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An affair, a photo and a felony charge: Missouri’s governor is waging a campaign for political survival

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens speaks from his office in the Capitol in Jefferson City on Jan. 20. (Jeff Roberson/AP)
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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens was supposed to be the next big thing in the Republican Party — destined to spend 2018 campaigning for GOP candidates, burnishing his credentials and building presidential buzz.

Instead, the former Navy SEAL who once volunteered with Mother Teresa is waging a different kind of campaign. He is aggressively trying to clear his name after allegations that he took a photograph of a naked woman without her consent — after taping her hands to exercise rings and blindfolding her.

Under indictment for felony invasion of privacy related to an extramarital affair, Greitens is seeking to discredit the Democratic prosecutor who went after him and battling back Republicans calling on him to step down. He has been abandoned or ignored by much of his party, including President Trump, who didn’t mention him on a recent visit to this state.

The predominantly Republican state House voted 154-0 to authorize its own investigation into the allegations against Greitens. And Missouri’s attorney general, a prized Republican Senate recruit, has launched a separate probe into allegations that resources were improperly used at his former veterans charity.

“The sooner the governor leaves, the better,” said Rob Schaaf, a Republican state senator. “I mean, Missouri is a laughingstock nationally right now.”

Greitens’s strategy of defiance and denial is straight out of the playbook used by Trump, who has railed against the special counsel investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election and forcefully rejected numerous allegations of sexual harassment. One local editorial dubbed Greitens and Trump “Thelma and Louise.”

But there is a key difference: Trump has kept most of his party behind him. Greitens is getting a fierce blowback from fellow Republicans already fed up with his bare-knuckle politics and broken promises of the past year. Some attribute that backlash to the sheer shock over a politician once seen as squeaky clean.

“I was surprised, like a lot of people,” said Shamed Dogan, who is part of a group of about a dozen GOP state House members who have banded together to call on the governor to resign.

A married father of two sons, Greitens admitted in January to having an affair before he ran for governor. The admission came as a local television news station reported about the consensual encounter in March of 2015 with a woman who cut his hair.

Greitens, 43, has been charged with allegedly photographing someone “in a state of full or partial nudity” without consent and transmitting the image in a manner allowing it to be accessed with a computer. He says he is innocent of any crimes.

The governor has enlisted a well-connected lobbyist to represent him in the legislature and a high-powered legal team that includes an attorney who represented the rapper Nelly. Their mission is to defend his image and exonerate him of any wrongdoing.

In the past month, that has included leveling criticism against St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, who brought the charge against him.

“The people of Missouri deserve better than a reckless liberal prosecutor who uses her office to score political points,” Greitens wrote on Facebook the day he was indicted.

The governor’s campaign has circulated opinion pieces to supporters that cast Gardner as weak on crime and as a foe to law enforcement who is doing the bidding of the Black Lives Matter movement, which helped lead protests in Ferguson, Mo., after the fatal 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown. The state Republican Party has highlighted the support she received from a group backed by liberal billionaire George Soros in her 2016 campaign.

Gardner, 42, is the first African American circuit attorney in St. Louis. A Democrat, she previously served in the Missouri House. Her office says she’s just doing her job, not playing politics.

Some African American leaders in the state have argued that the attacks against Gardner are racially tinged — a charge Greitens’s team flatly rejected.

“Considering the state we live in, Missouri, and the region we live in, where racism and segregation are so prevalent, I’m sure for some that it carries hateful and racist overtones,” said Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), a friend of Gardner’s.

To some Republicans, the public effort to discredit Gardner is familiar.

Sitting in his office in the state Capitol one recent afternoon, Schaaf, the state senator, recalled the time last April that a nonprofit group formed by the governor’s campaign advisers published his cellphone number online and urged people to call him over a bill he had stalled.

“It was hundreds of calls in an hour. It was more than my phone could handle,” said Schaaf. His voice-mail inbox quickly filled up, and he had to tell people who urgently needed to reach him to shoot him a text.

Greitens’s relationship with the state legislature hasn’t been smooth. He has derided them as “career politicians” and once compared the legislature to third-graders.

“Missouri elected an outsider. So, it was not a typical governor the legislature was used to working with,” said Aaron Baker, the lobbyist who recently registered to represent the governor. He serves as a conduit between Greitens’s legal team and the legislature on matters related to the invasion of privacy case.

Some Republicans have been particularly bothered by the conflict between some of Greitens’s early statements and his actions. “The most important thing is that there is transparency around the money,” he told St. Louis Public Radio in early 2016.

His campaign advisers formed a secretive nonprofit organization called “A New Missouri” to support his mission. This was the group that published Schaaf’s number. It does not have to disclose its donors.

Paul DeGregorio, an influential former political strategist and elections director in St. Louis County who once backed Greitens, is among the Republicans who say the governor has dramatically changed his tune on campaign finance matters over time.

DeGregorio also feels burned by a conversation he had with Greitens in the summer of 2015. “I asked him about any skeletons in his closet,” DeGregorio recalled.

Greitens, he remembered, said there were none.

A Greitens spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on DeGregorio’s account.

Since the indictment, Greitens has tried to project a business-as-usual attitude in Missouri. His Facebook page features posts and photos showing him helping veterans, combating the opioid crisis and getting outdoors. Just this week, he posted a photo of himself smiling as he signed a National Agriculture Week proclamation.

But when Trump visited Missouri last week, the governor did not greet him at the airport. In remarks at a fundraiser for state Attorney General Josh Hawley, a top Republican recruit challenging Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, the president made no mention of Greitens.

“It’s not good for the state of Missouri to have a sitting governor under criminal indictment,” Hawley said in an interview. He stopped short of calling on Greitens to resign but appeared to send him a warning shot over his political attacks on Gardner.

“The governor has every right to due process of course, as part of the criminal justice system and to defend himself as he and his lawyers see appropriate,” Hawley said. “But the system and the process needs to be allowed to proceed without politics being injected into it.”

In the interview, Hawley was quick to note that his office launched a separate investigation into allegations of misusing resources at Greitens’s former veterans charity. The allegations involve potentially using a donor list for political purposes.

Hawley has opted not to attend some local GOP gatherings this weekend he had been slated to attend. Campaign spokeswoman Kelli Ford cited Greitens’s expected attendance as the reason, saying it would be “inappropriate to appear at a political event with an official currently under investigation” by Hawley’s office.

Democrats are already seeking to tether Hawley to Greitens. A recent television ad from the pro-McCaskill Senate Majority PAC mentioned the indictment and casts Hawley as “part of the problem in Jefferson City.”

McCaskill has capitalized on Republican controversy before. In 2012, she helped elevate Todd Akin to the Republican nomination to face her in a general election. Akin would go on to say that “legitimate rape” rarely caused pregnancy, a comment that alienated many voters and helped McCaskill to a surprising win.

Both Trump and Greitens are former Democrats who triumphed as Republican outsiders in their first runs for office in 2016. At a recent meeting of the St. Louis Young Republicans, Adam Bohn, a 30-year-old pharmacist, called Greitens the “Donald Trump of Missouri.”

Last fall, Greitens was in Iowa, stoking speculation that he might run for president someday. In the past, he has acknowledged reserving an Internet address that could be used for a White House campaign.

But in Missouri and nationally, Greitens does not have the broad GOP support Trump does. The governor has stepped down from the executive committee of the Republican Governors Association. In Illinois, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s campaign pulled ads featuring the embattled Missouri governor.

People close to Greitens say they are weathering the storm and are confident he will be vindicated by the state House investigation and the criminal trial, which is set to begin May 14. Some Republicans have warned against jumping to conclusions about him just yet.

“I think in Missouri, people don’t judge. They don’t call it the Show Me State for nothing. People are willing to let the process play out,” said Kay Hoflander, vice chairman of the state Republican Party.

Developments in his case continue to occupy space on the front pages of Missouri’s newspapers and time on television news broadcasts. During one morning earlier this month, it was one of the lead stories on a local network. Three minutes later, the Senate Majority PAC commercial aired.

In the eyes of many Republicans, he is already beyond recovery. Greitens, DeGregorio said, should now “spend time reflecting” and rereading his own book.

The title of the bestseller, he pointed out, is “Resilience.”

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