Missouri Republicans appear on the verge of a civil war roughly half a year ahead of an election that could decide control of the U.S. Senate.
Attorney General Josh Hawley, the party’s leading recruit to take on incumbent Democrat U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill in November, announced Tuesday that his office had uncovered evidence of potential criminal activity by Republican Gov. Eric Greitens after an investigation into the Missouri governor’s charity, The Mission Continues.
"This office will not be intimidated and we will not be deterred," Hawley said Tuesday.
The Missouri Republican Party was silent on the emerging conflict between the state’s embattled Republican governor and the party’s top recruit for the U.S. Senate race.
Party elders, on the other hand, objected to Greitens’ attack on Hawley.
“I don't think the governor should attack the attorney general for doing his job,” said U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who backs Hawley’s candidacy.
Blunt stopped short of calling for Greitens’ resignation or impeachment.
John Hancock, a former state GOP chair, said Greitens’ presence divides the party as some members have stuck by the governor and others have called for his removal from office.
“It doesn’t appear to me that’s a concern of Eric Greitens,” said Hancock, who has called for Greitens to step down.
“Josh Hawley is simply doing his job, and it is beyond explicable to me how the governor would attack his own attorney general who is simply doing his job.”
Hancock said the sooner Greitens leaves office, the less the conflict will affect the fall election. But Greitens has shown no indications that he plans to leave office willingly.
Neither President Donald Trump's office nor Vice President Mike's Pence office commented on Hawley's announcement. Pence, who has ties to Greitens, helped recruit Hawley into the Senate race, and Trump held a fundraiser for Hawley last month in St. Louis.
Political scientists struggled to think of a precedent for the situation facing Missouri Republicans.
“It is very hard to sort of imagine these circumstances ever really happening. It is just a very strange world,” said Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Missouri.
“But I think Hawley is clearly doing what’s in his political interests given his Senate campaign. And I think he’s also doing what most of the Republicans in Jefferson City want him to do, which is to force the governor from office as soon as possible.”
A growing number of GOP lawmakers have called on Greitens to step down or have voiced support for his impeachment, but Greitens has continued to crisscross the state to appear at GOP events and reach out to the party’s base.
Austin Petersen, one of Hawley’s opponents for the GOP nomination for Senate, echoed the criticism from Greitens legal team, who called on Hawley to drop the probe after he urged Greitens to resign because of unrelated allegations of sexual coercion and physical abuse facing the governor.
“Last week, Hawley inappropriately used his office to score political points by calling the Governor's alleged actions ‘impeachable’ and calling on the Governor to resign. Now he's on a crusade to remove the Governor from office, or he risks his own political future,” Petersen said in a statement.
“Hawley's compromised himself, and now it's very difficult to take the actions of his office at face value. Due process must be allowed to proceed for the Governor, and those attempting to use this as an opportunity to score political points should be ashamed of themselves.”
Democrats have attacked Hawley for not taking action against Greitens sooner regarding allegations that he illegally obtained and used his former charity’s donor list for political fundraising.
They zeroed in on Hawley’s statement that the statute of limitations on the alleged crime is nearing.
"We're glad that Hawley has come out of hiding to acknowledge the existing evidence of criminal behavior of the Governor. However, the sad truth is that this shows gross incompetence on the part of the Attorney General,” said McCaskill campaign spokeswoman Meira Bernstein.
“The evidence in this case has been publicly available since October 2016 — what excuse could Josh Hawley possibly have for failing to pursue an investigation and allowing this evidence to languish for over a year? The only reason the statute of limitations is now a problem in this case is because Hawley was trying to protect his friend and large donor for as long as possible."
The Missouri Democratic Party echoed this criticism.
State Democratic chair Stephen Webber, a Marine Corps veteran, said Hawley had failed to protect veterans by not launching a probe into Greitens' charity sooner. The statute of limitations on the alleged crime runs out April 22.
“Greitens’ crimes being in danger of hitting the statute of limitations can only be explained by the incompetence of Attorney General Hawley, or his decision, until it became untenable, to shield a political ally instead of protecting America's veterans,” Webber said.
Hawley's office said in a statement that it lacks criminal jurisdiction, but because it has jurisdiction over charitable activities, it decided to launch the probe in February "when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported new evidence that raised the possibility that The Mission Continues itself had been involved in or aided political activities.”
Squire said Hawley’s announcement that his office had uncovered wrongdoing dilutes the Democratic talking point that he’s not been aggressive enough in investigating Greitens.
He said that if Hawley weren't running for a higher office, he might have been “a little less vigorous and a little less open” about the investigation into the charity, but that he “might have still arrived at the same conclusion.”
James Harris, a GOP strategist, said Hawley’s decision to announce the evidence against Greitens “reaffirms what he pledged to Missouri voters that he would be impartial and he would expose corruption and pursue the truth.”
“Politically, it takes away a criticism from Claire McCaskill and Democrats that he’s looking away from potential criminal activity,” he added.
Hancock said that the evidence uncovered by Hawley’s office deserves to be investigated, but he said it’s unfortunate that any prosecution on the alleged offense would have to come from St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, the same prosecutor heading up the investigation into Greitens’ alleged felony invasion of privacy of a woman in 2015.
“It makes it more likely that there’s going to be a fumble on the play,” Hancock said.
Greitens linked Gardner and by extension Hawley to Soros, a popular bogeyman on the right. Meanwhile, one of Hawley’s supporters in the legislature linked Greitens’ legal team to McCaskill.
Rep. Nick Schroer, an O’Fallon Republican, sent his fellow Republican lawmakers an email noting that Ed Dowd, one of Greitens’ attorneys, had given money to McCaskill in the past.
“Now he’s going after the candidate who will unseat her in 2018,” he said in the email, which was obtained by the Star.
The Star's Lindsay Wise and Jason Hancock contributed to this report.