U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill’s campaign pilloried Attorney General Josh Hawley on Friday after he cleared Gov. Eric Greitens’ office in an investigation into its use of a private messaging app.
The attacks from McCaskill’s campaign and other Democratic organizations signal how Hawley, the GOP's top recruit to challenge McCaskill in the 2018 Senate race, could be yoked to fellow Republican Greitens as the scandal-plagued governor grapples with investigations in Jefferson City and St. Louis.
McCaskill’s campaign noted that Greitens was not interviewed for the Confide investigation and that there was no forensic examination of the electronic devices used by the governor’s staff.
“He wasn’t even willing to challenge the Governor’s ability to hide behind ‘executive privilege.’ This wasn’t a real investigation,” Meira Bernstein, McCaskill’s spokeswoman, said in a statement. “How can any of his investigations be taken seriously after this?”
The governor’s office, which received a copy the report, announced the results of the investigation before a planned released by the attorney general’s office.
The governor's statement came shortly after Hawley’s office announced that it was opening a separate inquiry into the Mission Continues, a charity founded by the Greitens.
“The Attorney General's handling of this investigation and his decision to provide the report to the Governor and not the public has lost him all credibility with the people of Missouri,” Bernstein said.
Hawley’s office had previously provided Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democrat, with a copy of an investigation into her office before releasing that to the wider public.
Loree Anne Paradise, spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, said executive privilege was asserted by the governor's office before investigators were in a position to even request an interview with Greitens.
The attorney general’s office has limited authority when investigating potential Sunshine Law violations in cases like these, she said.
“The Sunshine Law legislation recently filed in the House would address this issue in two ways,” Paradise said. “One, if would give the AGO subpoena power. Two, it would create criminal penalties, thereby giving us authority, for example, to involve the MSHP (Missouri State Highway Patrol).”
She also said that Hawley's office is "not aware of any mechanism for recovering Confide messages."
Hawley’s office interviewed eight Greitens staff members about their use of the private messaging app Confide after a series of stories published by The Star last year about the governor’s use of the app, which deletes texts after a recipient reads them.
The Greitens staffers maintained that they did not use the app for substantive public business. Hawley’s office accepted this testimony as credible, but also noted that because of the nature of Confide it could not find any evidence to corroborate or contradict it.
"Hawley has to walk a political tightrope,” said Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Missouri. “As attorney general he cannot afford to be seen as going soft on Greitens. But as a candidate for the GOP senate nomination he can ill afford to alienate a swath of Republican voters.”
Squire said that both Greitens and Hawley burst onto the political scene in 2016 by presenting themselves as young, conservative outsiders “ready to take on the Jefferson City establishment.”
“In many ways they tried to tap the same disenchantment and disillusionment with politics felt by voters,” Squire said. “Given this it would not be surprising if voters do not distinguish between them. And that, of course, is now a political problem for Hawley."
In addition to Hawley’s newly announced investigation into the governor’s charity, Greitens also faces the prospect of criminal trial in St. Louis and a legislative investigation over allegations that he photographed a partially nude woman without her consent in 2015 in an effort to keep from speaking about their extramarital affair.
The various controversies raise the political stakes of any investigation Hawley conducts.
“The best he can hope is that Greitens’ problems will be resolved quickly, one way or the other,” Squire said. “If the situation drags on, or more problems surface, it will remind voters about the risks they take when they elect inexperienced candidates who have not been thoroughly vetted."
John Hancock, a former chair of the Missouri Republican Party, said Hawley’s willingness to investigate the governor should help inoculate him from the controversy.
“He’s taking investigations as they come,” Hancock said. “I think as long as Josh does his job and is perceived to be doing his job, I don’t think any of the taint from the Greitens situation will openly affect him.”
However, Hancock said that the drama surrounding Greitens could hurt overall Republican turnout in the fall, which would affect all GOP campaigns, including Hawley’s.
“When any party has a prominent figure that is a source of controversy, what happens is the members of that person’s party end up having to stake out a position,” Hancock said. “In a case like this, some Republicans are going to be supportive of Gov. Greitens and some are going to say he needs to go. And by definition that rips the party in two.”
The Missouri Democratic Party blasted Hawley’s Confide probe as insufficient and insinuated that the governor had a role in that.
"Missourians have a right to know to what extent is the Governor influencing Hawley's decisions, and why Hawley believes it's appropriate to conduct an investigation in this manner,” Brooke Goren, the party’s spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Bernstein on Thursday also derided the announcement of the investigation into Greitens’ charity and contrasted Hawley with St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, the Democratic prosecutor leading a criminal investigation into the governor.
“Real prosecutors are now looking at the Greitens charity and his campaign,” Bernstein said.
McCaskill has previously been hesitant to comment on the criminal investigation into Greitens.
“Because I have been a prosecutor, I think it is inappropriate for me to comment on any criminal case that is ongoing,” McCaskill told The Star on Tuesday. “We’re trained over and over again that you should not comment on a criminal case that is pending, and this one certainly is, so I’m not going to comment.”
Hawley’s campaign accused McCaskill of hypocrisy after her campaign referenced the investigation.
"Senator McCaskill is speaking out of both sides of her mouth," said Kelli Ford, Hawley’s campaign spokeswoman. "On one hand she doesn’t want to politicize it, but her party and her campaign are doing just that. Josh will continue to focus on the facts and not play politics — but it’s clear Claire McCaskill is only interested in scoring political points.”
In addition to the attacks from McCaskill’s campaign and the state party, Senate Majority PAC, a political action committee tied to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, launched a $500,000 ad campaign linking Hawley to the Greitens scandal.
The ad opens with TV news footage about the governor’s indictment before pivoting to Hawley. The Democratic-aligned PAC has already spent millions on McCaskill’s behalf this cycle.
“Schumer is taking a prominent role in these efforts because he wants to keep Claire McCaskill’s vote in his back pocket,” Ford said in an email.