Less than three months ago, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens was starring at a Republican fundraiser in Iowa — shaking hands, cracking jokes and building buzz about his White House ambitions.
Now it isn’t clear if the rising Republican star’s political career will survive his second year in office.
He has admitted to an extramarital affair in 2015 and is under criminal investigation over allegations that he tried to blackmail the woman into silence by taking a nude photo of her against her will.
Throughout it all, Greitens remains defiant.
It’s in character for a man who built his political brand on his tough-guy identity as a former Navy SEAL and the idea that, as he told The Star during the 2016 campaign, “on the other side of pain is wisdom. On the other side of suffering is strength.”
The thought of resignation hasn’t crossed his mind, several sources close to the governor’s office told The Star on Friday. Greitens vehemently denies the blackmail allegations and spent much of Thursday trying to reassure his Cabinet, his donors and Republican lawmakers that the worst of the storm had passed.
His attorney is calling the story a “political hit piece.”
But the damage the allegations have done to his ability to govern, as well as to his political ambitions, is hard to calculate.
“An investigation is going to take time,” one high-ranking Republican lawmaker told The Star. “No one knows how long this will go on. So unless something else breaks and that forces him to resign, we’re going to be stuck in a morass for a long time.”
Adding to Greitens’ troubles, the state attorney general’s office on Thursday publicly suggested the governor’s office isn’t cooperating with an ongoing investigation into whether Greitens and his staff illegally destroyed public records by using an app that deletes text messages after they’ve been read.
Republican governors in neighboring states already have begun to publicly distance themselves from Greitens, and GOP legislators in Missouri are holding their breath in the hopes more allegations don’t emerge.
Whether Greitens will follow through with plans to hopscotch around Missouri over the next week to sell his tax cut plan is not clear. Questions about the scandal are dogging Republican officeholders from the statehouse to Congress.
Calls for an investigation have already bogged down the Senate. And in the House, GOP leaders are very much aware that one of the only bills currently eligible for a vote when lawmakers return to work on Tuesday is ethics reform, a topic that could spark some uncomfortable debate.
“We really can’t govern very well with this hanging over our heads,” said state Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican and frequent critic of the governor.
Robynn Kuhlmann, a political scientist at the University of Central Missouri, said Greitens has seen his power weakened by the scandal, which follows a year of infighting with Republicans in the legislature.
“In terms of his position as governor, he’s already had a tenuous relationship with the legislature and members of his own party,” she said. “It’s not going to help with the dearth of the political capital he already has. This might give the legislature a little more freedom to skirt the demands of the agenda that they don’t want.”
The allegations against Greitens, first reported by KMOV in St. Louis, surfaced shortly after he delivered his annual State of the State address Wednesday night. The ex-husband of the woman with whom Greitens had an affair gave the TV station an audio recording of her confessing the affair and accusing Greitens of taking a nude photo of her, blindfolded and with her hands bound, to ensure her silence.
The woman involved in the matter has not made a comment and has repeatedly declined to participate in any stories. The confession was recorded without her knowledge by her ex-husband and released to the media without her consent.
Her attorney released a statement Friday asking the media to respect her privacy.
“Our client is a single mother working hard to raise a family,” the statement said. “She is saddened that during this time of national introspection on the treatment of women in our society, allegations about her private life have been published without her permission.”
The statement did not recant the allegations she made on the recording.
Brad Coker, managing director Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy in Jacksonville, Fla., said the chances Greitens survives the political scandal don’t look good.
“You’ve had plenty of these ones where the wives have stood behind their guy and they’ve hung on,” Coker said, “but in the (MeToo) environment right now, I think there’s almost a zero tolerance policy.”
At some point, Coker said, “common sense says it’s better to cut my losses and walk away. It never gets better. It just gets worse. Given what’s going on right now, it’s only a matter of time before he walks away.”
David Barklage, a veteran GOP campaign consultant who worked for one of Greitens’ opponents in the 2016 gubernatorial primary, told the Associated Press that he doesn’t expect the governor to back down.
“He owes nothing to the party, nothing to the institution and has no reason not to take this to the end and fight it,” Barklage said.
Scandal-plagued governors in other states have held on for years, even as they watch their political capital disappear.
In 2009, then-South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford faced calls for his resignation or impeachment when it was revealed he’d been having an affair, and used state money to do it. He refused to step down, and ended up limping to the end of his term in 2011.
But his political fortunes turned around two years later when he was elected to Congress.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley fought off efforts to force him from office for a year until he finally resigned last April, ultimately pleading guilty to two misdemeanors that stemmed from a sex scandal.
Other than a joint statement with his wife admitting the affair and asking for privacy, Greitens has thus far stayed out of the public eye. His attorney, Jim Bennett, has spoken on the governor’s behalf, shooting down allegations as they emerge.
It was a consensual relationship, Bennett said. There was no illicit photo, no blackmail, no violence and no effort to get the woman to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
“This personal matter has been addressed by the governor and Mrs. Greitens privately years ago when it happened,” Bennett said. “The outrageous claims of improper conduct regarding these almost three-year-ago events are false.”
The key for the governor to survive this scandal is to make sure his first public statement — a denial that anything but a consensual affair occurred — is both truthful and includes any other potentially damaging information that could emerge, said John Hancock, a veteran Republican consultant and former state party chairman.
“While no one (else) knows if there’s anything else that could come out, the governor does,” Hancock said. “You have to make sure any statement you put out includes that, and then you have to go out and actively defend it by making yourself available and answer questions.
“The worst thing you can do during a crisis,” Hancock said, “is hunker down.”