Last week, I told a friend that I thought the travel “scandal” pushed by Breitbart and shopped feverishly by the Chris McDaniel campaign was the last gasp of news or scandal down the campaign homestretch. Boy was I wrong.
On Friday, May 16, Pearl resident and ardent Chris McDaniel supporter Clayton Kelly was arrested by Madison County PD for exploiting a vulnerable adult. That vulnerable adult was Rose Cochran, wife of US Senator Thad Cochran. The charges stemmed from Kelly allegedly illegally obtaining a picture of her in the assisted care wing of St. Catherine’s village that it turns out he used in a short lived internet video published on April 26.
What will follow is our best attempt to put the pieces inline and connect the dots.
Just before midnight Friday, Jackson Jambalaya posted a City of Madison Police Department presser stating that Kelly had been arrested for an exploitation charge at St. Catherine’s. There was no mention of the victim.
At 7:45 a.m. Saturday, Chris McDaniel campaign manager Melanie Sojourner (bless her heart) left a voicemail message, which actually wasn’t released to the media until Sunday, for Thad Cochran campaign manager Kirk Sims. In it, she states “we don’t know this guy. We don’t know who he is.” She went on to say that “Chris is very upset about it.”
Keep in mind at this point, there has been no official mention that Rose Cochran was the victim or that this even involved her. There was some anonymous chatter in the comments section on the blog that broke it, but that was it. It was nothing that a US Senate campaign manager should have put any stock and trade in.
At about 9:30 a.m., the Clarion Ledger’s Geoff Pender goes live with confirmation of the story that the victim is indeed Rose Cochran and furthermore that the suspect in custody, Kelly, was there because of his role in obtaining a picture of Ms. Cochran and using it in an internet video. There were two key quotes that Pender got. One was from McDaniel’s (likely soon-to-be-former) communications guy Noel Fritsch where he says in response to a question about if the campaign knew about this or whether or not Kelly had any connection to the campaign, “I’ve never even heard his name.” Pender also got to Scott Brewster, who is a paid staffer for McDaniel. Brewster mangled his story badly. When asked about the video, Brewster stated, “I do remember when it came out . . . I think people made some phone calls (to have it removed). I didn’t personally — nobody personally talked to (Kelly). I don’t know if anybody made phone calls about it. I’m not sure. Just, I remember all of a sudden it was gone.”
At about 10:00 a.m. Saturday, Chris McDaniel was at a campaign event. Alexander Jaffe from The Hill was travelling with him. McDaniel, when asked about the event said, ““I don’t guess I’ve been awake long enough to see what’s happened.” Two hours before, Sojourner is telling Kirk Sims via voicemail that Chris is “very upset” about the incident. But when asked by The Hill at 10:00, McDaniel seems to act as if it’s the first time he’s heard about it. Cochran campaign spokesman Jordan Russell stated, “While there was no public news of the arrest until the Clarion Ledger story at 9:24, so there was no public report of it, so how would the campaign know? It’s just an inconsistent story.”
At 10:50, the McDaniel campaign issues its first statement of the day condemning Kelly’s action and disavowing any connection to Kelly or the video. But the Hill story didn’t actually run till about 11:30.
Having heard the inconsistency between what Sojourner, Fritsch and McDaniel were saying about the incident, Jordan Russell calls “BS” and starts pointing it out causing the Clarion Ledger to print an update about 1:00. At 3:30, apparently knowing that McDaniel and Sojourner have crossed each other up, they publish another presser trying to clean up the mess saying, “It is unconscionable for the Cochran campaign and the liberal media to use the act of a sick individual to lob despicable accusations.”
Late afternoon Saturday, Paul Hampton at the Sun Herald jumps into the fray. His reporting digs up a screenshot of a May 5 Facebook post by Kelly that said, “Breitbart is now Breaking the Scandal I pulled back last week … this one is about Thad’s stay in Washington vs MS and the connection to Kay Webber’s House.” Breitbart (and particularly writer Matt Boyle) has been a go to for the McDaniel campaign to push their storyline during the pendency of the campaign. However, there’s been no confirmation at this point that Breitbart had any connection to Kelly’s efforts. However, Breitbart did kick off the issue on May 4 with Cochran’s admin Kay Webber and documented her traveling with Senator Cochran on official business.
Ill-advisedly, Erick Erickson entered the fray about 7:00 Saturday night and basically took up for the McDaniel campaign and Sojourner in particular. In light of the Sojourner voicemail released the next morning, that was probably not a slick move.
Finally late Saturday night, the McDaniel campaign made its third statement of the day to the Clarion Ledger and said,
“Melanie noticed the political blog post at around 1:00 AM CDT Saturday and was alarmed that it was likely Ms. Cochran who had been photographed based on the preponderance of evidence, including the name of the rest home and the comments on the blog.
“At around 7:30 AM CDT, Chris was notified only briefly of the incident and the need to personally reach out to Sen. Cochran.
“Shortly thereafter, Melanie called Cochran campaign manager Kirk Sims to express in strongest terms the campaigns’ condemnation of the alleged crime. Alex Jaffe interviewed Chris at around 9:30 AM CDT during an event, at which time Chris had still not been fully briefed. Chris was not fully briefed until he left event around 10:30 AM CDT, at which point the campaign issued a statement at 10:49 AM CDT.”
Those are the facts. Here comes the opinion.
McDaniel has installed a group of people in his immediate orbit that are spectacularly incapable of telling the whole truth. Between Noel Fritsch and Melanie Sojourner, they have mangled crisis communications so badly that it’s pretty difficult to discern what’s really happening. Both are in way over their head. This isn’t the first time. Remember Fire Arms Freedom Day? It was a simple story turned into an absolute mess by poor campaign work. At this point, McDaniel wouldn’t hurt himself in the least by throwing both overboard.
The questions now demanding attention are did the McDaniel staff (a) know about Kelly (b) know about the video and (c) have any communication with him? A & B look to be undoubtedly true. Between Sojourner’s voicemail where she stated that they had heard about this guy in the past and the fact that she called Kirk Sims before a media outlet confirmed that it even involved Senator Cochran’s wife, it’s not a stretch to say they could connect the dots on the arrest to Kelly without any media assistance. Why would she be “up all night” “freaking out” if she didn’t connect the dots herself the minute she learned of the arrest? Noel Fritsch reflexively told Pender that the campaign had never heard of Kelly or had any affiliation with them. But the information that came out subsequently that indicates that’s not the whole truth. As to whether or not they had any communication with Kelly, remember that Scott Brewster alluded that they heard about the video and that “people made some phone calls” and that the April 26 video posted by Kelly magically and immediately disappeared. There appears to be no doubt that he had constructive knowledge of the Kelly video since it was released three weeks ago. So who did “people” call to get the video taken down? What did they say? It obviously worked.
Do I believe that Kelly was “hired” to go do this by the McDaniel campaign? No. However, it doesn’t appear from his writings or Facebook posts that he is sophisticated enough to have that level of opposition research done. It appears to me that somehow he got his hands on professionally done opposition research. “How” is an open question in my mind.
The good news is that law enforcement have Kelly’s phone and computer so the answers may be coming out over the next week or so, if Kelly himself doesn’t make a statement.
Then the question is what did the candidate know and when? The campaign (after its third try) “splits the baby” and basically says, he was quickly briefed at 7:30, but not enough to speak on it meaningfully and wasn’t fully briefed till later in the day.
Again, Sojourner left little doubt in her voicemail that McDaniel knew. Either she was lying or the candidate was. Regardless, McDaniel’s inmates are running the McDaniel asylum. He apparently has absolutely no control of his press message or the people he has around him.
I don’t think we’ve heard the last of it, but at this point, it almost doesn’t matter. What it has conclusively proven is McDaniel has failed the biggest test of a campaign which is putting good people around him and telling the absolute truth.
As stated on several occasions, the author of this piece has made a reportable campaign contribution this cycle in this race. Please factor that into your reading of this story.