* Editor's note: This story contains explicit language.
Two staffers for the hardline conservative group Empower Texans have been caught on an audio recording disparaging Gov. Greg Abbott with profanity and joking about his wheelchair use.
Upon the comments surfacing Friday morning, Abbott's office and other top Texas Republicans denounced them and Empower Texans said the staffers were "suspended from all public activities with the organization immediately."
The comments came on an unedited version of the group's podcast, Texas Scorecard Radio, featuring Empower Texans' vice president, Cary Cheshire, and general counsel, Tony McDonald. The audio was published — apparently inadvertently — Thursday. The unedited version was replaced with an edited episode later in the day.
After the show ends in the unedited version, McDonald and Cheshire laugh about references they made to Abbott that could be perceived as highlighting the fact he has used a wheelchair since being partially paralyzed in a 1984 accident.
"I feel like before there was a switch I could flip to avoid that, and I’m just so frustrated that I’ve flipped it off," Cheshire says. "He’s such a revolting piece of s***."
The two had been venting over Abbott's recent comments allowing local officials to order businesses to require customers to wear masks amid the coronavirus pandemic. The governor's approval of such policies came after a stretch of confusion over what exactly local officials could do to mandate regarding mask use under his statewide orders. In clarifying the statewide mask rules earlier this week, Abbott said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff had "finally figured" out what was allowed.
The sentiments by Cheshire and McDonald, who did not respond to requests for comment, are not dissimilar from criticism of Abbott they have lodged publicly, though without profanity and reference to his disability. Empower Texans and some other hard-right activists have been generally critical of Abbott lately for ceding too much power to big-city Democratic leaders to fight the virus.
"It's like, I have created this riddle for you and you have figured out how to f*** your citizens with it — 'Great job, I'm with you,'" Cheshire says in the unedited podcast while talking about Abbott's mask confusion. "And it's like, you're an awful piece of s***."
McDonald adds that Abbott "created a s***** policy that's vague because he wanted to avoid accountability." As for Abbott's eventual clarification that counties and cities can require businesses to mandate mask wearing, McDonald says, “Well, just like, f****** say it. Don’t clown around. ‘You read between the lines.’ Well, f*** you."
An Abbott spokesman denounced the comments by Cheshire and McDonald.
"It reveals a lot about an organization’s character and morals that uses profanity to mock a person in a wheelchair, and this audio is disgusting and hate-filled," Abbott spokesman John Wittman said in a statement. "It is sad to think about what else this group may be saying about people behind their backs when they think they aren’t being recorded. Regardless of this despicable tape, the Governor remains keenly focused on containing the spread of COVID-19, while also unifying the state as we celebrate Juneteenth."
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also condemned the remarks, tweeting: "The hateful [Empower Texans] attack mocking Governor Abbott is outrageous, vulgar and completely unacceptable. [McDonald] and [Cheshire] are persona non grata in my book and anyone [at Empower Texans] who does not condemn this behavior."
A number of other GOP leaders added their voices to the chorus of condemnation Friday afternoon, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Sullivan issued a statement Friday afternoon saying he was "heartbroken by the language and tone" used by Cheshire and McDonald and that he has already personally apologized to Abbott.
"Both have been suspended from all public activities with the organization immediately, and additional internal actions will be taken," Sullivan said. "Whether it was a private conversation or not is unimportant; it was wrong and unacceptable."
There is a layer of irony to the situation. Empower Texans' leader, Michael Quinn Sullivan, forced House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, into retirement last year after secretly recording a meeting with Bonnen where Bonnen proposed teaming up to politically target 10 House Republicans.
Bonnen weighed in Friday afternoon on the remarks by Cheshire and McDonald, saying they are part of a political "sickness" in Texas.
"While I’m sure the scar tissue on my psyche developed while dealing with their ilk will last long past the end of my time as Speaker, I would love for my successor to have the freedom to lead in a climate that is free of this self-serving, hateful mindset and its outsized influence," Bonnen said in a statement.
Empower Texans has been a major force in the Texas GOP’s civil war over the last several years, pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into primaries, particularly for the state House. It had a much lower profile during the most recent primary season, picking its fights more selectively and not donating as much from its PAC as in recent election cycles. The group reemerged in a big way last fall, though, when it went public with claims about the meeting with Bonnen and after a long tease, released the audio. Before that, McDonald privately played the tape for any Republican who was interested.
While the tape's release prompted Bonnen to announce he would not seek reelection, the episode further clouded Empower Texans' reputation at the Capitol. Several GOP lawmakers piled on Friday with long-building grievances against the organization, including some members who have benefitted from the group's support in the past.
"Now the masses get to see what many of us have known for a long time: A once reputable & respected policy organization, ET has turned in to nothing more than a sanctimonious sewer," Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, tweeted.
Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, said the hot-mic moment illuminated how Empower Texans has been "seeking to destroy the Republican Party from within.""They are the ANTIFA of the right," Patterson wrote on Facebook.
Patrick, Leach and Patterson have each received campaign contributions from Empower Texans in the past.
The hard-right House Freedom Caucus, which includes some of Empower Texans' closest allies, tweeted it "strongly condemn[s] and reject[s] the incredibly vile statements and sentiments" that surfaced.
While ripping Abbott's mask maneuvering, Cheshire also takes aim at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the influential conservative think tank in Austin, criticizing it as subservient to the governor.
"TPPF isn’t gonna say a damn f****** thing today, and then he’s gonna come out tomorrow and be like, 'You know, I think we need block grants for Medicaid,' and they’re gonna go applaud it," Cheshire says.
The foundation's executive director, Kevin Roberts, was among those condemning Cheshire and McDonald on Friday over the Abbott criticism. Roberts tweeted the staffers' "reprehensible words ... have no place in Texas politics and the conservative movement."
Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.