Political violence dominated the presidential race once again Tuesday as Florida police charged Donald Trump’s campaign manager with battery on accusations of grabbing a reporter’s arm and bruising her as she tried to interview the Republican front-runner after a news conference.
Trump stood by his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, and attacked the credibility of the accuser, reporter Michelle Fields, who was working for the conservative news outlet Breitbart when the incident occurred on March 8.
Police in Jupiter, Fla., released a video that appears to show Lewandowski yanking Fields as Trump walks through a crowd at the Trump National Golf Club, contradicting Lewandowski’s earlier statement that he never touched her.
“How do you know those bruises weren’t there before?” Trump asked reporters on his private jet before a hotel rally Tuesday in this small city in southern Wisconsin.
Police said Fields’ forearm showed “what appeared to be several finger marks indicating a grabbing-type injury.” Fields had posted a photo of her bruised arm on Twitter.
“If somebody squeezed your arm or hurt you, wouldn’t you start screaming or something?” Trump asked supporters at the rally. “Did you see any change in her face?”
Trump’s rivals pounced on the news, saying it reflected the coarse nature of the New York business mogul’s campaign.
“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; it has no place in our democracy,” said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Trump’s chief rival for the Republican nomination.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, another Republican contender, said that if he were in Trump’s place, he would probably fire Lewandowski. “The report is that he grabbed somebody, and frankly that’s totally and completely inappropriate,” he said.
Hillary Clinton, the top Democrat in the race, accused Trump of “inciting violent behavior and aggressive behavior that … is very dangerous.”
“The reporter who brought the charge deserves a lot of credit for following through on the way she was physically handled at an event,” Clinton told reporters in La Crosse, Wis.
The furor over Lewandowski erupted as the candidates were crisscrossing Wisconsin ahead of the state’s April 5 presidential primary.
As hundreds of protesters gathered outside Trump’s rally Tuesday and denounced him as a bigot, Janesville police called in reinforcements from across southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. The police wanted to avert the kind of near-riot that broke out this month in Chicago when Trump canceled a rally there.
In North Carolina and Arizona, police have arrested Trump supporters who were videotaped punching hecklers at his rallies. Lewandowski was captured on video grabbing the collar of a protester at a Trump rally in Tucson.
The pattern of violence has distracted Trump, but there is no sign that it has diminished the loyalty of his predominantly white blue-collar supporters.
In Janesville, Trump told a packed hotel ballroom that Wisconsin had lost 70,000 jobs to China and was squandering tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on immigrants in the country illegally. He also trashed the record of Wisconsin’s Republican governor, former White House contender Scott Walker, who endorsed Cruz on Tuesday.
“Cruz likes to pretend he’s an outsider — in the meantime, he gets all the establishment support, including your governor,” Trump said to a round of applause.
The upheaval that Trump has caused in his party was on stark display as he asked how the crowd liked House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, whose hometown is Janesville. A loud swell of boos filled the room.
“Wow, I was told, ‘Be nice to Paul Ryan,’” Trump said.
Trump went on to defend Lewandowski and questioned Fields’ account. He told the crowd that Fields had grabbed or hit his arm — “Can I press charges?” he asked on Twitter — and alleged that she changed her story.
Fields denied grabbing the candidate, and the videotape does not show her doing so. “Seriously, just stop lying,” she tweeted.
Lewandowski, 41, went to Jupiter police headquarters Tuesday morning, a police spokesman said, and was issued a summons for misdemeanor battery.
He was charged under a Florida misdemeanor statute that includes both causing bodily harm and “intentionally” touching or striking someone against their will. He is scheduled to appear in court on May 4.
The Trump campaign said Lewandowski was “absolutely innocent,” would plead not guilty and looked forward to his day in court.
Breitbart, a conservative news website that has strongly supported Trump for much of the campaign, at first said it stood by Fields and asked for an apology — but later published a story that suggested Fields was mistaken and might have been grabbed by someone else.
Fields resigned in protest, along with the site’s editor and other staffers, who said the site had abandoned its journalistic principles.
Finnegan reported from Janesville, Wis., and Tanfani from Washington. Times staff writers Chris Megerian in Waukesha, Wis., and Kurtis Lee in Los Angeles contributed to this report