Former Republican lawmakers slammed the GOP for its silence after Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., spoke at a conference organized by a white nationalist who praised the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, weeks after being linked to the rally that sparked the deadly attack
Gosar skipped Friday's vote on a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package approved by the House to attend the America First Political Action Conference, which was organized by white nationalist Nick Fuentes, who mused about killing members of Congress days before the riot. Gosar later condemned "white racism" during an appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference ahead of former President Donald Trump's speech over the weekend — and then met with Fuentes again after the event.
Former Rep. Joe Walsh, an Illinois Republican who was elected alongside Gosar during the 2010 Tea Party wave before rejecting far-right extremism after Trump's rise to power, said he was "stunned" by Gosar's extremist turn and expressed frustration that Republican leaders have stayed silent on his appearance at AFPAC.
"It's beyond disappointing," Walsh said in an interview with Salon. "This is where the party is now. The fact that this party— and we all contributed to it — but here we are in 2021, and one of their members keynotes a white nationalist event and the party can't condemn it. The party is telling the country that they're OK with white supremacy."
Former Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Va., also slammed the party for failing to condemn Gosar for getting cozy with white nationalists, noting that Fuentes is a Holocaust denier who has pushed anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. (Fuentes has denied this.)
"This is what @RepGosar supports: Unambiguous anti-Semitism," Riggleman tweeted. "He should be condemned by the full House for speaking at AFPAC."
The Anti-Defamation League's Arizona chapter said in a statement that Gosar's appearance at AFPAC was "deeply disturbing."
"A member of Congress should never share a stage with Fuentes," the group said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center said it was "unimaginable" that Gosar would not be held accountable by his colleagues.
"Less than two months after the violent attack on the Capitol, Rep. Paul Gosar participated in a gathering of white nationalists at the beckoning of one of the movement's most notorious and hateful leaders who glorified the events of that day," Susan Corke, director of the SPLC's Intelligence Project, said in a statement to Salon. "While his colleagues were holding hearings to ensure that another violent insurrection will never again disgrace the halls of Congress, Gosar provided these extremists a mainstream platform and further stoked the hate that drives their movement."
Gosar, who was described by "Stop the Steal" organizer Ali Alexander as a key ally in organizing the Jan. 6 rally that preceded the riot, and who has extensive ties to extremist groups, skipped Friday's House vote, citing the coronavirus pandemic — although he previously joining a lawsuit arguing that voting by proxy in Congress is unconstitutional. "I continue to be unable to physically attend proceedings in the House Chamber due to the ongoing public health emergency," he said in a letter justifying his absence.
Gosar, who led Republican objections to the counting of Arizona's electoral votes, and later reportedly asked Donald Trump for a pardon related to his involvement with the rally, spoke at AFPAC after former Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who was denounced by the GOP in 2019 for comments defending white nationalism and white supremacy.
The event was organized by Fuentes, a 22-year-old white nationalist agitator who promoted the Jan. 6 rally and originally gained prominence after the deadly 2017 "Unite the Right" march in Charlottesville. Fuentes, who has been banned by some social networks for making racist and anti-Semitic comments, called on the AFPAC audience to help America protect its "white demographic core" and accused Black Lives Matter activists of trying to create "a new racial caste system in this country, with whites at the bottom," The Washington Post first reported.
"If America ceases to retain that English cultural framework and the influence of European civilization, if it loses its White demographic core and if it loses its faith in Jesus Christ, then this is not America anymore," Fuentes said.
Fuentes, who attended the Jan. 6 rally but says he did not enter the Capitol, later praised the rioters as "patriots."
"I saw the police retreating and we heard that the politicians voting on the fraudulent election had scurried to their underground tunnels away from the Capitol," Fuentes said. "I said to myself: 'This is awesome!'"
Fuentes went on to mock Gosar's Republican colleagues and made fun of Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., for using a wheelchair.
Gosar did not mention AFPAC or Fuentes on Saturday during an appearance at the Trump-headlined CPAC but abruptly interrupted a panel discussion to note that he disavows racism, with no apparent context. "I want to tell you, I denounce . . . white racism," he said. "That's not appropriate."
Gosar acknowledged to the Washington Post after the panel that he was referring to Fuentes' comments. He told the outlet that he accepted the invitation because "you don't accomplish anything by isolating" certain audiences.
"We thought about it, and we thought: There is a group of young people that are becoming part of the election process, and becoming a bigger force," Gosar said. "So why not take that energy and listen to what they've got to say?"
CPAC organizers did not comment on Gosar's appearance but blocked Fuentes from entering the conference with a group of maskless supporters.
Despite Gosar's comments, Fuentes posted a photo of the two sharing drinks on Saturday.
"Great meeting today with Congressman Gosar!" he wrote. "America is truly uncancelled."
Walsh, who like many Tea Party-backed Republicans pushed racist conspiracy theories to win elections, said the appearance made clear how far Gosar had drifted to the extremist fringe from their time in Congress together in 2011 and 2012.
"Gosar was sort of nuts back then," Walsh said, but we were all sort of part of the same Tea Party wave. Even though some of us were kind of nuts, it was all about the issues. I don't recognize these guys now. I mean, this crazy shit was fringe — now it's like the base of the party."
Walsh noted that just two years ago the Republican Party stripped King of his committee assignments after he questioned why the term "white supremacy "was deemed offensive.
"Maybe I'm naive, but back in 2010, if Gosar pulled something like this I got to believe [former House Speaker John] Boehner and leadership would have come down on him like a ton of bricks," he said. "It's amazing. He blew off a COVID relief vote to fire up a bunch of white supremacists, and the fucking party, they're not going to do a damn thing to him."
Republicans were recently forced to reckon with freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who has made comments pushing conspiracy theories and calling for Democrats to be executed. The party ultimately decided not to punish Greene, but Walsh predicted it won't even have the same conversation about Gosar.
In the pre-Trump era, Walsh said, the situation was quite different: Republican leaders would "bounce his ass off of committees, immediately the party censures him, and the party goes out of their way to condemn this Nick Fuentes and this white nationalist group." Now, he added, "I didn't see one Republican in the conference who condemned what Gosar did. … I don't think they'll even bring it up."
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., has been one of the most vocal Republicans in opposing the racism and conspiracy theories pushed by his party's fringe, but like the rest of his colleagues has stayed silent on Gosar's speech. Kinzinger's office did not respond to Salon's request for comment.
Fuentes is understood as the leader of the "groypers," a fringe far-right group fueled by supposedly ironic memes, including specific Pepe the Frog poses. The ADL describes them as a "white supremacist group" who believe they are defending the country against "demographic and cultural changes that are destroying the 'true America' — a white, Christian nation." The FBI is currently investigating a $250,000 bitcoin payment Fuentes received ahead of the Jan. 6 riot, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Alexander, the "Stop the Steal" organizer, praised Fuentes' "hugely successful" AFPAC event over the weekend. Last week, Alexander hosted Gosar's chief of staff, Tom Van Flein, a former top aide to ex-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, in a Clubhouse chatroom that also included indicted right-wing fraudster Jacob Wohl.
Alexander said after the Capitol riot, in a now-deleted video, that he had "schemed up" the Jan. 6 rally to put "maximum pressure on Congress while they were voting" to certify the election, in collaboration with Gosar and Reps. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., and Mo Brooks, R-Ala. Biggs and Brooks have both denied involvement with Alexander. Gosar, notably, has not.
Gosar previously appeared at a rally organized by Alexander in December, where he told supporters they planned to "conquer the Hill" to return Trump to the White House.
Gosar's office did not respond to questions from Salon.
Gosar has also come under scrutiny for his ties to extremist groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, some of whose members now face conspiracy charges after they were seen in videos leading the invasion of the Capitol.
The New York Times reported after the riot that Jim Arroyo, who leads an Arizona chapter of the Oath Keepers, promoted a "coming civil war," citing Gosar's appearance at an event held by the group several years earlier.
"We had Congressman Paul Gosar come to a meeting, he is the elected representative here in Northern Arizona," Arroyo said. "And we asked him, flat out — Do you think we are headed towards a Civil War? And he said, 'We are in a Civil War, we just haven't started shooting yet' ... So that is about to change."
The group has used that kind of civil war rhetoric as a recruiting tool, according to KNXV.
Gosar came under criticism last summer after posing for a photo with a member of the Proud Boys. In 2018, he met with the jailed leader of a far-right anti-immigrant extremist group and made comments about Muslim immigrants that were widely seen as Islamophobic. In 2014, he traveled with Arizona Republican Party chairwoman Kelli Ward to support the Bundy militia in its Nevada standoff with federal law enforcement, after rancher Cliven Bundy refused to pay grazing fees and stop trespassing on federal land.
"He's been involved with anti-Muslim groups and hate groups," his brother, Dave Gosar, told the Times. "He's made anti-Semitic diatribes. He's twisted up so tight with the Oath Keepers it's not even funny."
Dave Gosar and other siblings of the congressman bought ads to campaign against their brother in 2018 after he falsely suggested that the deadly Charlottesvile neo-Nazi rally was "created by the left" and carried out by an "Obama sympathizer." He also falsely claimed that billionaire Democratic donor George Soros, the target of countless anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, had bankrolled the event.
"We warned everybody how dangerous he was," Dave Gosar said after the riot.
Gosar condemned the rioters on Twitter, urging them to "not get carried away" while posting a photo of the mob scaling a Capitol wall. But he posted the same photo to the far-right social network Parler, which was used by some rioters to coordinate the attack, without any such criticism. "Americans are upset," he wrote in response to the image.
In the days following the riot, Arizona Democrats called for the FBI and Justice Department to investigate Gosar and other state lawmakers "directly involved, as well as those who, through words and conduct, aided and abetted sedition, treason or any other federal crimes."
"The events of January 6 were not spontaneous, nor were they the random acts of a diffuse handful of unconnected individuals," the state Democratic party said in a letter to federal law enforcement officials. "For weeks prior to the breach, a group of Republican Arizona legislators and legislators-elect publicly advocated for the overthrow of the election results which encouraged precisely the kind of violent conduct that we witnessed."
CNN has reported that Gosar and Biggs asked Trump for a pardon related to their involvement with the rally that preceded the riot in January, but were denied.
Gosar's siblings have launched a new campaign to remove their brother from Congress in the wake of the riot.
"We feel it's our moral obligation," Dave Gosar told the Los Angeles Times, adding that his brother is "in my opinion, about as despicable a politician as I have ever seen."
"He started at an extreme place, he started at a bigoted place ... and he's gone even further into that," added sister Jennifer Gosar.
"Paul has no character, no integrity, no honor," agreed brother Tim Gosar, "and is absolutely as close as you get to a pathological liar."
Walsh predicted that despite calls for Gosar to be punished, the Republican Party will stay silent because of the effect Trump has had on the party over the last five years.
"This is one of Trump's impacts on the party," he said. "The party follows a lot of Trump's signals. Trump makes signals to a lot of these white supremacists and white nationalists. I mean, Donald Trump didn't go out of his way to condemn them. They're more welcomed now in the coalition, and I think the party gets that. So the party is much, much more loath to condemn people like this."