As you’ve probably heard by now, Sen. Mitch McConnell’s campaign manager Jesse Benton threatened to have police arrest me for covering his press conference at a hotel in Louisville on Monday, then followed through on that threat by ordering a Louisville police officer to block me from entering the room.
This rather self-defeating and cowardly overreaction brings up a slew of questions I’ll get to, but first here’s a little background on the McConnell campaign’s actions toward me leading up to Monday, and what actually happened at the hotel that day.
The last time I was able to ask McConnell a question was at the groundbreaking of a park in Louisville last July that he directed millions of dollars in federal earmarks to. As you can see at 1:09 in the video below, I asked him if the federal government can afford to spend millions of dollars on a park, considering his concern about the federal debt:
As you can see, I asked a fair question, he answered, no “incident” to speak of.
In August, I was invited to and attended McConnell’s “Women for Team Mitch” event in Louisville — where he took credit for supporting the Violence Against Women Act, dubiously — but McConnell snuck out without taking any questions from reporters. In November, I attended a McConnell campaign event at a gun club in Louisville where he received an NRA endorsement, but snuck out again while snubbing — and not even making eye contact with — reporters who wanted to ask him a question. Video here:
Also in November, McConnell held a press conference (that I could not attend) in Louisville in which he told reporters they could only ask questions on the topic that he approved of — and derided reporters for wanting to ask him questions (“stakeouts” he called them) after his campaign photo ops — because he wanted to control what the news would be about. Also that month, I attended his “Veterans for Team Mitch” event in Louisville, where he held a brief, two-minute gaggle that ended before I could get a question in.
The McConnell campaign started being directly hostile toward me in February. After learning about their press conference to announce an endorsement that day, I emailed the campaign to RSVP. I was informed that LEO was not invited due to “limited space,” but I decided to show up anyway, since it seemed ridiculous to exclude local media from a press event.
After entering the business — CSS Distribution Group — where the presser was to be held and waiting with other reporters for McConnell to arrive, his campaign staff directed McConnell’s capitol security to remove me from the building. After I complied, I spoke with the business owner, Daniel Whitlow — who was endorsing McConnell at the event — outside. After discovering who I was, Whitlow said he had read my interview and fairly critical article on McConnell’s opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes that week, and he really liked it. After talking with me, he decided to override McConnell’s staff and let me back into his building to cover the event, which was short and without any incident at all. Whitlow later emailed me to say he thought it was only fair to let an established local media outlet and reporter cover a press conference, and said he appreciated my work.
After finding out about McConnell’s presser with Sen. Kelly Ayotte in Louisville on Monday, I again emailed his campaign to RSVP, and was again told that I was not invited due to “limited space.” I decided to show up anyway — since I cover Kentucky politics … it’s my job — to see if there really was “limited space” and if I could get in.
Once I arrived to the hotel lobby, I walked up to Jesse Benton and said hello. Benton immediately informed me that I was not invited and would not be allowed into the room next to us where the presser was to be held. I looked into the room and noted that it was both large and mostly empty, and Benton informed me that their “limited space” argument for denying me entry was not true at all. Benton gave me a rather bizarre and implausible excuse that another reporter had told them they did not want me covering McConnell’s events, because they didn’t like the questions. Benton refused to say who that supposed reporter was — and every Kentucky reporter I’ve talked to since says this claim by Benton is completely ludicrous. After I told him that he obviously made up that story, I asked him why on earth would I believe that his campaign takes orders from reporters on who can and cannot cover their events, which he struggled to answer.
After some back and forth, Benton offered me what he called a “gentleman’s agreement.” He said I could enter the room to cover the event, but only on the condition that I not ask McConnell any questions. I asked Benton if other reporters would be allowed to ask questions, and he said yes, just not me. After I told him that I would like to ask a question, Benton immediately informed me that he would summon the police to have me arrested if I tried to enter the room.
After pressing Benton with more questions about why he was so afraid to have me ask a question — and the campaign’s multiple and evolving rationale — he finally declared loudly, “Joe! I’m being a gentleman here.” When I replied by asking him how threatening me with arrest for covering a press conference with plenty of room is being a “gentleman,” he cut me off and said, “Joe! You’re not going in there,” and walked away.
After sitting in the lobby for about 10 minutes talking with Joe Gerth and reporters from Time and Rolling Stone, the event was about to begin, and we all got up and started to walk into the room. Once I got near the door, I was stopped by a gentleman identifying himself as a Louisville police officer, who told me I would be arrested if I tried to enter the room. The officer told me that McConnell’s staff had told hotel staff to tell him to give me that order. He didn’t look especially pleased about having to do this, but he said he was just doing what he was told. I decided, probably wisely, that I wouldn’t fare very well in jail, and went back over to the lobby couch to tweet out what just happened.
After sitting there for a few minutes, a person walked up to the officer and whispered something to him, after which the officer told me that I couldn’t even sit alone in the empty lobby — with the door to the conference room closed — or else I would be arrested. I laughed and went 20 yards down the hall to another seat that they said was acceptable.
I’ve been told by other reporters that Benton’s real reason behind this crazy overreaction is because I’ve written critical things about McConnell, I’m a “muckraker,” and a “troublemaker.” I consider any good journalist both of those things, so I’ll take that as a compliment.
One of the odd things about this entire incident is that McConnell has always portrayed himself as the greatest defender of the First Amendment, citing his opposition to the flag-burning amendment and his zealous belief that unlimited campaign spending should be protected as free speech. I guess freedom of the press is stricken from his copy of the Constitution, as only certain journalists can cover his events, and those who can can only ask questions on pre-approved topics.
Perhaps McConnell’s terrible poll numbers are getting to the campaign? Despite spending millions of dollars on ads — along with pro-McConnell Super PACs spending millions as well — McConnell’s approvals have only gotten worse, with the Bluegrass Poll showing him with a 32 percent approval rating, 27 percent favorable rating and a 4 percent deficit to Alison Lundergan Grimes. Or perhaps, in Jesse Benton’s case, holding your nose for too long can cut off the proper supply of oxygen to your brain. Either way, their “presidential-level campaign” seems awfully panicky.
Another funny aspect about Monday’s events with Sen. Ayotte is that their topic that day was how tough they were going to be on Vladamir Putin, and how weak and frail Barack Obama is — even though they are now advocating the exact same policy. If you ask me, it doesn’t speak to McConnell’s “strength” if he’s scared to death that he might get a tough question from an alt-weekly reporter in his hometown. But then again, the Republican Party seems rather enamored with Putin’s leadership style these days, so maybe McConnell is just talking cues from that other tough guy in Russia who knows what to do with troublesome journalists.
Anyway, I’ll see you at the next McConnell campaign event … or in Jefferson County Jail.
(Also, here’s my appearance last night on MSNBC’s The Last Word, guest hosted by Ari Melber, below)