TALLAHASSEE — On March 19, Christina Pushaw wrote an email to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ then-press secretary. She was ready to make a move.
Pushaw, 30, a Washington, D.C., communications professional, was an admirer of DeSantis — and the way he dealt with unflattering press coverage.
She wrote that she was inspired to move to Florida because of how the governor navigated the pandemic. She was bothered by “pervasive ... false narratives” in the press, she said, saying she wanted to do her part to prevent the “devastation caused by socialism ... from happening in our country.”
“If there are any openings on the governor’s comms team, I would love to throw my hat in the ring,” Pushaw wrote. She attached her resume to the email, which was obtained by the Times/Herald in a records request.
It’s unclear who in the governor’s office saw Pushaw’s note, but it appears to have been received quite well. About six weeks later, the governor’s office sent her pre-employment paperwork to fill out. By May 10, she had the job of press secretary. Her salary is $120,000 per year.
During her time with DeSantis, Pushaw has reinvented the position. What was once a largely behind-the-scenes communications role has become one of the loudest pro-DeSantis drumbeats on the internet.
In the last month and a half, Pushaw has tweeted at least 3,800 times, according to a tally compiled using the Internet Archive. In messages to her 11,400 followers, Pushaw — like her boss — has criticized mask mandates and other public policies aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. She’s apologized for a now-deleted tweet about how maintaining a healthy weight is better protection against the virus than “a piece of cloth.” Perhaps most vociferously, she’s derided the media’s coverage of Rebekah Jones, a fired former Department of Health employee and prominent DeSantis critic.
In an emailed response to questions, DeSantis’ communications director Taryn Fenske did not elaborate on the path that led Pushaw from her initial email in March to her current post. But she complimented DeSantis’ hire.
“Christina is experienced, vocal, and intelligent,” Fenske wrote.
Pushaw ghostwrote pieces for Saakashvili
Pushaw’s job as DeSantis’ press secretary is her first in American government, according to her resume.
Before Pushaw came to work for one of the biggest names in Republican politics, she worked for Stand Together, the Koch brothers-backed foundation, from 2017-2019. According to her resume, she specialized in messaging around K-12 education, but she also helped with high-profile national efforts. She lists the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the passing of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act as some of the highlights of her time with the organization, although her resume doesn’t make clear what her precise role was in those efforts.
Beginning in December 2017, Pushaw also worked on and off as an international political consultant. In 2019, she took a full-time job as a communications and media advisor to the former president of the country of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, who is now a prominent figure in Ukrainian politics. In 2020, Pushaw worked on Georgia’s parliamentary election.
On June 11, 2020, Foreign Policy published a column called “I Abolished and Rebuilt the Police. The United States Can Do the Same.” Its author was Saakashvili, who served as the president of Georgia from 2004 until 2013. The piece was actually written by Christina Pushaw, according to documents she sent to the DeSantis administration.
The column talks about how, during Saakashvili’s tenure as president, he replaced — and in some cases, eliminated — corrupt police forces in his home country, a former Soviet state.
At the time of the column’s publication, protests of the death of George Floyd were raging across the United States, with some calling for the police to have their budgets cut in favor of less confrontational social welfare programs. Although the column noted that calls to “defund the police” were unpopular and risky, it suggested American cities could try taking a page from the former Georgian politician’s playbook.
“Perhaps in certain cities, alternatives to traditional policing could be tested,” the column read. “Innovative policies can be piloted in localities and, if successful, may be replicated and scaled across the United States.”
The column was one of nine articles Pushaw submitted to the governor’s office that she said she had “ghostwritten, pitched and placed” in English-language outlets. The general thrust of many of the columns ghostwritten by Pushaw is the importance of upholding Democratic norms, even when tested by authoritarian actors.
Fenske said the Foreign Policy piece was largely about police reform in Georgia, and its headline was misleading. The column’s substance did not advocate for defunding the police — a policy idea that DeSantis strongly opposes — Fenske said. (The governor’s office did not make Pushaw available for an interview for this story on Tuesday.)
Pushaw, who originally hails from California, connected with Saakashvili while earning her master’s degree in international relations and economics from Johns Hopkins University, Fenske said. Pushaw “admired the work he’d accomplished to reform the post-Soviet country into a modern democracy,” the governor’s communications director said.
Although Saakashvili led largely as a pro-West, anti-Russia reformer, he’s become an outlaw in Georgia since he left office in 2013. In 2014, prosecutors charged Saakashvili with multiple crimes, alleging he had abused his power as president. Saakashvili has said the charges were pushed by his political opponents.
In 2015, he became a Ukrainian citizen and was also appointed as governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region, although he later quit that role, had his citizenship stripped and then had it restored again. In 2018, Saakashvili was found guilty in Georgia of abusing his power in connection to a 2006 murder case and was sentenced in absentia to three years in prison. He has said that charge was also politically motivated. In 2020, he was appointed to serve on a Ukrainian government advisory panel.
Pushaw criticizes Jones and gets noticed
It wasn’t Pushaw’s work abroad that appears to have put her on the radar of the DeSantis administration, however. It was Pushaw’s coverage of Jones.
On Feb. 2, Pushaw published an article titled, “The ‘Florida COVID-19 Whistleblower’ Saga is a Big Lie” on the conservative site Human Affairs. The piece assailed news outlets for referring to Jones as a data scientist and for having “lavished” attention on the former state employee, who has claimed the state has manipulated its coronavirus data. (The DeSantis administration has strongly denied these claims.)
Two days later, Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez tweeted a link to the article, adding, “Glad to see the truth finally coming to light regarding one of the biggest media fails during the pandemic.”
Pushaw cited that same article in her March letter to the governor’s office.
Jones, who was fired by the Department of Health last May, helped build the initial COVID-19 dashboard used to track cases and deaths. She was terminated for what the Department of Health said was “extensive, unauthorized, communication” about the dashboard, including with reporters.
In December, the state alleged she improperly accessed a Department of Health messaging platform and illegally downloaded department data. She was eventually arrested on one third-degree felony charge. She has denied wrongdoing in the case.
This May, Jones was granted official whistleblower status by the Department of Health’s Office of the Inspector General. She filed an official complaint in July 2020 alleging she was terminated for her ”opposition and resistance to instructions to falsify data in a government website.” Jones’ case has yet to be resolved.
“What distinguishes ‘whistleblowers’ from ‘disgruntled ex-employees’ is credibility, and here Jones has a problem,” Pushaw wrote in her Human Affairs story, which was published before Jones was granted whistleblower status.
Pushaw isn’t the first to make her way from the conservative blogosphere to the governor’s office. In November, DeSantis’ office hired Kyle Lamb, a former sports blogger who gained a Twitter following for making at times dubious claims about the coronavirus. Lamb makes $45,000 per year as an analyst in DeSantis’ office of planning and budgeting.
Times political editor Steve Contorno contributed to this story.