vacation homes and gatherings of non-household members.
A firm that advises the Trump Organization, Michael Best & Friedrich, is representing members of a new protest group in North Carolina called ReOpenNC. Michael Best’s ranks include former Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus, former deputy White House counsel Stefan Passantino and the current senior counsel at the Trump campaign, Justin Clark.
ReOpenNC had told its members that a “generous donor” had arranged to pay for buses to bring protesters to Raleigh from around the state. But, in a sign of how loath the groups are to be viewed as “astroturf” creations, the group said it had scrapped the plan when a news station, WRAL, asked about it. (Afterward, a former defense contractor and perennial North Carolina political candidate, Tim D’Annunzio, stepped forward on Facebook to say he was the donor and was still hoping to run the buses.)
On Friday, Anthony Biller, a Raleigh-based lawyer with Michael Best, wrote to Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, on behalf of a ReOpenNC’s co-founder, Kristen Elizabeth, and a member who was arrested at a protest last week, seeking dismissal of the charges. In an interview, Biller said he hoped the state would agree to allow ReOpenNC to demonstrate safely without fear of arrest, adding, “What is sufficient safety to buy toilet paper at Costco should be sufficient safety to practice one’s fundamental rights, particularly about these issues.”
He said that he was working pro bono but that there was “no coordination with the Trump administration, as some bozos have implied.”
One force in conservative politics that has kept its distance from the stay-at-home protests is the network of groups backed by the billionaire Koch. The largest Koch-backed group, Americans for Prosperity, which played a leading role in facilitating the Tea Party movement, has remained on the sidelines of the coronavirus protests.
GoDaddy records show that a public relations firm tied to the Koch network, In Pursuit Of LLC, registered the domain name “reopenmississippi.com.” An official said the group had planned to use the site to highlight a nuanced approach being developed by the network to reopen the economy while balancing health concerns.
“The question is — what is the best way to get people back to work?” said Emily Seidel, chief executive of Americans for Prosperity. “We don’t see protests as the best way to do that,” she said, adding that “the choice between full shutdown and immediately opening everything is a false choice.”