As I look back at this blog, I sometimes find it hard to believe that I’ve been writing about certain people since the beginning (or almost the beginning). One of these people is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., whose antivaccine conspiracy co-published in Salon.com and Rolling Stone in 2005 led to my first post ever went viral. Back then, RFK Jr. was promoting a conspiracy theory in which the CDC tried to cover up evidence that the thimerosal preservative that was used in several childhood vaccines until 2001 or so caused autism. These days, RFK Jr. promotes conspiracy theories that the CDC and Anthony Fauci are covering up harms from COVID-19 vaccines and other COVID-19 public health mitigation measures, such as mask mandates and “lockdowns,” but with added antisemitism and fascism. Nearly 17 years later, the only two things have changed. First, RFK Jr. has become more, not less, radical in his antivaccine crusade. Second, he’s not just antivax anymore! He’s broadened his conspiracy world to include all manner of COVID-19 misinformation and conspiracy theories. (He’s even decided that Sirhan Sirhan didn’t kill his father, leading me down another rabbit hole of a conspiracy theory that I hadn’t known existed!) He’s also trying to buy political influence, as their report from Popular Information about his having donated to the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) illegally:
The Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) accepted an illegal $50,000 contribution from Children’s Health Defense, a leading purveyor of anti-vaccine propaganda run by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The unlawful contribution, which was received by RAGA last summer, was first disclosed in an 87-page document filed with the IRS last week.
Children’s Health Defense is organized as a 501(c)(3) charity, which means that contributions to the group are tax-deductible. As such, under the law, Children’s Health Defense is “absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”
RAGA “elects and re-elects Republican attorneys general nationally.” RAGA is organized as a 527 “political organization” dedicated to “influencing or attempting to influence the selection, nomination, election or appointment of an individual to a federal, state, or local public office.”
In other words, a 527 organization is devoted exclusively to activities that are off-limits for a 501(c)(3) charity. The IRS is very clear that a 501(c)(3) cannot make donations to 527 groups…
Guess what, though? Children’s Health Defense contributed $50,000 to RAGA in 2021, a contribution that was clearly illegal for a group like Children’s Health Defense to have made. It’s not even a close call, as anyone who’s ever been involved with a 501(c)(3) charity can tell you. That’s what makes RFK Jr.’s response when it was busted by Judd Legum, who perused its IRS tax filing for 2021 and found the illegal contribution so implausible that it made me laugh out loud when I read it:
In response to a request for comment by Popular Information, Children’s Health Defense said that it paid $50,000 to gain access to Republican Attorneys General and brief them on “health policy issues.” Children’s Health Defense acknowledged paying the fee was illegal.Children’s Health Defense educates the public and advocates on health issues. CHD paid a fee to be able to educate attorneys general on health policy issues. We have since learned that the IRS prohibits any payment by a charity to a 527 organization, regardless of purpose. We regret our mistake and have changed our procedures so that this will not happen again.The use of charitable funds by Children’s Health Defense for political activity could “result in denial or revocation of [its] tax-exempt status,” according to the IRS.
I’m sorry, but I quite simply cannot believe this explanation. There’s no way that RFK Jr. didn’t know that having his antivax “charity” contribute to an explicitly political organization dedicated to electing and re-electing Republicans as state attorneys general was illegal. After all, how long has RFK Jr. been running a nonprofit, dating back to even before he went antivax? Does anyone remember Waterkeeper Alliance, founded by RFK Jr. in 1999 and also incorporated as a 501(c)(3) charity? Unsurprisingly, others who have worked with such charities were…skeptical:
One wonders if RFK Jr. will try to claim that RAGA paid for the “service” of an education in how to use pseudoscience and conspiracy theories to demonize COVID-19 vaccines and thereby justify mandates. Personally, though, even though this offense should be enough to take away Children’s Health Defense’s tax exempt status, it’s RFK Jr., and it probably won’t:
More interestingly, the Children’s Health Defense statement seems to actually admit that it had paid to gain access to Republican attorneys general. Basically, their excuse is, “Oops!” followed by a promise not to do it again.
Make no mistake, as well, many Republican attorneys general whom RAGA works to keep in office are rabidly anti-public health these days, which is why it actually does make sense that a nonprofit run by an ostensible “liberal” would make a sizable contribution to RAGA:
What would Kennedy and Children’s Health Defense see in RAGA? 24 Republican Attorneys General aggressively litigated against President Biden’s vaccine mandate for private employers, describing it as an “un-constitutional power grab.” The mandate was ultimately struck down last month by the Supreme Court.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) filed suit against Biden’s mandate for health care workers, which the Supreme Court upheld.
Individual members of RAGA also appear open to Kennedy’s anti-vaccine propaganda. In December, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry invited Kennedy to appear at a hearing “on the state’s plan to require COVID-19 vaccines for K-12 students.” The hearing included “false allegations the health department will force poor and minority children to get vaccinated.” Kennedy used the hearing to “spread misinformation about the risks of the vaccine.”
Last November, Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor (R) attended “a summit health-care system skeptics hocking their alternative treatments to covid-19 and conspiracies about how the latest bioweapon is the ‘manipulation of gene therapy.'”
As I’ve been writing for years now, there has been an increasing alliance between conservative activists and antivaxxers dating back at least a decade, when the political party formed by antivaxxers in 2011, The Canary Party, started working with Tea Party-affiliated groups in California. Not long after, the Canary Party became known for sucking up to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), with one of its major financial backers Jennifer Larson contributing a lot of money to Issa’s campaign (indirectly, of course) in order to buy influence and win a hearing by his committee examining autism and focused on vaccines as one potential cause. By 2018, I saw the results from the previous years in Michigan in an antivaccine “vaccine choice roundtable” that I attended incognito and documented. Elsewhere openly antivax candidates were running for state governor and other offices. By 2019, Republicans in Oregon were openly opposing anything resembling tightening school vaccine mandates, and the Ohio Statehouse was rife with antivax legislators, to the point that antivaxxers were bragging about them. Also, to bring it around, antivaxxers in California were openly marching with the California State Militia, specifically the California State Militia, First Regiment, California Valley Patriots and the State of Jefferson.
Once the pandemic hit, antivaxxers rapidly allied themselves with antimaskers, anti-“lockdown” protesters, and QAnon, with fascists being a common sight now at antivaccine rallies and antivaccine rhetoric becoming increasingly violent. Indeed, months before donating to RAGA, RFK Jr. was addressing fascist groups without a hint of irony, and then last month at the antivaccine “Defeat the Mandates” rally, he compared the “surveillance state” enforcing vaccine and public health mandates to what Anne Frank endured, except according to him it’s worse now.
Also, since the pandemic, RFK Jr.’s
charity lobbying group has been flush with cash. As reported by The Boston Globe a couple of weeks ago:
His family’s disapproval notwithstanding, Kennedy has used his famous name and the Kennedy mystique to solicit donations to Children’s Health Defense, even offering supporters a chance to visit the family’s compound on Cape Cod.
“You and your guest will join me for a day of sailing and private tour of the legendary Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port,” he wrote in a promotional post in 2019 that featured a photo of Kennedy family members on a wooden sailboat. “The more you contribute, the greater your chances of winning!”
In fact, the pandemic, and Kennedy’s response to it, has been a boon to Children’s Health Defense, which, according to an investigation by the Associated Press, has seen its revenues grow from $1.1 million in 2019 to $6.8 million in 2020. Its misinformation is also being widely consumed, with 4.7 million visits to its site last August, according to the AP, up from just 119,000 monthly visits before the pandemic.
I wonder what Children’s Health Defense’s revenue was in 2021. I fear that the answer will be: Even more.
Then there’s RFK Jr.’s increasing alliance with right wing grifters and COVID-19 conspiracy theorists:
Kennedy’s anti-vaccine message has brought him close to many leading figures who have attacked the nation’s democratic norms and institutions. A photo posted on Instagram July 18 and apparently taken backstage at the Reawaken America event, shows Kennedy alongside former President Donald Trump’s ally Roger Stone, anti-vaccine profiteer Charlene Bollinger and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, all of whom have pushed the lie that the 2020 election was stolen.
Kennedy has appeared at multiple events with Bollinger and her husband, even after their Super PAC sponsored an anti-vaccine, pro-Trump rally near the Capitol on Jan. 6, when, as AP previously reported, Bollinger celebrated the attack and her husband tried to enter the Capitol. Kennedy filmed a video conversation for their Super PAC in the spring.
He has also courted major GOP donors including Leila and David Centner, who were listed as CHD board members for 2021 on a filing the group made in August with Georgia charity regulators, and which AP obtained in a public records request. The couple are best known for the private school they established in Miami, Centner Academy, which put in place anti-vaccine policies for children and teachers.
I’ve written about the Centners before, of course. I also noted over a year ago how RFK Jr. had been drifting further and further into the sphere of right wing “lockdown” protesters, antimaskers, and, of course, antivaxxers, of whom he’s one of the granddaddies. Most recently, he appears to have embraced pretty much every right wing conspiracy theory about Anthony Fauci, even going so far as to publish a book, The Real Anthony Fauci, which even included a chapter entitled Final Solution: Vaccines or Bust. in addition to its embrace of lab leak conspiracy theories about the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and all manner of other generally right wing antivaccine and COVID-19 nonsense. I didn’t used to, but I’m increasingly agreeing with those who say that RFK Jr. can’t be considered a liberal any more.
Circling back to that illegal contribution, unsurprisingly, RAGA has thus far not said whether it will return it:
I’ll conclude with an observation that I’ve frequently made on Twitter, but perhaps not as often on this blog. With conspiracy theorists like RFK Jr., it is indeed all about the ideology and conspiracies, but it’s also all about the grift. Always.