The El Paso County Republican Party asked in a social media post Wednesday whether its followers believe the coronavirus is a hoax meant to manipulate the public — a suggestion that drew swift and widespread condemnation from other Republicans.
“Hello El Paso County! Do you believe that the Coronavirus is a PSYOP (Psychological Operation)? Post your answer… the definition of (PSYOP) is below," the post read, followed by a passage that appears to have been copied from Wikipedia: "Psychological operations (PSYOP) are operations to convey select information and indicators to audiences to influence their emotions, motives, and objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of governments, organizations, groups, and individuals.”
The Facebook post remained online only briefly, until state GOP officials asked Vickie Tonkins, the El Paso County party's chairman, to take it down, but within minutes of its appearance local party officials were demanding to know why it had been posted and expressing dismay at the sentiment.
"We found the post to be inappropriate and asked the El Paso County GOP to remove it immediately," Joe Jackson, the state Republican Party's communications director, said in an email to Colorado Politics.
Tonkins insisted in an interview that she was simply posing a question meant to provoke discussion and said she was disappointed people were offended.
"I posted a question. I'm sorry people couldn't answer it," she said. "Don't get all offended."
Guy Benson, political editor of the conservative Townhall website, blasted the El Paso County GOP in a tweet that included a screen shot of the post.
"Posted then quickly deleted by @gopelpaso. Insane and reckless that it went up at all. Be better," he wrote.
Tonkins acknowledged to Colorado Politics that she called the coronavirus outbreak a "psyop" on her personal Facebook page — "you bet it is," she responded to a friend's post saying "to me Coronavirus is psyops" — but denied she was making that case in the post on the county party's page, which she controls.
"I have my own opinion," she said. "It was not an opinion, that was a definition."
She said she deleted the post on the party's page after people complained.
"People get so offended these days. You try to make people think, but if they don't want to and they're going to get offended — I have so many things I'm battling right now, it was not one of those hills I want to die on."
On Thursday, Tonkins contacted Colorado Politics to say she wanted to be sure her intent was clear. She also emphasized that she hadn't called the virus a "hoax" when she asked whether it was a "psyop," a military term for an operation using tailored information to influence people.
"I certainly apologize for any confusion on my part, but it's clear that the virus is very real and that my original post was intended to start a discussion about the government's response and reaction to the outbreak," she wrote in an email.
"Many people have lost their jobs and personal freedoms because of the government's efforts to address the virus, and it is absolutely OK to ask people their opinions on the potential overreach of our government officials."
Eli Bremer, a former chairman of the county party and a member of its executive board, wasn't buying it.
"You also can't question whether the Holocaust happened. There are certain things that are off the table for a major political party to be asking," he said.
"It's wrong, it's inappropriate, it's indefensible, it's completely disgusting and unacceptable. If we want people to take Republicans seriously, then we need to start acting serious," he said, adding that he considers Tonkins' actions "grounds for removal" as chairman.
State Rep. Lois Landgraf, R-Colorado Springs, had a similar reaction.
"I think it is ridiculous," she said. "I think it is irresponsible for somebody in a responsible position to put something like that up, to even think the entire world has somehow fallen prey to some sort of hoax when we've got people dying, when people need to be taking precautions, it's just putting people's lives in danger. This isn't a joke. I'm tired of people thinking this is some liberal hoax."
With more than 200,000 Americans infected by the virus and a domestic death toll approaching 5,000, the global pandemic has nearly ground the nation's economy to a halt in a matter of weeks.
Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday extended school closures in Colorado through April 30 to align with President Donald Trump's guidance to restrict in-person gatherings through that date.
Missy Ward, a member of the county Republican Party's central committee, said she was alarmed by Tonkins' posts, including another thread on her personal Facebook page where she wrote, "Time for civil unrest."
"This is not the opinion of most other Republicans in our area and is dangerous propaganda being used to incite fear and provoke actions that would put our law enforcement at risk," said Ward, who is recovering from a bout of what her doctors told her was COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Bremer, whose wife, El Paso County Commissioner Cami Bremer, defeated Tonkins in a GOP primary two years ago, said he was "extremely, extremely concerned" about Tonkins' approach to the crisis.
"This is a national crisis, it's not time to score political points," he said. "This is not the time to be engaging in political squabbles around the coronavirus. Before we're Republicans and Democrats, we're Americans and we're Coloradans."
"People are dying," David Pourshoushtari, the communications director for the Colorado Democratic Party said in a text message to Colorado Politics.
"It was bad enough early on when President Trump was constantly downplaying how harmful coronavirus could be — now, with more than 3,300 cases in Colorado alone, we see a county Republican Party spreading conspiracy theories? This is dangerous and needs to be stopped.”
Note: This article has been updated with Tonkin's comments to Colorado Politics on Thursday.