Donald Trump’s campaign director Tuesday hired one of the country’s top defense lawyers after he was charged with battery connected to a confrontation with a reporter in Florida three weeks ago.
Trump, the billionaire businessman and Republican presidential front-runner, said his campaign chief had done nothing wrong in the March 8 encounter with Michelle Fields, then a reporter for the conservative Breitbart News website.
“Wow, Corey Lewandowski, my campaign manager and a very decent man, was just charged with assaulting a reporter,” Trump said in a tweet. “Look at the tapes – nothing there!”
In later interviews with reporters aboard his campaign plane, he questioned Fields’ account of what took place. “How do you know those bruises weren’t there before?” he said. “Wouldn’t you think that she would have yelled out a scream, or something, if she had bruises on her arm?”
Trump reaffirmed his support for Lewandowski during an interview on CNN, though other aspects of the exchange were likely to make headlines on their own. For example, Trump he would support Japan and South Korea developing nuclear weapons as a safeguard against North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
He also defended his actions in a spat with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that began when an anti-Trump PAC used a nude photo of Trump’s wife, Melania, in an Internet ad, and Trump responded by tweeting menacing remarks about Heidi Cruz, the senator’s wife.
“I didn’t start it,” Trump said.
Police in Jupiter, Florida, where the incident took place at one of Trump’s golf clubs, released a security-camera video that appears to show Lewandowski grabbing Fields by the arm.
“Lewandowski . . . grabbed Fields’ left arm with his right hand, causing her to turn and step back,” Marc Bujnowski of the Jupiter Police Department wrote in a court affidavit.
Trump’s campaign expressed confidence that Lewandowski would be exonerated. “He will enter a plea of not guilty and looks forward to his day in court,” campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks said in a statement.
Jupiter police said Lewandowski turned himself in at 8:10 a.m. after he was told of the charge in a phone call.
Florida law defines battery as having occurred when someone “actually and intentionally touches or strikes another person against the will of the other.” The misdemeanor crime carries a maximum sentence of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The campaign hired Kendall Coffey, a prominent defense attorney and former top federal prosecutor in Miami, to represent Lewandowski, along with Scott Richardson, a West Palm Beach lawyer.
Democrats pounced on the case. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, while declining to comment specifically about the charge, accused Trump of inciting violence at his rallies, while other Democrats used the criminal filing to press their claim that the Republican Party’s policies are anti-woman.
“The charges against Trump’s top campaign leadership confirms what we have known for years – that the Republican Party doesn’t stand alongside women,” said Shu-Yen Wei, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee.
The DNC, whose chair is Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, Florida, also criticized Trump’s remaining rivals for the GOP nomination, noting that Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas had opposed 2012 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and Ohio Gov. John Kasich last month signed a bill eliminating state funding for Planned Parenthood.
Cruz, however, also criticized Trump.
“Unfortunately, this abusive behavior seems to be part of the culture of the Trump campaign,” said Catherine Frazier, a Cruz campaign spokeswoman. “Personal attacks, verbal attacks and now physical attacks have no place in politics or anywhere else in our society.”
Trump had just completed a news conference after primary wins in Michigan, Mississippi and Hawaii on March 8 when Fields asked him a question about affirmative action.
Fields, who’s 28, said that was when Lewandowski grabbed her and forcefully pulled her away from Trump as she was interviewing him at Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter. She later tweeted photographs showing black-and-blue bruises on her arm that she said she’d sustained in the incident.
Several videos of the encounter between Lewandowski and her, shot from different angles, appear to show some sort of confrontation but do not provide a definitive view. Lewandoski denied on Twitter that anything had occurred: “You are totally delusional. I never touched you. As a matter of fact, I have never even met you.”
But Fields’ version of the event was backed by Washington Post reporter Ben Terris, who wrote a first-person article in which he claimed to have witnessed Lewandowski yanking Fields’ arm and pulling her away from Trump. A video that was made public Tuesday seemed to support that version.
The incident also gained attention when Breitbart seemed to distance itself from her account. Fields and one of her editors quit Breitbart on March 13, saying their bosses had failed to defend her adequately against the Trump campaign’s counterclaims.
Coffey did not return phone calls requesting comment. A former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, he’s become one of the region’s most prominent defense attorneys in the two decades since he was forced to resign over an exotic dancer’s claims that he had bitten her on the arm. Coffey, whose office had lost a major drug case several days before the incident, did not ultimately face charges.
He was part of then-Vice President Al Gore’s legal team during the court fight over the results of the 2000 presidential election. Earlier that year, he represented Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez in the high-profile custody battle over the Cuban boy.
Lesley Clark and William Douglas contributing to this report.
James Rosen: 202-383-0014; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose