JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. /January 11, 2018 (AP)(STL.News) — Admitting to an extramarital affair but denying anything more, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens appears to be digging in for a fight to preserve his political life as other public officials weigh whether to stand with or against the once rising Republican star.
Greitens met with Cabinet members and placed phone calls to rally support Thursday while his attorney fended off with firm denials a smattering of accusations that Gretiens had acted violently, taken a revealing photo or tried to blackmail the woman to remain silent about their 2015 affair.
Within 24 hours of acknowledging the affair in a contrite statement late Wednesday, Greitens’ camp had shifted to suggesting he was the target of “a political hit piece” — even as the St. Louis circuit attorney launched a criminal investigation.
“This is a three-year-old personal matter that presents no matters of public or legal interest,” Greitens’ attorney Jim Bennett said in a statement. “The facts will prove that fully.”
For Greitens to survive politically, it’s vital that the facts remain exactly as he said — that he had an affair and nothing more, said several Republican political consultants with decades of experience.
“The most import thing in a crisis is your very first public communication. It has to be the truth, and it has to be airtight,” said Republican consultant John Hancock, who has survived his own personal and political crises, most recently as a former state party chairman.
Greitens acknowledged being “unfaithful” in his marriage after St. Louis television station KMOV aired part of an audio recording of a woman telling her husband about a sexual encounter with Greitens. The woman, who was Greitens’ hairdresser, is now divorced from the man who had secretly recorded their conversation.
On the recording, she said Greitens had taped her hands, blindfolded her and taken a photo while warning, “‘You’re never going to mention my name.” The ex-husband’s attorney said Thursday that his client had told him Greitens also slapped the woman at a later time.
Greitens’ attorney denied each of those allegations.
The TV station did not name the woman. The Associated Press learned of her identity but has chosen not to name her because she could not be reached for comment.
The affair occurred as Greitens was preparing to launch his campaign for governor. The former Navy SEAL officer and veterans’ charity founder won election in 2016 as a self-described outsider ready to blow up the political establishment in Jefferson City. In his first year in office, he had a variety of political confrontations with fellow Republican lawmakers.
Now he’s trying to address their concerns that he can still be effective during a session in which he has promised to deliver the boldest state tax reform in the U.S.
Republican leaders in the Missouri Senate and House released statements urging Greitens to be “forthright” and “accountable for his actions.”
Republican Sen. Dave Schatz said he received a brief phone call Thursday from Greitens and his wife, Sheena, to discuss the allegations against him. Schatz said he explained to the governor: “Before I render judgment, I want to see all the facts.”
Others had seen enough. Democratic Sen. Jamilah Nasheed and Democratic Rep. Brandon Ellington both said Greitens should resign.
Republican Sen. Rob Schaaf, a frequent Greitens critic, stopped short of suggesting he step down but said: “I don’t see how he weathers this political storm.”
His reputation also took a hit in Iowa, a traditional presidential testing ground that Greitens had visited last fall. Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds released a statement saying she was “disappointed and saddened” by allegations against Greitens. She didn’t address Democratic Party calls for her to return the contributions that Greitens helped her raise.
Greitens stayed out of the public eye on Thursday. But it’s unclear how long that will last. He had promised in his State of the State address earlier Wednesday evening to release details of his tax-cut plan early next week.
Hancock suggested Greitens should address questions from the public — and the press — in person.
“The worst thing you can do during the life of the crisis is hunker down,” he said.
Another Republican consultant, David Barklage, who worked for one of Greitens’ opponents in the Republican primary, said he doesn’t expect him to back down.
“He owes nothing to the party, nothing to the institution and has no reason not to take this to the end and fight it,” Barklage said.
Associated Press writers Summer Ballentine in Jefferson City, Jim Salter in St. Louis and Barbara Rodriguez in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.