This post has been updated.
When a protester was kicked and punched at a Donald Trump rally in November, the candidate’s excuse was that the activist deserved it. Now that a reporter has been grabbed — hard enough to leave bruises — by Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, the Republican presidential front-runner is trying an even more audacious defense: Saying it never even happened.
That’s right. Fort Trump is accusing Breitbart News reporter Michelle Fields — and Washington Post reporter Ben Terris, who saw Lewandowski grab her roughly after a Tuesday-night press conference — of fabricating the whole thing. After remaining silent on the incident for almost two days, the campaign issued a statement on Thursday afternoon, declaring Fields's accusation to be "entirely false."
Here's the key passage: "Not a single camera or reporter of more than 100 in attendance captured the alleged incident."
Later on Thursday, Trump himself disputed Fields's allegation in an interview with CNN's Dylan Byers.
— Dylan Byers (@DylanByers) March 11, 2016
Trump's calculus is pretty obvious: If anyone had caught this on tape, the footage would have surfaced by now. Since there's no video proof, we can plausibly say the victim made it up.
And better yet, we can cast her as a serial accuser with no credibility. Lewandowski on Thursday tweeted a link to a 2011 article in which Fields, then at another conservative publication, the Daily Caller, said she and a videographer were struck by police batons while covering an Occupy Wall Street demonstration. He also tweeted links to two other stories that referenced complaints by Fields, one of which involved sexual harassment.
Daily Caller reporter assaulted by NYPD during ‘Occupy’ protests -- professional reporting or attention seeking? https://t.co/FqOQQMvNcy
— Corey Lewandowski (@CLewandowski_) March 10, 2016
Fields sent a tweet of her own Thursday — a photograph showing bruises on her left forearm.
— Michelle Fields (@MichelleFields) March 10, 2016
(Update: Politico reported late Thursday afternoon that it had obtained an audio recording of Fields's run-in with Lewandowski and her conversation with Terris that immediately followed. A transcript of the recording supports their accounts.)
I spoke briefly with Terris after the campaign statement and both tweets had been posted, but before the transcript was published, and he reiterated that he clearly witnessed Lewandowski grab Fields's arm as she tried to question Trump on Tuesday — no doubt in his mind. Here's how Terris described the episode in a story published shortly before our conversation:
When Donald Trump descended into the crowd after speaking Tuesday night, the instinct to defend kicked in.
As security parted the masses to give him passage out of the chandelier-lit ballroom, Michelle Fields, a young reporter for Trump-friendly Breitbart News, pressed forward to ask the GOP front-runner a question. I watched as a man with short-cropped hair and a suit grabbed her arm and yanked her out of the way. He was Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s 41-year-old campaign manager.
Fields stumbled. Finger-shaped bruises formed on her arm.
“I’m just a little spooked,” she said, a tear streaming down her face. “No one has grabbed me like that before.”
She took my arm and squeezed it hard. “I don’t even want to do it as hard as he did,” she said, “because it would hurt.”
Breitbart published Fields's first-person account on Thursday morning:
I wasn’t called upon to ask a question during the televised press conference, but afterwards Trump wandered around, stopping at every reporter to take their questions. When he approached me, I asked him about his view on an aspect of affirmative action.
Trump acknowledged the question, but before he could answer, I was jolted backwards. Someone had grabbed me tightly by the arm and yanked me down. I almost fell to the ground but was able to maintain my balance. Nonetheless, I was shaken.
The Washington Post’s Ben Terris immediately remarked that it was Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who aggressively tried to pull me to the ground. I quickly turned around and saw Lewandowski and Trump exiting the building together. No apology. No explanation for why he did this.
Did what? That's the campaign's official response. The gall is almost incomprehensible.
What might be worse is that Fields hasn't even received strong, across-the-board support from her own employer, which has mastered the art of excuse-making on Trump's behalf in this election. The conservative news site's first statement on the incident, issued by chief executive Larry Solov, left open the possibility that Lewandowski might not have put his hands on Fields. (Our emphasis added below.)
It’s obviously unacceptable that someone crossed a line and made physical contact with our reporter. 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.
Then, one of Fields's Breitbart colleagues, Patrick Howley, fired off a series of tweets casting doubt on her story. He deleted the messages, but nothing ever actually disappears from the Internet, does it?
It must feel great to work for a media organization where your co-workers support you so unreservedly in public. pic.twitter.com/SucECKA1vj
— Jeff B/DDHQ (@EsotericCD) March 10, 2016
Breitbart quickly announced it was suspending Howley indefinitely and came down more firmly on Fields's side, saying in a statement Thursday that it "continues to stand 100 percent with Michelle Fields and believes that Corey Lewandowski must accept responsibility for his actions and apologize."
It seems clear that no apology is forthcoming. Not that we would expect anything else from the campaign led by a candidate who memorably said this when comedian Jimmy Fallon asked in September if he has ever apologized for anything in his entire life: "I fully think apologizing is a great thing. But you have to be wrong. ... I will absolutely apologize sometime in the hopefully distant future if I'm ever wrong."
There's the problem right there. Trump thinks he's never wrong, and his attitude permeates his entire operation.