It started with a Tweet that was reported on a blog and, by the time it led to a Monday press conference in Manhattan, the story known as “WeinerGate” was the first full-blown cybersex scandal of the New Media era. And it was perhaps altogether fitting that disgraced Rep. Anthony Weiner had to wait to make his guilty admission while Andrew Breitbart gave an impromptu lecture to the reporters assembled in a ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel.
“Everything we’ve reported about this story has been true,” said Breitbart, whose BigGovernment.com was first to tell how, late on the night of May 27, the Democratic congressman from New York’s 9th District had used Twitter to send a 21-year-old college coed a message that included a photo of Weiner’s underwear-clad crotch in a condition of obvious arousal. After ten days of denials from Weiner, ABC News was prepared to air new revelations and the congressman was at last ready to confess. Breitbart showed up at the Sheraton and was asked by reporters to speak, ascending the podium to declare: “Quite frankly, I’d like an apology from [Weiner] for being complicit in a blame-the-messenger strategy.”
For more than a week, Weiner’s liberal defenders tried to claim that Breitbart, a controversial and confrontational conservative media entrepreneur, had somehow orchestrated a smear of the Brooklyn Democrat. But as soon as the congressman admitted the ugly truth, many of those in the press who had been willing to accept his previous lies suddenly turned their attention to another question: How can Weiner survive this scandal? “I think he will stick this out,” Maggie Haberman of Politico told Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC last night.
Before we examine the question of Weiner’s political survival, however, let us pause a moment to ask: Why should Haberman or O’Donnell expect anyone to believe their predictions? Haven’t they spent the past ten days being wrong, wrong, wrong, while Breitbart was right, right, right? Didn’t MSNBC and Politico, along with most other media outlets, credulously repeat Weiner’s claim that his Twitter account had been “hacked”? Did Haberman or O’Donnell protest when Joan Walsh of Salon accused Breitbart himself of being the hacker? And didn’t Weiner, by attempting to stonewall his way through the scandal, enable those who smeared Breitbart? Indeed, wasn’t Weiner betting on the media’s liberal bias as his hole card in a high-stakes bluff?
As badly as Weiner was damaged by this scandal, the damage was perhaps nearly as bad for his apologists and defenders in what Breitbart calls “the Democrat media complex.” Their credibility was among the chief casualties of the bruising battle that began late on a Friday night, when a public message appeared on Weiner’s Twitter account (@RepWeiner), addressed to a student at a community college in Bellingham, Washington, who had previously joked that she was the congressman’s “girlfriend.” Potentially visible to the more than 40,000 people following his Twitter feed, the message included a link to the now-notorious crotch photo. A few minutes later, Weiner deleted the photo and claimed to be a victim of hackers. By then, however, the message and lewd photo had been seen and copied by several of Weiner’s political adversaries, who sent a copy to Breitbart. Within a few hours, the editors of BigGovernment.com had posted a story headlined: “Weinergate: Congressman Claims ‘Facebook Hacked’ as Lewd Photo Hits Twitter.” After that story became a sensation in the blogosphere, the congressman’s spokesman issued a denial, and the intended recipient of his message also issued her own statement to the New York Daily News. After the three-day Memorial Day weekend, Weiner returned to the Capitol and melted down when CNN producer Ted Barrett demanded an answer to the question conservative bloggers had been asking for days: If he was the victim of hackers, why hadn’t Weiner reported this illegal intrusion to law enforcement? Weiner provided no plausible answer to that question and, in a series of media interviews the next day, refused even to deny “with certitude” that he was the man in the underwear photo.
Weiner looked very guilty in those interviews, but his defenders at liberal blogs like the Daily Kos continued to spin theories of how Weiner’s Twitter account could have been hacked, and continued to blame Breitbart for what they said was a manufactured controversy. While the New York tabloids had a field day with the story, the WeinerGate scandal made only one appearance on the front page of the Washington Post (at the bottom of the page) and by the end of the week, it seemed most major news organizations were ready to “move on,” as Weiner had been urging. Unfortunately for the congressman and his media allies, Breitbart had other ideas. Monday morning, he began publishing photos that Weiner had e-mailed to a woman subsequently revealed to be 26-year-old single mother Meagan Broussard, who was also talking to ABC News. When Weiner announced his Monday afternoon press conference, many expected the seven-term Democrat to resign. He refused to do so, but his public confession was a doozy.
“Last Friday night, I tweeted a photograph of myself that I intended to send as a direct message as part of a joke to a woman in Seattle,” said Weiner, whose wife is a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He occasionally choked back tears as he continued: “Once I realized I had posted it to Twitter, I panicked. I took it down and said that I had been hacked. I then continued with that story — to stick to that story, which was a hugely regrettable mistake.… To be clear, the picture was of me, and I sent it.… In addition, over the past few years, I have engaged in several inappropriate conversations conducted over Twitter, Facebook, email and occasionally on the phone with women I had met online. I’ve exchanged messages and photos of an explicit nature with about six women over the last three years.”
Weiner’s apologetic performance — by one count, he “took responsibility” 21 times in the span of a half-hour — was painful to watch, as he described the “online relationships” that had jeopardized his marriage and his political career. Two key aspects of his press-conference statements immediately raised further questions. First, he denied that he “used any government resources” in his activities with the women, although that was directly contradicted by Ms. Broussard’s account that when she returned his call, she reached his congressional office. Secondly, Weiner was asked about reports that some of his tawdry online exchanges were with girls as young as 16. “At least to the best of my knowledge they were all adults… and they were engaging in these conversations consensually.”
Those answers are likely to come under intense scrutiny in coming days, as reporters follow up on the many allegations that — until Weiner’s confession Monday — some of them had been willing to believe were part of a smear operation led by Breitbart. Weiner insisted he had done nothing illegal, but House Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi called for an ethics investigation, a call that was seconded by Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. These were the most ominous portents for Weiner, who is apt to face heavy pressure from Democrats to resign soon. While it is unlikely that any Republican could ever win in Weiner’s district, it is even more unlikely that his fellow Democrats would want Weiner hanging around Congress while a full-blown investigation continues generating lurid headlines.
Those headlines will be amplified online by Breitbart, whose relentlessness in pushing the WeinerGate story did so much to ensure that the truth came out. Although he lives in Los Angeles, Breitbart explained his presence at the congressman’s New York press conference by saying that he was in town to promote his new book Righteous Indignation. He had been scheduled for an interview that was canceled because of Weiner’s press conference, so Breitbart walked five blocks to the Sheraton and unexpectedly found himself on stage answering questions.
It was just “happenstance,” Breitbart told reporters. Or perhaps it was karma.