This weekend saw what may be one of the lowest moments in recent American political history–and it doesn’t even indirectly involve Donald Trump. Nope, it may involve a gaggle of rogue staffers with the House Republicans’ campaign arm who may have shopped revenge porn directed at a Democratic congresswoman.
On October 18, the conservative blog RedState published a topless photo of freshman Congresswoman Katie Hill allegedly depicting her alongside a female campaign staffer. This was in support of a story claiming Hill had an affair with that staffer, and also claimed she subsequently had an affair with a congressional staffer. The latter affair would have violated recently enacted House ethics rules against affairs between lawmakers and their employees.
Last week, Hill, who represented a swath of exurban territory north of Los Angeles, admitted to having an “inappropriate” relationship with the campaign staffer “during the final tumultuous years of my abusive marriage,” but adamantly denied having a relationship with any of her congressional staffers. She further claimed that her estranged husband, Kenny Heslep, was responsible for leaking the photos. Hill contends Nevertheless, the House Ethics Committee launched an investigation.
On Sunday, Hill abruptly announced that she would resign from the House at an undisclosed date. She said that while she fully intended to pursue legal action against those responsible for leaking and spreading the photos, she was unwilling to allow those around her to be exposed to “this unprecedented brand of cruelty.” Translation: she was not willing to put innocent third parties in harm’s way.
At first, it appeared that the main villain in this travesty was RedState deputy managing editor Jen Van Laar, who published the story. Simply put, publishing those photos breached every standard of journalistic ethics, morality, and decency that is known. As Moira Donegan of The Guardian put it, by publishing that photo, RedState and the rogue elements who shopped it and other photos “brought the tactics of domestic abuse into our politics.”
There was no defensible reason to include them as supporting evidence for this story. Doing so was not only disgusting and wrong, but may have also been illegal. Distributing revenge porn is a crime in most states, including the District of Columbia and Hill’s state of California.
But on Tuesday night, Playboy’s Washington correspondent, Alex Thomas, revealed that there may be other villains as well. Thomas took to Twitter to tease a story for his independently run newsletter, The Hangover. He’d learned that staffers at the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of the House GOP, had been offered a chance to look at the pictures before RedState got them.
Thomas learned that syndicated radio host Joe Messina, a resident of Hill’s district, had gotten his hands on a tranche of “images, pictures, texts and notes” about Hill. According to Thomas, Hill reached out to the NRCC just before RedState went live with its piece about Hill’s affairs and told his contacts there that he had some naked pictures of Hill.
Thomas further claimed that some of his sources with knowledge of the NRCC’s workings said that staffers there knew about the images before RedState went live–and that Messina had shopped the pictures to them.
The next question is obvious. If Messina really had his hands on those images, why didn’t he call the police? And if Messina shopped those photos to NRCC staffers, why didn’t they call the police? We would rightly be asking the same questions if a liberal host shopped lewd pictures of a Republican lawmaker to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The NRCC, through communications chief Chris Pack, denies having any advance knowledge of the photos.
But given that Messina is on record as stating that he indeed passed the photos to the NRCC, the only plausible conclusion is that a whole lot of somebodies at the NRCC have gone rogue. And that’s probably the kindest term that can be used to describe what happened here.
Think about it, folks. If Thomas is telling the truth, then there are at least some elements at the NRCC who have no problem with invading the privacy of a political opponent. No matter how loathsome a politician may be, there are some things that are simply out-of-bounds.
I make no secret that I despise Trump with a purple passion. And yet, if someone were to send me pictures purporting to show Trump getting after it with Stormy Daniels, I’d be on the phone to the police and/or the FBI in less time than it took to write this sentence. That is the only acceptable response for any journalist or any political operative with an iota of decency. Based on what is known, it looks like a lot of people need to check their moral compasses. And many of those same people better have lawyers on speed dial.
What Thomas has uncovered doesn’t speak well for the environment fostered by the NRCC’s chairman, Tom Emmer of Minnesota–the seventh-ranking Republican in the House. There is something very wrong if anyone can even think he can reach out to a congressional campaign committee with this kind of pigweed.
Public denials aside, Emmer needs to act, and now. He needs to mount a full investigation into whether this happened, and how this was allowed to even get this far. If it turns out that rogue staffers had advance knowledge of this travesty, they must be fired, and possibly referred for prosecution.
If this in fact happened, then as sad as it is to say this, Emmer and his Democratic counterpart, Cheri Bustos, must assure the American people that this will never be allowed to happen again. There is no place in our politics for this kind of rogue behavior. Period.
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