Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump and his outsider juggernaut seem to be doing much more than reinventing the rules of politics and terrifying the Washington establishment.
The reality television billionaire might also be laying the groundwork for a not-so-brave new world in which a campaign manager can assault a female journalist, while her news organization—in this case the famously Trump-friendly Breitbart News—responds with a mild rebuke in a vague statement perceived by some to be designed to protect the perpetrator.
This apparently describes, at least according to witnesses and other journalists interviewed by The Daily Beast, Breitbart’s handling of an incident Tuesday night involving Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and Breitbart political reporter Michelle Fields.
“It’s obviously unacceptable that someone crossed a line and made physical contact with our reporter,” said the Breitbart statement, issued under the name of Larry Solov, the outlet’s CEO and president. “What Michelle has told us directly is that someone ‘grabbed her arm’ and while she did not see who it was, Ben Terris of The Washington Post told her that it was Corey Lewandowski. If that’s the case, Corey owes Michelle an immediate apology.”
The statement was issued in the wee hours of Wednesday morning but remains Breitbart’s official comment on the matter, hours after sources said Lewandowski acknowledged to Breitbart’s Washington political editor, Matthew Boyle, that he did manhandle Fields.
Lewandowski’s explanation to Boyle, said these sources, was that he and Fields had never met before and that he didn’t recognize her as a Breitbart reporter, instead mistaking her for an adversarial member of the mainstream media. Trump’s press secretary, Hope Hicks, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment. Nor did the usually responsive Boyle.
The Breitbart statement struck sources within Breitbart and outside the company as strangely inadequate, given that it blames an unidentified “someone,” uses the conditional phrase “if that’s the case,” and leaves open the possibility that Lewandowski didn’t lay hands on Fields.
An additional wrinkle is that Politico, for one, didn’t identify Terris as Fields’s witness, at his request, because the Washington Post reporter had arranged informally to meet with Lewandowski on Wednesday for a Style section story and planned to confront the campaign manager about Tuesday night’s incident.
Hours after the Breitbart statement identified Terris, the Trump campaign informed him that his interview with Lewandowski would not take place, blaming a scheduling conflict—leaving several colleagues to believe that Breitbart had essentially given the Trump campaign manager a heads up on Terris’s intention.
Fields—who sources say was instructed by Breitbart’s PR consultant, Kurt Bardella, not to speak to other journalists about the incident, though Bardella claims otherwise—declined to comment for this story. Thursday morning, however, Breitbart posted her brief account of the incident.
“Why the hell isn’t Breitbart standing up strongly for their reporter?” demanded a journalist covering the Trump campaign, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to antagonize Trump operatives and hamper the reporting process. “Why the hell did they need somebody else’s name? Why do they say ‘if it happened’? And why aren’t they allowing her to talk about it at all?”
The journalist continued: “Because they like Trump. And Trump is more important to them than their own people. There’s something weird about that.”
According to knowledgeable sources, here’s what happened on Tuesday:
Fields, whose usual beat is Sen. Ted Cruz, was subbing for Breitbart’s flu-suffering Trump reporter, Alex Swoyer, at the Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida, during the candidate’s election night rally/press conference. Trump had just racked up impressive victories in the Michigan and Mississippi primaries.
At the end of the night, as Trump and his entourage, including a Secret Service detail, slowly made their way toward the exit, the real estate mogul was taking questions from journalists representing CNN, NBC News, and other outlets.
Fields was walking next to Trump, on his right, when she pointed her recording device at him and asked if he still disagrees, as he said last December, with late Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia’s attacks on affirmative action.
Before Trump could answer, Lewandowski grabbed Fields from behind, taking hold of her left forearm and “yanking her down toward the ground like a ragdoll,” a witness told The Daily Beast.
Fields—who on Wednesday was sporting a purple bruise as a result of the encounter—was shocked and shaken, barely managing to keep her footing as Lewandowski and the Trump scrum headed out the doors, according to colleagues.
Fields didn’t see who had grabbed her. At first, she has told colleagues, she thought it was a Secret Service agent.
“Oh my goodness!” Terris reportedly exclaimed after witnessing the encounter from a few feet behind. “That was Corey!” he told Fields in amazement.
Terris, who declined to comment for this story, has since confirmed to his newspaper that the aggressor was Lewandowski.
Nursing her bruises, Fields quickly recounted the incident over the phone to her longtime boyfriend, Daily Caller journalist Jamie Weinstein, who promptly tweeted:
“Trump always surrounds himself w thugs. Tonight thug Corey Lewandowski tried to pull my gf @MichelleFields to ground when she asked tough q.”
Weinstein followed up with a second tweet: “Say what you will abt Bush or even Obama. They would never tolerate this type of thuggery toward women.”
Fields soon received an aggrieved phone call from Bardella, telling her that Weinstein’s tweets were “juvenile,” and “immature,” according to sources, and advising her “to get your boyfriend under control.”
Ultimately Bardella drafted the Solov statement, and Fields asked Weinstein to stop tweeting. He, too, declined to be quoted in this story, other than from his Twitter feed.
Meanwhile, as of this writing, Fields had yet to hear any supportive words—or anything, for that matter—from Breitbart executive chairman Stephen K. Bannon or editor in chief Alex Marlow.
Matthew Boyle, however, did call Fields on Wednesday morning to ask how she was doing, the sources said.
After being asked why Breitbart’s official statement continues to cast some doubt on the identity of the manhandler, Bardella explained he had been awaiting a statement from the Trump campaign.
But he added: “I’m happy to tell you that Breitbart’s position is that Corey should apologize. Period.”
UPDATE: On Thursday morning, Breitbart writer Patrick Howley publicly voiced doubts about Fields’s story, demanding that she publish video from the incident and asserting that he’s never been physically abused while covering Trump’s campaign. The conservative media outlet took a stand, suspended him indefinitely for his “inappropriate” remarks about a colleague. Several hours later, the Trump campaign released a statement calling Fields’s accusations “entirely false,” and bashed the reporter as having a history of “exaggerating incidents.” In response, Fields tweeted a photo of her arm with visible bruises—“I guess these just magically appeared on me,” she snarked.