Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump defended his campaign manager as a “very decent man” Tuesday, hours after the staffer was charged with battery in Florida for allegedly grabbing a reporter and yanking her away from Trump.
Corey Lewandowski, 42, faces one misdemeanor count of battery as a result of the March 8 incident. He voluntarily went to police headquarters in Jupiter, Fla., and signed paperwork that ordered him to appear in court on May 4.
In the past, campaign staffers have been fired for far less. But Trump did not dismiss Lewandowski on Tuesday, and neither of them apologized.
“I don’t discard people. I stay with people,” Trump said.
Instead, the candidate praised his campaign manager — and offered a new explanation of the incident, which directly contradicted what both Lewandowski and Trump had said about it in the past.
Before, Trump and Lewandowski had both denied that Lewandowski touched the reporter at all. On Tuesday, Trump said Lewandowski had touched her, but for a good reason.
“She’s grabbing at me,” Trump told reporters in an interview on his plane. “And he’s acting as an intermediary and trying to block her from doing that.”
It was an extreme example of Trump’s approach to campaigning, one apparently based on the idea that the only mistake in politics is to apologize. In this case, that approach seems to have backfired: by refusing to admit any fault, Trump and Lewandowski appeared to have transformed the grab of an arm into a weeks-long controversy, a criminal charge, and a TV-ready illustration of how they have disregarded the truth.
That illustration was a new videotape — taken at Trump National Golf Club, and obtained by the Jupiter police — that captured the alleged battery.
The video appeared to show Lewandowski grabbing Breitbart News reporter Michelle Fields as she sought to ask Trump a question after a primary-night news conference. In the footage, Lewandowski seemed to reach through the crowd and grab Fields forcefully enough to stop her forward motion, while Trump walked on ahead.
In response to the camera footage, Trump dropped his old explanation of the events. Instead, Trump seemed to concede that Lewandowski had, in fact, grabbed the reporter after all.
But now, Trump suggested that the contact was less serious than Fields had claimed. In fact, Trump implied, the grab may have been justified because the reporter was pressing too closely to the candidate.
“Why is she allowed to grab me and shout questions? Can I press charges?” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Later, Trump tweeted another photo that seemed to show Fields’s hand brushing against his suit jacket, while holding an object the size and shape of a pen.
“Why is this reporter touching me as I leave news conference? What is in her hand??” Trump tweeted.
Trump also questioned whether Fields had exaggerated the severity of the yank on her arm, wondering why she had not yelled out.
“How do you know those bruises weren’t there before? I’m not a lawyer,” Trump told reporters on his plane. “Wouldn’t you think she would have yelled out a scream or something if she has bruises on her arm.”
Fields did not reply to a request for comment. She resigned from Breitbart on March 14 after the news organization raised questions about whether Lewandowski had actually grabbed her.
On Twitter, she responded Tuesday to one of Trump’s tweets by saying, “seriously, just stop lying.”
The charge against Lewandowski is explained in an affidavit written by Marc Bujnowski of the Jupiter Police Department.
Beyond the security-camera footage, the affidavit cited interviews with Fields and said Bujnowski had seen bruises on Fields’s forearm. They “appeared to be several finger marks, consistent with a grabbing type injury,” he wrote. Bujnowski also interviewed Washington Post reporter Ben Terris, who saw the incident and described it in print. The affidavit does not indicate whether Lewandowski was interviewed by police.
“Lewandowski . . . grabbed Fields’ left arm with his right hand, causing her to turn and step back,” Bujnowski wrote in the affidavit. It continued: “Probable cause exists to charge Corey Lewandowski . . . with (1) count of Simple Battery.”
In a statement defending Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign on Tuesday gave no indication that he would be suspended or otherwise removed from his duties as campaign manager.
“Mr. Lewandowski is absolutely innocent of this charge. He will enter a plea of not guilty and looks forward to his day in court,” campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks said in the statement. “He is completely confident that he will be exonerated.”
Hicks said Lewandowski will be represented by Florida lawyers Scott Richardson and Kendall Coffey. A well-known legal figure in South Florida, Coffey was the U.S. attorney there in the 1990s, but he resigned after allegations that he bit an exotic dancer on the arm at a nightclub, according to press reports.
A spokesman for the Jupiter Police Department said Lewandowski was not handcuffed and — as is common in misdemeanor cases — did not have a mug shot taken. After being informed that he would be charged, police said, Lewandowski voluntarily went to police headquarters.
“He came in by himself, without us picking him up, and signed his notice to appear,” said officer Joseph Beinlich, a Jupiter police spokesman.
Under Florida law, battery is committed when a person “actually and intentionally touches or strikes another person against the will of the other.”
On Tuesday, both of Trump’s remaining rivals for the GOP nomination criticized his handling of the incident. Ohio Gov. John Kasich said he would have fired Lewandowski if such an incident had happened in his campaign, according to press reports. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) linked the incident to outbreaks of violence against protesters at Trump’s rallies — violence that, at times, the front-runner has seemed to encourage.
“It’s a very sad development,” Cruz told reporters outside a restaurant in Milwaukee, where he was campaigning ahead of next week’s Wisconsin GOP primary. “This the consequence of the culture of the Trump campaign. The abusive culture. 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.”
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, also campaigning in Wisconsin, said Trump is ultimately responsible for what happens at his events and accused him of “inciting violent behavior, aggressive behavior, that I think is very dangerous.” She praised Fields for pursuing charges in the case but stopped short of calling for Lewandowski to be fired.
Fields said she filed the complaint in part because Lewandowski and the Trump campaign had denied that the incident occurred at all.
“I didn’t want to file a criminal complaint. I never wanted to do that,” she told Megyn Kelly of Fox News on March 14. “I needed a report to show people that this happened.”
In fact, in the days after the incident, Trump’s campaign said it believed Fields was grabbed by another man in Trump’s entourage — possibly a security official.
Trump, asked about it after a Republican debate, told CNN that he believed Fields had fabricated the story.
“This was, in my opinion, made up,” Trump told CNN then. “Everybody said nothing happened. Perhaps she made the story up. I think that’s what happened.”
Even after Fields had filed her complaint, Lewandowski continued to say he had never touched Fields. In a previously unpublished interview with The Washington Post — conducted last Wednesday, before charges were filed, at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach — Lewandowski continued to assert that he never made contact with Fields.
He said it was wrong to think that he had cleared Fields away from Trump’s path because he thought she would ask him an uncomfortable question.
“Just the premise that Breitbart is going to ask Mr. Trump a question that he can’t handle, and I’m so concerned what this question might be — on its face, that is just an egregious notion,” Lewandowski said.
A reporter pointed out that Terris, the Post reporter, saw the incident unfold.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what Ben did or didn’t see. I have no idea, but I’m not calling into question anything other than the fact that I don’t know him. He and I have never met,” Lewandowski said. “I don’t know Ben, and I don’t know [Fields], and I’ve never met her.”
Callum Borchers, Jose A. DelReal, Karen Tumulty, Sean Sullivan and Abby Phillip contributed to this report.