The Perfect Enemy | Who is Ron DeSantis’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw
August 17, 2022

Who is Ron DeSantis’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw

Who is Ron DeSantis’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw  The Washington Post

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When Florida Republicans held their annual conference last week, party leaders decided to bar a large swath of the press corps from the event. While the hosts declined to discuss their reasoning, one unelected official applauded it.

“My message to [journalists] is to try crying about it,” tweeted Christina Pushaw, whose job as spokeswoman for Gov. Ron DeSantis is to communicate with reporters. “Then go to kickboxing and have a margarita.”

The derisive tone was typical of Pushaw, 31, a state employee who earns $120,000 a year. In the 14 months since joining DeSantis’s staff, she has transformed the typically buttoned-down role of gubernatorial press secretary into something like a running public brawl — with Twitter as her blunt-force weapon. Her usual targets: Democrats, the news media and anyone else she deems insufficiently supportive of DeSantis’s agenda and her own conservative politics.

She has knocked The Washington Post as “the Pravda of DC,” implied that Chelsea Clinton is “a grifter,” and referred to President Biden as “a seemingly senile 79-year-old aspiring dictator.” She invoked a notorious antisemitic trope about the Jewish Rothschild family while criticizing pandemic-related restrictions in November. (She deleted that tweet after describing it as “an attempt at sarcasm.”) In January, she questioned whether a neo-Nazi demonstration in Orlando was organized by Democratic staffers. (She walked that one back, too.)

Pushaw’s attacks on national news organizations and reporters can not only be blistering (“slobbering regime sycophants”), but they can also run on for hundreds of tweets and retweets — once prompting Twitter to suspend her account temporarily for “abusive” behavior.

She has also been credited — or blamed — for helping make the incendiary term “groomer” mainstream in GOP circles. In early March, she used the word, once reserved to describe pedophile behavior, to characterize anyone who opposed a DeSantis-favored bill restricting discussions of sexual orientation and gender in schools. “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children,” she tweeted.

While conspiratorial QAnon followers had previously used the term “groomer” to tar their enemies, its use took off among conservative politicians and pundits after Pushaw’s tweet, and has thereafter been widely used to demonize Democrats and educators who discussed sexuality or gender identity with young children.

None of Pushaw’s public dust-ups seems to have ruffled her boss, DeSantis, who is widely considered a leading contender to challenge former president Donald Trump for the 2024 GOP nomination. On occasion, he has defended Pushaw, who has loyally promoted his agenda, which has included a string of legislative victories on culture-war issues, such as passage of the gender-discussion bill and a ban on teaching critical race theory.

Pushaw not only amplifies DeSantis’s pugnacious public posture, she sometimes takes it further. When the archbishop of Miami rebuked DeSantis in February for a policy affecting shelters for migrant children, Pushaw responded on Twitter: “Lying is a sin.” She tweeted this over a photo of the archbishop and his comment about the shelter policy.

She declined an interview request and suggested to her Twitter followers that The Post was trying to blackmail her by writing this profile, although she ultimately offered limited cooperation with the reporter.

Some think Pushaw’s aggressive persona is strategic, acting as a kind of heat shield for DeSantis. “She’s the Dennis Rodman of Florida politics,” said Peter Schorsch, the publisher of FloridaPolitics.com, referring to the NBA player who taunted his opponents to throw them off their game.

Perhaps predictably, Pushaw has attracted plenty of attention. Since joining DeSantis, her Twitter following has grown more than tenfold, to nearly 177,000 as of this week. That’s a fraction of the 2-million-plus followers that White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and DeSantis himself each command, but far more than any other gubernatorial press secretary.

At the same time, Pushaw herself has often become the news, instead of merely being a mouthpiece for the state’s top elected official. Conservative media outlets, in particular, like to highlight her commentary. “DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw blasts CNN anchor for his hit on Florida COVID-19 policy,” read a Fox News headline last month.

Some political observers in Florida think Pushaw’s most important contribution to DeSantis’s team may be in strengthening his connections to stars of the online right — becoming his “right wing whisperer,” as Politico framed it. Earlier this year — Jan. 6 to be exact — she reportedly helped organize a dinner with DeSantis at the governor’s mansion and a night of drinks for nine prominent conservative social media commentators from Florida. The guest list, according to Politico, included several pundits who have downplayed the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and promoted the anti-vaccine movement.

Much of the daily output from Pushaw’s office looks like that of any other governor’s press shop. There are the banal news releases about quarterly tourism reports and appointments to the marine fisheries commission. Pushaw also helps stage DeSantis’s news conferences and ceremonial appearances, keeping the spotlight on the boss.

It’s on Twitter that Pushaw becomes combative, frequently insulting those who cover DeSantis. She routinely refers to reporters as “churnalists.” She calls the Orlando Sentinel “the Slantinel” and the Associated Press “American Pravda.” When the South Florida Sun Sentinel laid off several newsroom employees in early July, Pushaw tweeted: “Those journalists who were so quick to declare millions of Americans’ livelihoods as ‘nonessential’ should not expect sympathy from those Americans when their own newspapers declare their journalism jobs ‘nonessential.’ ”

Before Pushaw arrived, Florida reporters say DeSantis regularly replicated Trump’s habit of browbeating the news media. But her hiring signaled a change in tone, from relatively cordial to routinely caustic, they said. She was a surprising choice in any case, considering she had only been working in U.S. politics for a few years as part of a post-collegiate career that also included various jobs in Eastern Europe.

“This governor has used his communications team more like a campaign-style operation than a public-information operation,” said Mary Ellen Klas, a reporter for the Miami Herald who has covered six Florida governors. “They view reporters as their enemies. They are more antagonistic to reporters just by default, and often without cause.”

Last summer, Pushaw waged an intense campaign against the Associated Press over an article about the governor’s promotion of a covid-19 treatment manufactured by a company in which one of his top campaign donors has invested millions of dollars.

Over five days, Pushaw rebuked the story and its reporter 122 times on Twitter, and retweeted or liked dozens of others who attacked it. The barrage triggered death threats and online abuse aimed at the reporter, prompting AP’s chief executive to write to DeSantis asking him to stop her “harassing behavior.” DeSantis replied that the wire service “deserved blowback” for the story. Twitter briefly locked Pushaw’s account, saying she had violated rules against “abusive” conduct.

She went on another tear in April after The Post published a story about a popular right-wing Twitter account called Libs of TikTok. Pushaw tweeted, retweeted and quote-tweeted about the article dozens of times over the next two days, aiming several broadsides at the story’s author.

Pushaw grew up in Malibu, the famed beach community near Los Angeles that she has described as “one of the bluest areas in the country.” She graduated from the University of Southern California in 2012 after briefly studying in Russia. After graduation, she moved to Tbilisi, Georgia, and worked as an academic adviser, consultant and editor. She earned a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University’s international relations program in 2017.

After graduating from Hopkins, Pushaw appears to have taken on various jobs in two countries.

Her LinkedIn page indicates she worked as a “donor communications manager” for a nonprofit in Washington from mid-2017 to mid-2019. Citing a copy of Pushaw’s résumé, the Tampa Bay Times reported that the organization was Stand Together, a philanthropy funded by conservative megadonor Charles Koch. According to the Times, she said the highlights of her time there included working on the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh and the passage of federal tax cuts in late 2017.

During these years, Pushaw returned periodically to Georgia to advocate for Mikheil Saakashvili, the country’s then-exiled (and now imprisoned) former president, whom she has described as her onetime “boss” and “political inspiration.” She also provided campaign advice to opposition political parties in Georgia, according to her LinkedIn page, and later ran a nongovernmental organization that gave seminars about democracy and civil society to young Georgians.

According to her attorney, Pushaw — who received monetary compensation and a free apartment in Tbilisi — was notified by the Justice Department this year that she was likely required to register as a foreign agent under a federal disclosure law. Pushaw filed for the registration as soon as she was made aware, her attorney said.

Pushaw’s path took a new direction early last year when she wrote a freelance story about Rebekah Jones, a former Florida Department of Health data specialist who was fired and later charged with illegally accessing a government computer. The charge is still pending.

Jones drew national attention in 2020 after claiming the state had manipulated health data early in the pandemic. DeSantis has denied Jones’s allegations, and a state inspector general found insufficient evidence in May to support her accusation that state officials asked her to falsify or misrepresent coronavirus case rates. Jones is a Democratic candidate for the Florida congressional seat held by Republican Matt Gaetz.

“Jones’ story sounds impressive,” Pushaw wrote in the conservative journal Human Events in February 2021. “There’s just one problem: It’s not true,” She defended DeSantis, called Jones a “conspiracy theorist” and mentioned Jones’s previous brushes with the law.

Jones says Pushaw’s actions weren’t confined to print. That April, Jones was granted a temporary restraining order against Pushaw from a district court in Rockville, Md., near Jones’s home at the time. Though temporary orders are routinely granted without extensive review, Jones told The Post that Pushaw had “stalked, harassed and doxed me.” Pushaw has repeatedly denied these claims.

She eventually swore out a criminal complaint alleging that Pushaw had violated the temporary order and unsuccessfully sought a permanent one. The state attorney in Maryland ultimately declined to prosecute a criminal case, and a judge dismissed the action last August.

In the meantime, Pushaw came into DeSantis’s orbit. The Tampa Bay Times reported that Pushaw highlighted her piece on Jones when she applied for a job with the governor early last year. “If there are any openings on the governor’s comms team, I would love to throw my hat in the ring,” she wrote to officials.

In fact, the governor was in the midst of reshuffling his communications staff. In May, he appointed Pushaw as his press secretary.

Pushaw declined a request for an interview for this article. But before responding directly, she posted a screenshot of the reporter’s request on Twitter and asked her followers, “Do you guys think it will be a fair and balanced feature story, or a smear piece?”

In a follow-up response via email, she said The Post had waged “constant attacks” on DeSantis and refused further cooperation. “I do not believe that The Washington Post will tell ‘my’ side of the story,” she wrote.

She nevertheless later answered some questions, and offered to help The Post confirm “any claims about me that you want me to fact-check.” But when a reporter took her up on the offer, Pushaw changed her mind. She posted a screenshot of the request on Twitter and suggested it amounted to “blackmail.

She also provided The Post with a list of a half-dozen people she said would offer favorable comments. Among those who responded was Garen Koocharian, a friend who has known Pushaw since she was an undergraduate. He called her “genuine … smart, warmhearted and generous” and “much more moderate than people give her credit to be.” Elisabed Sikharulidze, who briefly worked for Pushaw in Georgia, described her as “very friendly, very supportive” and “passionate” in her beliefs.

Of course, the only persona most people will know is the one Pushaw presents publicly and online. When DeSantis hired her last year, her Twitter avatar may have offered a clue about what was to come. At the time, she used a photo of herself, altered so that red lasers appeared to be shooting from her eyes.