14/01/2021 8:25 AM AEDT

Inside The Radical Effort To Impeach Kentucky’s Governor

Gov. Andy Beshear fired back at a group of Kentuckians who want him impeached over his handling of COVID-19, an effort a legal expert says has "zero merit."

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) blasted a fledgling effort to remove him from office on Tuesday, painting two of the four Kentucky residents who filed an impeachment petition against him last week as extremists of the sort who carried out an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. He warned Republican state lawmakers that backing the removal effort risked inciting similar trouble in Kentucky.  

Pointing to social media posts and news reports, Beshear accused a Kentuckian named Tony Wheatley, one of the authors of the impeachment petition, of organizing a spring protest where demonstrators hanged Beshear in effigy from a tree outside the state Capitol and others stormed the governor’s mansion. Beshear also displayed a Facebook post in which another man behind the impeachment effort posted that “God may strike [Beshear] down.” The post included a video in which a handgun was visible behind the man’s head.

“These people who signed this petition have tried to create terror for me and my family before. And when that hasn’t worked, I guess they’re trying something new,” Beshear said. “We cannot, as a country and as a government, lift these folks up. It is dangerous. It is fanning the flames of their hate and of their anger.”

“And whether this was something filed against me or anybody else, going out there and playing pattycake with the so-called militias that stormed our U.S. Capitol ... is just wrong.” 

AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear used a Tuesday news conference to blast an impeachment effort against him after four Kentucky residents filed a petition seeking his removal from office over COVID-19 restrictions he's put in place.

The two men were among the four Kentucky residents who filed an impeachment request to the state House of Representatives last weekend, arguing that Beshear “violated the rights of Kentuckians” with executive orders imposing various restrictions meant to halt the spread of COVID-19, even though the Kentucky Supreme Court unanimously ruled in November that dozens of Beshear’s orders were legal and reasonable.

The petition alone is enough to force lawmakers to consider it under Kentucky law, and in theory, opens the door for the Republicans who hold massive supermajorities in both houses of the Kentucky legislature to escalate their own fight over COVID-19 measures and Beshear’s executive powers if they choose to.

Both men have denied that they wished violence of any sort on Beshear or other political officials. But their effort to thwart the governor comes amid federal law enforcement officials’ increased warnings about potential violence at state capitols and after months of volatile, often armed protests outside state legislatures, including Kentucky’s, that have heightened tensions nationwide. 

In Michigan and Oregon, attempts to take over state capitols served as precursors to last week’s riot in Washington, D.C., and though the temperature hasn’t risen quite that high in Kentucky, the impeachment effort is marked by a similar refusal to accept election results or the legitimacy of political power when a Democratic lawmaker attempts to wield it.

Wheatley told HuffPost that the four men filed the impeachment petition because they felt the Kentucky Supreme Court ruling allowed Beshear to “do anything he wants,” including “wipe out the legislature altogether.”

The Court ruling, though, did not go nearly that far ― it merely found that Beshear’s orders complied with a law allowing governors to exercise some executive powers during an emergency. 

It would sorely undermine democracy for the legislature to impeach a governor simply because they don’t agree with his policy choices, as opposed to impeaching Trump for inciting a riot to overturn democracy.Joshua A. Douglas, University of Kentucky law professor

Andrew Cooperrider, a bar and restaurant owner who was among the petition filers, noted that other Beshear orders had been struck down in court. “It is not actually up for debate over whether or not he has made unconstitutional mandates,” Cooperrider said Wednesday. “What’s up for debate is whether or not he should be impeached for doing that.”

The answer, according to one legal expert, is a resounding no: University of Kentucky law professor Joshua A. Douglas said in an email this week that he believed the impeachment petition had “zero merit.”

“Any claims that Beshear has acted outside of his authority ― which I do not think he has ― can be handled by the courts,” Douglas said. “It would sorely undermine democracy for the legislature to impeach a Governor simply because they don’t agree with his policy choices, as opposed to impeaching Trump for inciting a riot to overturn democracy.”

Kentucky House Speaker David Osborne (R) announced Saturday that he would form an impeachment committee to consider the petition this week, a move that is required under state law even if House leaders ultimately decide the claims are baseless. Republicans aren’t tipping their hand on whether they will pursue impeachment: State Rep. Jason Nemes, the GOP chair of the committee, said the group would meet Wednesday to outline rules and invite Beshear to file a formal response. Nemes would not discuss the merits of the impeachment filing.

“We have a legal obligation to follow the law, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Nemes said. “I want to make sure that the governor is given adequate time to make his defense to respond if he chooses to respond. And I want to make sure that we treat the petitioners with respect and give them an opportunity to make their cases. They have the right under the law to do that.”

Polls have shown that a majority of Kentuckians approve of Beshear’s job performance and his handling of the pandemic. But small groups of Kentuckians have still staged demonstrations outside the state Capitol in Frankfort to protest restrictions the governor has implemented. 

AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley
Protesters lined the walkway to the Kentucky state Capitol with signs calling for Beshear's impeachment earlier this month. Armed protesters gathered outside the building on Saturday, just days after a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. 

Wheatley, who leads a group called Constitutional Kentucky, attended a protest against Beshear’s COVID-19 measures in May. During that rally, a man with ties to the 3 Percenters militia group hanged the effigy of Beshear. Later that day, a crowd of demonstrators marched to the governor’s mansion, where some of them banged on the door while Beshear and his family were inside.

Wheatley told HuffPost that while he was present at the rally, he did not organize it and had nothing to do with the effigy or the march to the governor’s mansion. He said that he was the one who cut down the effigy once he noticed it.

Wheatley also participated in a protest outside the state Capitol in Frankfort on Saturday at which armed demonstrators marched as legislative sessions continued inside. The protests came just days after the Capitol invasion, but Wheatley said the Kentucky demonstration was peaceful. He said he opposed the Capitol riots, which he called “an atrocity.”

“We think the people that started that should be prosecuted to the highest extent,” Wheatley said. “Lives were lost, and there is no reason for that.”

The other man Beshear highlighted previously ran as a Libertarian candidate for the state House and has in the past posted that “any politician” who supports the Patriot Act, a controversial federal law passed after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, “is a traitor and a tyrant, and should be hanged.”  

The Kentucky Democratic Party on Tuesday also circulated a Nov. 6 Facebook post in which the man referenced the possibility of a looming “civil war” in the United States due to “a lack of transparency in this voting process.” (There were no irregularities in the 2020 elections, federal and state authorities have repeatedly said.)

The post Beshear cited that included a visible handgun was published in April and included a 12-minute video in which the man reads from the Bible and criticizes Beshear’s early order to limit in-person church services. The man, who didn’t respond to a voice mail message requesting comment, reposted the video ― in which he states that his message is “not meant to be physically threatening” and that “I wouldn’t want to see any harm come to you” ― less than an hour after Beshear’s news conference.

“As usual, he is a liar,” he wrote in a post accompanying the video. “If you listen to the video, I make sure to clarify that I do not want any harm to come to him. … As for the gun, I always have a firearm next to my bed. Some people are scared of them, I guess. Again, I clarified several times that I hope no harm comes to him, and will pray for him. I still will.”

AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley
Armed protesters gathered at the Kentucky state Capitol in Frankfort on Saturday, just days after the violent riots at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

The Democratic Party’s release also cited posts made by Cooperrider, whose bar and coffee shop have defied Beshear’s orders restricting in-person dining. He regularly posts political messages from the company’s Facebook account. 

“You reap what you sow,” the company account posted Wednesday evening, just hours after the Capitol riot. “You can’t keep people locked up in their house. You can’t keep ignoring the needs of your citizenry. You can’t keep antagonizing the people. Then act surprised when they rise up and it boils over,” the post said beneath a meme based on an image from the riots.

Cooperrider said Wednesday that political violence was “useless and silly,” and that Beshear was guilty of the sort of escalation the governor claimed he was trying to prevent. But he also thinks the riots in Washington were a natural result of frustrations those Americans feel.

“I don’t see how showing the personal Facebook page of an individual during a press conference doesn’t raise the temperature. That is sowing violence,” Cooperrider said. “When you take the D.C. riots ― when the media is completely disregarding these people’s concerns, and not at least trying to address their concerns, and instead of calling them ‘deplorables’ and things like that, they’re going to respond in that way.”

“And I think pretending the D.C. riots is just an event without realizing it’s a reaction to other things is the way that we’re going to keep seeing these things. We have to recognize that those types of things are reactions. And we have to stop doing those things to stop violence from occurring.”

Cooperrider said he had not attended the protests where Beshear was hanged in effigy and that he has called on people to avoid demonstrating on Inauguration Day.

Beshear has faced numerous legal challenges from Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron and other GOP officials since the beginning of the pandemic, and the Republican legislature last week advanced multiple bills that would place new limits on Beshear’s executive powers, a move they’d promised to make in response to his use of executive orders to implement COVID-19 restrictions. 

Beshear stopped short of blaming the impeachment effort on the GOP during his Tuesday news conference. But he also warned that backing it risked fomenting even more anger in a state, and a country, that’s already on a knife’s edge.

“At this point, I don’t think they’re supporting it,” Beshear said. “But we cannot spend our time lifting up those who create and cause terror in our country. We’ve already seen what happens when you do it.”