Donald Trump on Tuesday night invoked his signature catch phrase — You’re fired! — but quickly said he wouldn’t be uttering those words to his campaign manager after he was charged with battery for allegedly roughly grabbing a reporter’s arm.
Instead, Trump spent the day on Tuesday mounting a vigorous defense for Corey Lewandowski and verbally attacking the journalist, questioning whether she made the whole thing up and is to blame in the incident.
“The easiest thing: ‘Corey, you’re fired!’ I can’t do that,” Trump told supporters at a rally in Janesville, Wisc., on Tuesday night. “I can’t destroy a man for that.”
Trump, after spending 40 minutes railing against his political opponents, used a question about discipline in schools to pivot to the latest scandal that has enveloped his volatile campaign, soliciting audience sympathy for what he characterized as outlandish accusations against his top aide.
“Fortunately, I have a taping system,” Trump said. “I’m rich, so I have tapes. Did anybody see the tapes? What did you think?”
The audience responded with a resounding “Nothing” before Trump bantered with a woman about her own analysis of the surveillance footage of the incident. Trump then shifted the blame on Michelle Fields, the ex-Breitbart reporter who alleges Lewandowski aggressively yanked her arm as she tried to ask Trump a question following a news conference earlier this month.
“She bolts into the picture, she hits me on the arm and then he goes by and maybe he touched her a little bit,” Trump continued. “It was almost like he was trying to keep her off me, like he was trying to help her.”
Trump’s comments at the rally follow a press conference he held with reporters, in which he again forcefully defended Lewandowski and suggested that maybe he should have pressed charges against Fields.
“Who said they were bruises from that? How do you know those bruises weren’t there before?” Trump asked while talking to reporters aboard his plane Tuesday evening. “To me, if you’re gonna get squeezed, wouldn’t you think she would have yelled out a scream or something if she has bruises on her arm? Take a look at her facial expression. Her facial expression doesn’t even change.”
In the hours after Lewandowski turned himself in to Florida authorities Tuesday morning, the real estate mogul circled the wagons around his campaign manager, tweeting out his support and dispatching his surrogates on cable networks.
“Wow, Corey Lewandowski, my campaign manager and a very decent man, was just charged with assaulting a reporter. Look at tapes-nothing there!” Trump wrote on Twitter.
He followed up with a further challenge to Fields, cryptically referring to shifting statements from her. “Why aren’t people looking at this reporters [sic] earliest statement as to what happened, that is before she found out the episode was on tape?” Trump also tweeted.
Fields, who has since resigned from Breitbart, shot back on Twitter, “Because my story never changed. Seriously, just stop lying.”
Trump didn’t stop there, suggesting Fields was at fault for pursuing him after his news conference in Florida to ask him a question. “Victory press conference was over. Why is she allowed to grab me and shout questions? Can I press charges?” he tweeted.
He then tweeted out an image of her attempting to ask him a question that night, and said, “Why is this reporter touching me as I leave news conference? What is in her hand??”
The case against Lewandowski further fuels the narrative that Trump is running an unruly campaign that incites violence and breeds a culture of intolerance. Many of Trump’s rallies have erupted into chaos due to clashes between protesters and Trump’s supporters, with the candidate himself pledging to pay the legal bills of people who take on protesters.
The charge against Lewandowski stems from an encounter at a March 8 news conference during a triumphant primary night for Trump. Fields was attempting to ask Trump a question on his way out of the event, when Fields said Lewandowski pulled her back in such a forceful way that it left a bruise. Washington Post reporter Ben Terris also witnessed the incident, and POLITICO posted audio of their conversation following the encounter, in which Terris and Fields can be heard discussing how she was “thrown” out of the way.
A spokeswoman for Trump said on Tuesday that Lewandowski will enter a plea of “not guilty.”
“Mr. Lewandowski was issued a Notice to Appear and given a court date. He was not arrested. Mr. Lewandowski is absolutely innocent of this charge,” Hope Hicks said. “He will enter a plea of not guilty and looks forward to his day in court. He is completely confident that he will be exonerated.”
She added that Lewandowski will be represented by Scott Richardson in West Palm Beach and Kendall Coffey in Miami. Coffey has had his own trouble with the law, resigning from his job as the top federal prosecutor in South Florida in 1996 after reports alleged that he had bitten a stripper.
Lewandowski’s court date is set for May 4, the day after the Indiana primary and less than a week before contests in Nebraska and West Virginia.
According to the police report, video from surveillance cameras at Trump National Gold Club in Jupiter, where the incident took place, shows Lewandowski reaching for and grabbing Fields.
The police report states, “Based on the above-described investigation, probable cause exists to charge Corey Lewandowski DOB 9/18/1973 with (1) count of Simple Battery per FSS 784.03 (1) (a) (1), in that he did intentionally touch Michelle Fields … against the will of Michelle Fields.”
Trump’s rivals pounced on the news, saying the charge underscores what they’ve been saying all along.
“When you have a campaign that is built on personal insults, on attacks and now physical violence, that has no place in a political campaign,” Ted Cruz told reporters in Wisconsin. “It has no place in our democracy, and I think it is a really unfortunate development. But I do think it helps clarify for the voters what the Trump campaign is all about.”
John Weaver, chief strategist for John Kasich, said on Twitter, “Campaigns reflect the values of the candidate. I know ours does. If this bully worked for John Kasich, he would have been fired long ago.”
“Donald Trump’s campaign has come to be known for his outrageous lies and violent rallies, violence encouraged by the candidate himself,” David Brock said in a statement released through Correct the Record, one of two pro-Hillary Clinton super PACs he has founded. “Now Donald Trump’s campaign manager, who has a history of aggressive behavior, has lied about his own violent behavior toward a reporter—violence which is now available on tape for the world to see.”
Representatives for the campaigns of both Clinton and Bernie Sanders appeared on CNN to speak broadly about the need for candidates to be held accountable.
“Hillary Clinton has spoken out on that consistently,” Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon said. “So ultimately, as Mr. Trump knows better than anybody as the head of his own business, the buck stops at the top. The candidate has to take responsibility for the conduct of their staff and their supporters at their events.”
“I think Sen. Sanders has been very upfront on the kind of thuggery that happens at many of these Trump events,” Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver remarked.
Trump’s surrogates immediately leaped into action on the airwaves and on Twitter, casting the blame everywhere but on their candidate’s top aide.
“I’m really scared of going forward how this is going to work out. Because with the hundreds of people, the hundreds that was around that room, for this to be considered a battery charge, would that make everybody around be considered maybe that they would be accessories to battery? No one stopped in that moment and said Corey that’s not right,” supporter Scottie Nell Hughes told CNN.
“You’re not … accessory to battery if you don’t tell them they’re naughty,” CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield pointed out. “They all sat there and watched it,” Hughes responded.
On Twitter, Trump surrogate Bill Mitchell posted a screenshot of the alleged incident, remarking upon what he saw as inconsistencies between the bruises Fields showed in a later picture and the location where Lewandowski is grabbing her.
“Just me or is Michelle Fields physically contacting Mr Trump here or standing so close as to threaten him?” Mitchell tweeted. In another message, he wrote, “Michelle Fields showed bruises on her FOREARM. You can clearly see Corey’s hand on her UPPER ARM. Fields lied.”
Trump national spokeswoman Katrina Pierson said on CNN Tuesday afternoon that Lewandowski will “absolutely” maintain his role with the campaign.
“Mr. Lewandowski is an integral part of this team. The camp wholeheartedly supports him,” she said.
Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg’s office will ultimately be in charge of the case, but it has not received the information yet and it could not comment, said spokesman Mike Edmondson.
In simple battery cases in general, Edmondson said, police make a determination to see if there is probable cause to charge a suspect. If so, the police issue a notice to appear in court and then a court date is later be set by the county clerk of court. It’s at that point, Edmondson said, that prosecutors would get the case file and decide whether or not to proceed based on two legal factors.
“They will make a legal determination if the state can meet its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt and if there’s a reasonable likelihood of conviction before moving forward with a charge,” he said.
The statute Lewandowski is accused of violating prohibits a person who “[a]ctually and intentionally touches or strikes another person against the will” of another person. The first-degree misdemeanor carries a maximum $1,000 fine and a maximum jail term of up to one year in prison.
Most misdemeanor cases result in plea bargains — where the defendant might agree to take anger-management classes — but Edmondson said there’s no way to discuss an issue like that because he couldn’t comment on a case that the office has yet to receive. The state attorney’s office is among the largest in Florida; the county is the state’s third-most populous and handles about 125,000 cases a year.
Lewandowski, 42, has been front-and-center in Trump’s campaign and recently has appeared on stage at events for the real estate mogul. He worked his way up in New England politics in the 1990s, working briefly for the Republican National Committee in 2001 as its Northeast legislative director before working on the Senate re-election campaign of New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith, who had briefly sought the Republican nomination in the 2000 cycle before running for the Taxpayer Party nomination and ultimately as an independent.
Lewandowski worked as a lobbyist for five years, beginning with the New England Seafood Producers Association and ending up at Americans for Prosperity in 2008.
Trump and Lewandowski first met in April 2014 when AFP and Citizens United held a cattle call in New Hampshire, leading to the candidate’s decision to hire him as campaign manager last summer.
This is not Lewandowski’s first run-in with the law. In 1999, he was arrested for attempting to bring a loaded .40-caliber pistol that he was not licensed to carry into a congressional office building. After he was acquitted of the charges, he sued the Washington, D.C., police department demanding the return of his pistol, holster, three magazines and several rounds of ammunition, plus $50,000 in damages for the “mental anguish” he said was caused by being deprived of the gun.
Former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), for whom Lewandowski was working at the time of his 1999 arrest, said Lewandowski’s hard-charging approach occasionally drew complaints from other staff, but that was mainly due to his demanding management style.
“I’ve never seen Corey Lewandowski manhandle anybody,” Ney said in an interview after the Fields incident, but before Tuesday’s arrest. Ney, who was subsequently convicted on corruption charges, said “I am suspicious of the thing with the reporter. I’ve watched that tape a hundred times and it doesn’t match with my opinion. … I just don’t see it and it’s not because Corey worked for me.”
At the time, Ney predicted that the incident would not jeopardize Lewandowski’s standing with Trump because of his value to the campaign. “I just don’t think it’s going to matter at the end of the day to affect Trump or Corey.”
Following the initial reports of the incident, Trump himself speculated after the March 10 debate in Miami that Fields had “made the story up.”
“I wasn’t involved in it. The Secret Service was surrounding everybody. They said nothing happened, everybody said nothing happened,” Trump said. “Perhaps she made the story up. I think that’s what happened.”
Lewandowski himself claimed in a tweet on March 11 that Fields was “totally delusional.”
“I never touched you. As a matter of fact, I have never even met you,” he tweeted.
Fields and several of her colleagues at Breitbart ultimately resigned from the publication, alleging in scathing statements that the news network was not fully standing behind its reporter because of the site’s pro-Trump stance.
Joel Pollak, Breitbart’s senior editor-at-large and in-house counsel, who previously warned employees about publicly speaking out in support of Fields, on Tuesday tweeted that the surveillance footage released Tuesday changed his view of the incident. “Based on the evidence available at the time with no video and weak description. Clearly I was wrong; @bterris right,” Pollak tweeted upon the release of the police report and surveillance footage.
Pollak also wrote, “That’s pretty conclusive, even with the freeze framing.”
Breitbart said it had always supported Fields, though at one point it posted a story (since updated) alleging that the case may have been one of mistaken identity, and then sent out cease and desist letters to the employees who resigned.
Fields, Breitbart, and Lewandowski’s lawyers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Marc Caputo, Nolan D. McCaskill and Kenneth P. Vogel contributed to this report.
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