This brings us to Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent who burst into politics by losing a 2012 Senate campaign in Maryland, and who is now a candidate for Congress in southwest Florida's 19th district. (In between, he ran for a House seat in Maryland. He lost.) With a fascinating bio, proximity to the D.C. media market, and ability to shape talking points into largely coherent sentences, Bongino became a conservative star, sometimes guest-hosting on radio and TV shows. In April 2015, when he announced that he was moving to Florida, he was blunt: "I enjoy politics and there are certainly opportunities down there." Fourteen months later, he announced his campaign for the safe Republican seat that opened when Rep. Curt Clawson (R-Fla.) retired.
Fast-forward to this past weekend. Alexandra Glorioso, a political reporter for the Naples Daily News, livetweeted as she researched the final pre-election FEC reports. In a since-deleted tweet, she remarked on how Bongino -- who does not live in the 19th district -- had reported just one donation from it. Moments later, she corrected herself, saying that the FEC report only recorded one donation, but that Bongino might have had received more donations under the $200 reporting limit.
On August 21, Glorioso compiled her findings into a story, leading with the fundraising domination of frontrunner Francis Rooney. The skimpier Bongino haul was reported thusly:
Bongino, on the other hand, is still greatly lacking in financial support from the district as far as itemized contributions go. He has received only 6 percent of his itemized donations from Collier and Lee counties.
The majority of his Florida money comes from the state’s east coast, where Bongino still has his permanent residence and where he himself will vote Aug. 30.
Bongino, however, has raised a disproportionate amount of his money from donations of less than $200. Of the $295,465 he has raised, more than half have come from small donations.
The Naples Daily News has requested itemized receipts for these records to assess Bongino’s financial support within the district, but the campaign has declined to provide them.
Everything in those paragraphs was true. When it went live, the NDN's Arek Sarkissian tweeted at Bongino, cheekily asking for an actual response to the receipts question. Bongino reacted by attacking the newspaper. Marc Caputo, Politico's lead Florida reporter, chimed in with a question of his own.
After a back-and-forth, Caputo offered to talk to Bongino and hear his evidence. "I'll record," he noted.
That led to the epic, 17-minute phone call generally characterized as a "Bongino meltdown." After a short exchange on the merits of the NDN story, Bongino began reading a message "from a presidential campaign" warning him that Caputo was an "a--hole." In the call's final minutes, Caputo asked if Bongino was a professional candidate living off his political celebrity; Bongino responded with a flurry of unprintable words.
That clip immediately made news -- but Bongino tried, and somewhat succeeded, to shape its second life. At a press conference, in a podcast, and in a Facebook Live video, he portrayed himself as a blunt-talking tribune of the truth who was defending himself against the liberal media. At the popular conservative blogs Patterico's Pontifications and Ace of Spades, Caputo was presented as the heavy. In a popular column at the Federalist, Mollie Hemingway opined that the Caputo interview showed "what's wrong with media." Bongino, she wrote, was reacting to what he "thought was unfair political positioning" by the NDN. Caputo, a famously caustic Twitter personality, was giving a "distemperate performance" and revealing a media bias about Republicans.
Those takes shared one crucial element: They let Bongino, a candidate for office, get away with lying. His get-out-of-jail card was "media bias."
Bongino lied about what Caputo was asking. On his Facebook live video, recorded after his press conference, Bongino suggested that Caputo wanted to "do an interview on Twitter."
"Total garbage," said Bongino. "I'm not gonna do that. So I offer him to call me [sic] for four straight hours. He can't figure out how to use a phone."
In fact, while Caputo first barreled in on Twitter, he was always asking Bongino to prove that he had numerous small donations from the district, as he'd said. According to Caputo's call logs, he got Bongino's number at 2:53 p.m. He called Bongino at 3:09 p.m.
"I have three kids," Caputo said. "First day of school is Monday, and my wife is a schoolteacher. So I was trying to help out in the house, but he demanded that I call him."
Bongino lied about his consent to be taped. On the tape, toward the end of the call, Bongino told Caputo that he no longer gave consent for a recording and could sue if Caputo released their conversation. On his podcast and Facebook live video, Bongino insisted, off-handedly, that Caputo might have committed a crime by recording him.
"I blocked him," said Bongino. "He doesn't realize I blocked him. Then he says to me, I'm gonna record this phone call. But I didn't see that, because I blocked him. So he recorded this phone call illegally."
In fact, as any Twitter user can see, Caputo's tweet asking for Bongino's number -- the one promising to record the call -- was responded to, by Bongino. The candidate blocked Caputo after the call went south, not before.
Bongino falsely accused Caputo of attacking his family. The profanity-laced conclusion of the call began when Caputo derided Bongino's habit of district-shopping.
"Why are you running for office in a city I don't live in, in a county you don't live in?" he asked. "You move down to Florida after losing two campaigns in Maryland. You say you're going to stay and fight. You tuck tail and run to Florida."
"You have no idea why I moved to Florida," said Bongino, "and that's why you're a disgusting piece of s---."
On his podcast, Bongino insisted that Caputo had attacked him personally. "He brought up something about my family and my wife that’s pretty sensitive to me," he said. The next day, Bongino finally mentioned what the issue was: "My wife has a chronic illness, lupus, which is activated by stress, badly. We had a really horrible episode… right before we moved to Florida. She wanted to be closer to her mother.”
If elected, Bongino would represent a district on the other side of the state from where his family lives, and spend much of each year traveling to Washington. He had not previously mentioned his wife's condition; Caputo, not knowing about it, was not making light of it.
Bongino never answered the question he said he could answer. All Caputo asked for, and all the NDN asked for, was proof that many small-dollar donors in the 19th district were getting behind Bongino's campaign. On Twitter and the call, Bongino claimed that the NDN simply did not understand the FEC and that he could provide screenshots of donations -- which he did not do. On his podcast, Bongino said that he'd "gotten five or six donations from the district in like 10 minutes" and that he'd gotten a total of "something like 200 donations in the district."
If those donations existed -- and they might! -- it would have been easy for Bongino to release them. Instead, he made a bet that blaming his coverage on a biased media would do more for him than co-operating with the media. "You want a fight, I'll totally bring it to ya," Bongino told his Facebook viewers, after blocking Caputo so that the reporter could no longer engage him in public. "I'm totally content with bringing it to ya."
To Caputo, and to many Republicans watching the race, Bongino was starting a fight to get attention. While the voters won't be in until August 30, in the short run, Bongino has failed locally and succeeded nationally. Local coverage since the "meltdown" call has focused on how Bongino does not live in the 19th, and can't vote for himself. National coverage has focused on Bongino's fight with Caputo, which the candidate says he may pursue legally. At WBAL, a station where Bongino once guest-hosted, the fact that Bongino emailed Caputo after he said he'd record the call -- and that Bognino only blocked him after the call -- is reported as a he-said/he-said.
"They're enablers," Caputo said of the conservatives defending Bongino's behavior. "They enable people to lie, as long as they follow the catechism."