When Ruben Verastigui, a digital strategist who had worked for the Republican National Committee creating social media ads to promote Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, was arrested earlier this month in Washington, D.C., as part of a federal child sexual exploitation investigation, it was too easy to tag the incident as yet more evidence of MAGA hypocrisy. Verastigui had worked for the anti-choice group Students for Life. Just a few weeks before his arrest, he was retweeting the group, along with the anti-abortion activist Lila Rose, calling for the protection of the unborn. The detailed indictment contends that Verastigui had engaged in discussion on a website where a group of users allegedly traded child sexual abuse material and that he had claimed, in messages obtained by federal investigators, “Babies are some of my biggest turn-ons.” (Students for Life issued a statement saying the organization “works every day to protect children and condemns those who harm them in any way.”) The party that sent multiple QAnon believers to Congress in 2020 had apparently employed someone who would go on to be charged with distributing child pornography. The “pedophiles” are calling from inside the house, as some noted on social media. But that’s not shocking, and it’s not even a political inconsistency.
What Verastigui and many others across the right stand for is not child protection but control and coercion. Their sexual politics are a big tent and contain all of this. They cannot be sufficiently challenged with charges of ideological or even moral contradiction. The most ostensibly far-out QAnon fringe engage in kidnapping their own children to “save” them from those they deem to be sex traffickers bent on abducting kids for nefarious purposes. So, too, do anti-choice clinic protesters put children and families at risk when they try to terrorize people out of having an abortion, supported by legislative allies who are committed to keeping abortion and any state support for raising a child—welfare, child care subsidies—out of reach. Of course, they may pay for members of their own family to have an abortion, discreetly, just as they may fight LGBTQ equal rights legislation while maintaining secret same-sex partners or hook-ups. There is nothing contradictory about a sexual politics that fetishizes the idea of children and babies over the well-being of actual kids, of the fantasy of family values over real families. Patriarchy is defined by its relentless fixation on compulsory innocence—other people’s, mostly, and usually, that of women and queer and trans people (and those who are all of the above). As it is rooted in such sexual politics, it appears that QAnon has absorbed the news of serious charges against Verastigui without much impact, even as some Trump opponents and liberals generally may assume or simply hope that such apparent hypocrisy would shake its foundations.
The recently arrested now-former Republican digital strategist is one in a string of Trump-associated Republicans to face charges related to the sexual exploitation of minors. A former Kentucky judge who served as a Trump delegate and ballot observer was charged with multiple human trafficking offenses, after an investigation found that he had a pattern of paying minors and adults for sex, in some cases recording them. Before all that, Tim Nolan was a local conservative political celebrity, as the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.
When Nolan served as the city attorney for Newport, Kentucky, he helped draft an ordinance meant to shut down porn theaters and strip clubs. He frequented women’s shelters and drug court, which women told prosecutors he used to identify them as potential victims, to extort sex from them for opioids. He abused his power in the legal system, telling his victims he knew powerful judges and lawyers, and could have their kids taken away. The young woman whose story helped open an investigation into Nolan reported him to her school counselor. He was her family’s landlord, she said, and he had tried to pay her for sex when she was underage, and put his hand on her crotch. He was also on the county school board. Nolan is currently serving a 20-year sentence.
Nolan often comes up in the same breath as Ralph Shortey, the Oklahoma campaign chair for Trump, who was convicted of child sex trafficking and sentenced to 15 years. Shortey was also a Republican state senator. He pleaded guilty, after initially denying to police that he intended to pay a 17-year-old for sex in a motel. Police found them together at a Super 8 in Moore, Oklahoma, in 2017. When they questioned him, Shortey was wearing a T-shirt referencing a Bible verse, which was visible in their bodycam video, as The Oklahoman detailed—Ephesians 5:22: Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. “Underneath ‘Ephesians 5:22’ is a cartoonish drawing of a sandwich,” according to The Oklahoman. “Underneath the drawing is the phrase, ‘Now go make me a sandwich.’”
There are more. A Trump associate, George Nader, who went on to become a witness in the Mueller investigation, was brought to a meeting at Trump Tower by former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince reportedly to advise on Middle East policy, and later helped broker Trump’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. “How,” asked Middle East Eye in 2019, “did a convicted criminal and serial paedophile come to be one of the main points of contact between President Donald Trump’s inner circle and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) of Abu Dhabi?” When Nader was arrested on child porn charges in 2019, he had already been charged years before for similar crimes. He was caught when the FBI, during its investigation into Trump, in which Nader was a “key witness,” searched his phone and found explicit images of boys. Nader had participated in diplomatic meetings with Jared Kushner and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who went on to become a QAnon hero and devotee. In 2020, Nader was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
All this almost makes the 2020 congressional candidate from Louisiana, Ben Gibson, a kind of footnote. Gibson ran a campaign post on Facebook tagged “QAnon,” and, after he lost the election, was arrested and charged with four counts of pornography involving juveniles.
Central to this kind of abusive power is maintaining the right kind of public face. The Kentucky judge, Nolan, was elected to the school board months before his arrest. Gibson, the would-be congressional representative, was at the time of his arrest an active airman at Barksdale Air Force Base. The GOP digital strategist, Verastigui, has an Instagram Story highlight for his visits to the White House.
The Verastigui arrest is the first of this bunch to take place since Trump left the White House. That departure scrambled some of the QAnon prophecies of the imminent execution of child sex traffickers and those in government who aid them. But some have swarmed the onetime Trump campaign ad maker’s Instagram account to cast him in their still-unfolding mythos. A recent and hostile wave of commenters arrived after his arrest, one replying with a line of pizza emojis to a stagey Verastigui portrait outside the White House, and another commenting “Death to pedos” on a high-contrast palm tree geotagged “Key Largo.”
QAnon is as elastic as the Republican Party’s sexual politics: The existence of a “pedo” working for Trump isn’t a sign of their president’s failure but a symbol of how close to the halls of power their satanic foes can get. To those theoretically outside the conspiracy theory community, the way to reconcile one of these guys is to expel him after the fact. On a popular pro-Trump forum, a few posts deemed Verastigui a “Perverted Pizzagater,” a “Disgusting RINO,” and a “Never Trump” guy. Even he seemed to occupy the contradiction comfortably. “God bless these children and the officers who rescued them,” Ivanka Trump had tweeted, with a story about a U.S. Marshals operation last summer, which focused on “at-risk” kids who may not have been trafficked but were billed as “rescued” nonetheless. Verastigui retweeted the former first daughter’s congratulations to law enforcement, without comment.