State Sen. Chris McDaniel (R-Miss.) did initially call for a video concerning Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R-Miss.) personal relationships to be taken down, but he says he didn’t know the specifics of the tape.
A McDaniel campaign source tells The Hill that McDaniel indicated to his campaign manager, Melanie Sojourner, that he wanted the video taken down, and she sent out an email to staff telling them if they knew who was behind the video they should pass along the message.
The video in question was posted by an apparent McDaniel supporter, Clayton Kelly, on his political blog on April 26 and included footage of Cochran’s infirm and bedridden wife that may have been taken illegally.
Kelly was arrested last Friday on a charge of exploiting a vulnerable adult. The video, and who in the McDaniel campaign knew about it and when, has become a focal point of the contentious Mississippi Senate race in the final stretch of the primary. Supboenas have reportedly been issued to apparent suspects in the scheme, and the police have indicated they’re investigating whether others may have been involved.
McDaniel’s statement aligns with comments Kelly’s wife, Tara, made to the Hattiesburg American. She said her husband received notice that McDaniel wanted the video taken down.
“The video was up for about an hour and a half when Clayton received word, either through Facebook or the phone, I’m not sure, that ‘the big man,’ meaning Chris McDaniel, wanted it taken down. The exact words, I remember Clayton told me, were ‘the big man himself says take it down.’ Clayton was already going to take it down, but did so at that time,” she said.
Cochran’s campaign has questioned when McDaniel knew about the video because, when confronted with the news of Kelly’s arrest Saturday morning, he appeared surprised, telling The Hill that he hadn’t been up early enough to see a report in the Clarion-Ledger on the situation.
But a voicemail his campaign manager left Cochran’s campaign manager earlier that morning contradicted that, indicating McDaniel had heard about it, was appalled and wanted to speak directly to Cochran about it contradicted McDaniel’s apparent surprise.
On local radio Tuesday, McDaniel explained that he had been briefed only on the basics by his campaign manager, Melanie Sojourner, when awoken by her call at 7:30 that morning.
“I was asleep, I slept a little late and the phone call awakened me, and basically she said some things about Mrs. Cochran and I said, ‘Woah, stop right there.’ I said, ‘You know our campaign’s position in regards to that,’ ” he said.
He continued: “For years we’ve all in this state heard various rumors about politicians. From Day 1 it was our campaign’s intention to never, not for a second, become scandalous, salacious or to get into those issues. Senator Cochran has a 42-year record of liberalism. That was our focus, it always has been. I’ve had this conversation with Melanie, she knows how I feel about it and she knows how sensitive this issue is.”
Conservative blogs have picked up speculation that Cochran is having a romantic relationship with his longtime executive assistant, Kay Webber, the “rumor” McDaniel referred to and one that has drawn renewed attention among conservatives in Mississippi in recent weeks because of reports concerning Cochran’s travel with Webber.
Some have speculated the rumors surrounding Cochran’s personal life informed Kelly’s stunt. And Tara Kelly told the Hattiesburg American that he did in fact receive “tips from someone on the internet that Thad Cochran was having an affair” with a staffer.
“They gave him information as to where Rose Cochran was staying, as well as other information pointing to the infidelity,” Kelly said. “I wish I could tell you the names of these people on the Internet that gave my husband this information. But I don’t know and can only hope it comes out who they are.”
McDaniel has repeatedly disavowed any knowledge of or influence on the taping of the video, and did so again on Tuesday.
“I’m gonna tell you, our people have nothing to do with this,” he said.
McDaniel did not respond to a question on whether he’d drop out of the race if it turned out that a staffer was in fact behind the video.
There’s currently no evidence McDaniel or any of his team inspired the video, but the discrepancies in the timeline surrounding who knew what when have given the Cochran campaign and national Republicans ammunition.
And Tara Kelly said in the Hattiesburg American that she believes the McDaniel campaign has lied about the video.
“It seems they lied,” Tara Kelly said. “They said they didn’t know anything about it, then another guy says that they did.”
But McDaniel is firing back at Cochran’s campaign, questioning why the senator’s lawyers held onto information about the video for two weeks or more after the campaign tipped them off to it.
“If someone were to break into, or come into, or acquire a picture of my mom, or my wife in a nursing home, I don’t wait three weeks to file charges. I don’t wait two weeks from the primary day to file charges. I file charges that day,” McDaniel said on Tuesday.
“Anybody with any sense recognizing the severity of that activity…you don’t wait three weeks to go charge it to the police officers, you do it three hours later.”
Cochran is facing the fight of his career to hold onto his seat. A new survey out from a pro-McDaniel group showed the race to be within the margin of error, with McDaniel up four.