By Trevor Aaronson
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Republican gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis spoke at a conference of an anti-Muslim extremist group in October 2017 whose founder argues devout Muslims cannot be loyal Americans.
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DeSantis, who resigned from his U.S. House seat last week to focus on his run for governor, spoke to the group meeting in Washington, D.C., taking a hard line on immigration and asylum, and characterizing some U.S. Department of State employees as sympathetic to Arab views.
DeSantis’ address to ACT for America is evidence of another meeting with groups known for extremist views, including a conference featuring speakers who have defended a candidate accused of child molestation, suggested killing Muslims and argued that women are less likely to be in leadership roles because of “biological causes.”
Founded in 2007, ACT for America promotes itself as the “largest national security grassroots organization.” ACT refers to the organization’s former name, American Congress for Truth. The group has built a reputation for lobbying state legislators to ban Sharia law and has referred to Islam as “Islamofascism.”
“Tens of thousands of Islamic militants now reside in America, operating in sleeper cells, attending our colleges and universities, even infiltrating our government,” ACT for America’s website once claimed. “They are here — today. Many have been here for years. Waiting. Preparing.”
Brigitte Gabriel, the Lebanese-American Christian who founded ACT for America, has used the organization to lobby for intolerance of Muslims in the United States, criticizing cities with large Muslim populations for serving halal meals at schools and advocating for strict policies that limit the number of Muslim immigrants.
During a 2007 lecture, Gabriel said a devout Muslim “cannot be a loyal citizen to the United States of America.”
Gabriel did not respond to FCIR’s request for comment.
The Southern Poverty Law Center describes ACT for America as a “designated hate group,” and the Anti-Defamation League classifies the organization as the nation’s largest anti-Muslim group that “propagates the hateful conspiracy theory that Muslims are infiltrating U.S. institutions in order to impose Sharia law.”
ACT for America disputes these characterizations. “ACT for America has never, and will never, tolerate any bias, discrimination, or violence against anyone, based on their religion, gender, race, or political persuasion,” according to an Aug. 28 statement.
DeSantis declined to answer questions about his appearance with ACT for America or his specific comments at the conference. His campaign referred to questions about the appearance as a “desperate attempt” to “try to smear an Iraq veteran that was on the front line of fighting terrorists.”
“He said absolutely nothing controversial. Ron DeSantis will never apologize for his service and fighting to keep America safe,” said Stephen Lawson, the campaign’s communications director.
DeSantis answered questions of ACT for America conference attendees during their Washington meeting, according to a recording obtained by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.
During the session, he suggested that refugees seeking asylum are drawn to the United States for the financial benefits they might receive. DeSantis argued refugees should be vetted according to their potential economic value to the nation.
“Here’s the thing about the refugee, the immigration, all this stuff, what’s the purpose of immigration for the United States?” DeSantis said. “Is it to provide entitlements to foreign nationals? I don’t think that. The purpose should be to benefit the American people.”
The line drew applause from the audience.
DeSantis said refugees should have to show additional proof for asylum.
“I’m supportive of, you know, asylum, but it’s like you just show up and say, ‘Asylum,’ without there being any facts?” DeSantis said. He pointed specifically to cases in which immigrants claim asylum, then travel back and forth from the country they fled.
An ACT for America attendee asked why the U.S. government has not designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. In some countries, the Muslim Brotherhood serves as the inspiration for political parties and civic activism, while in other areas group members have established ties to terrorist organizations, such as with Hamas in the Palestinian territories.
DeSantis has been vocal about his support for the designation as a terrorist organization and held a hearing on the subject in July as chairman of the House National Security subcommittee of the Committee on Government and Oversight Reform. DeSantis told ACT attendees the designation has received resistance from career State Department staff who are more sympathetic to Arab views.
“I think the president is inclined to want to designate, but I think you have a lot of the career people in the State Department saying, ‘No, no, no, don’t do it.’ But they’re more Arabist in outlook, and that’s just kind of their view,” he said.
Until Trump’s election, Gabriel and her organization were outside the mainstream of American political thought. In February 2016, ACT for America posted a photo of Gabriel with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach club. In March 2017, after Trump took office, Gabriel also posted a photo of herself at the White House.
DeSantis has been a fixture on Fox News, where he has built a reputation for offering full-throated defenses of Trump’s most controversial policies and for attacking Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia’s election meddling.
During a Fox interview after his GOP primary win, DeSantis referred to Andrew Gillum, the Democratic Party’s first African-American gubernatorial nominee in Florida, as “articulate” and said voters would “monkey this up” if they supported Gillum in the November election.
DeSantis later said the “monkey” comment had “zero to do with race,” but Democrats and civil rights leaders denounced it as racist.
A Yale University and Harvard Law School graduate who describes himself as a “conservative warrior,” DeSantis has been associated with other extremist groups. He was an administrator through August for a Facebook group called “Tea Party” that regularly published racist, misogynist and anti-Muslim posts.
The group’s other administrators include Pamela Geller, an anti-Muslim extremist whose latest book was published by an imprint run by alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, and Jack Posobiec, a right-wing commentator who has promoted conspiracy theories including “Pizzagate” that erroneously linked Democratic leaders to human trafficking.
DeSantis has said he was unaware that he was listed as an administrator for the Facebook group and removed himself.
He has also participated in a conference last year organized by The David Horowitz Freedom Center, established by right-wing provocateur David Horowitz. Horowitz has emerged as an influential conservative political figure and has publicly shared controversial views on race and immigration, once lamenting the national “melodrama of black victimization and white oppression.”
When POLITCO Florida asked DeSantis last week about his participation in Horowitz’s events, DeSantis described reports of his participation in last year’s conference as “smear by association.”
“The keynote speaker at that conference was a guy named Clint Romesha. He was a Medal of Honor recipient from Afghanistan,” DeSantis told POLITICO. “Read his speech. We would all be better Americans. It was probably the best speech I have ever witnessed in any political conference at any time.”
DeSantis also distanced himself from Yiannopoulos, saying he’s “not my cup of tea.”
Ana Ceballos of the Naples Daily News contributed to this report.
Trevor Aaronson is the executive director of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and a 2020 ASU Future Security Fellow at New America. He is also a contributing writer at The Intercept and author of The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism. His 2015 TED Talk, “How this FBI strategy is actually creating U.S.-based terrorists,” has been viewed more than 1 million times and translated into 22 languages.