A Trump rally at Radford University in Virginia turned ugly on Monday when Christopher Morris, an award-winning photographer with Time magazine, stepped beyond the bounds of the press pen to snap photos of Black Lives Matter protesters being escorted out of the event.
Video footage from the event appears to show Morris being grabbed and thrown to the ground by a member of the US Secret Service, followed by a tussle between the two men. Once Morris was on the ground, he could be seen kicking back to free himself from the agent. He was subsequently escorted out of the event by several officers.
“I stepped 18 inches out of the [press] pen and then he grabbed me by the neck and started choking me and then he slammed me to the ground,” Morris told Reuters on the scene.
Reporter at Trump Rally accuses SS agent of choking him. pic.twitter.com/Q4oigVt3qf
— Jacqueline Alemany (@JaxAlemany) February 29, 2016
Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks said in a statement after the event the campaign wasn’t aware of any details surrounding the detainment. “There was an incident involving a photographer and a USSS agent at today’s Radford University Trump rally. We are not aware of all details surrounding the incident and all future inquiries should be directed to local law enforcement.”
Morris is not currently pressing charges.
In a statement released Monday afternoon, Time expressed concern about the “level and nature” of the agent’s interaction with Morris, and a spokesperson added: “We are relieved that Chris is feeling OK, and we expect him to be back at work soon.”
The Secret Service in a statement following Monday’s struggle said it was “aware of an incident” that occurred in Radford, suggesting it was still too early for judgement. “At this time, our local field office is working with their law enforcement partners to determine the exact circumstances that led up to this incident. The Secret Service will provide further details as warranted once additional facts surrounding the situation are known.”
Video documentation of the incident is readily available on social media.
Most attendees of Monday’s rally – and even several members of the press – seemed oblivious to the encounter.
Trump supporter Jon Whitman, 38, of Virginia, was seated by the press area but didn’t see anyone get detained. “I didn’t see anything like that,” he said when asked if he had witnessed any physical altercations with the press. “If I remember correctly they were just giving people chances to calm down.” Other attendees, like Josh Neuses, 31, and his friend Travis Shawver, 29, were similarly unaware anything physical had transpired.
It’s not the first time Trump rallies have turned violent, with Trump slow to condemn such physicality. For example, after a Black Lives Matter protester was punched and kicked at an event this fall, Trump said: “Maybe he should have been roughed up because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.”
Since then, Trump’s campaign has advised fans not to physically harm protesters, starting off each rally – including Monday’s at Radford – with a loudspeaker advisory that in the event they encounter a protester, people should hold Trump signs over their head and simply shout “Trump”.
But Monday’s hostile reaction to the press is not entirely shocking given Trump’s position on the media, an institution that, as he notes in practically every campaign speech, he distrusts tremendously. Monday’s scuffle occurred during a speech in which Trump called for putting limits on the press and strengthening liability laws against the media.
Just before Morris was tackled to the ground, Trump called journalists “amazingly dishonest” and “a real problem in this country”. He also told the assembled crowd of more than 3,000 that the institution is less trustworthy than politicians and, by extension, himself.
Secret Service agent choke slams reporter pic.twitter.com/jdsHOlylSB
— Joe Perticone (@JoePerticone) February 29, 2016
This is how reporters are treated at Trump rallies pic.twitter.com/hMxuEoKVeG
— Gabby Morrongiello (@gabriellahope_) February 29, 2016
“I’m dealing with some sleazebags up here,” he said of people in politics. “But I think the press is worse – not all, but about 80%.” And the political press, he added, is “the worst of all”.
Trump went on to argue that the media was particularly unfair in its coverage of him, and said if elected president he would do something to ensure better coverage.
“We want honesty so we’re going to get the laws changed so that the press has to be honest and if they’re not honest, if they say things that are wrong, they can be sued and they’re going to have to correct it and maybe pay penalties and maybe face something. Do you like that idea?”
The crowd cheered wildly. “To me, I think it’s really good.”
In its statement on Monday, Time singled out Trump’s campaign for its authoritarian treatment of reporters. “Unlike other presidential campaigns, which generally allow reporters and photographers to move around at events, Trump has a strict policy requiring reporters and cameramen to stay inside a gated area, which the candidate often singles out for ridicule during his speeches.” Time went on to note that the entrance to these gated areas is often monitored by Secret Service, as it was at Monday’s event.
The event at Radford was packed to capacity and several credentialed members of the media were unable to get past security and attendant police dogs, despite arriving early to the event. Hundreds of fans were also left outside.
Trump’s speech was screened for the assembled masses outside, but many continued to pound the doors to gain entry to the event. At one point, several people climbed onto the roof and had to be shown down by security.
“Let us in! Let us in!” fans chanted whenever hecklers were thrown out of the event.
Meanwhile, inside the venue a member of the press corps who had been going to Trump rallies all week called it the ugliest rally he had ever seen: “Don’t step out of the cage, that’s what you get.” And as members of the press packed up to leave, they kept recounting the story of what happened to Morris, almost as a cautionary tale.
“Careful!” one reporter joked to one another his way out the door. “Don’t step out of the cage.”
In recent days, Trump has come under fire for failing to disavow the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist leader David Duke. Appearing on CNN, Trump later blamed his stumble on a “bad earpiece”, an explanation that has been met with derision by many, including Marco Rubio. “You say, ‘David Duke’ to me, I say, ‘racist’, immediately,” Rubio said Monday.
But at Trump’s Monday rally, nobody seemed too concerned about the Duke incident, if they were even aware of it to begin with.
Marley Holliday, a sophomore at Radford University who had stood in line for two hours to see Trump, said she hadn’t heard about the endorsement from Duke but that she wasn’t surprised Trump was slow to distance himself from Duke and the KKK – rather, it’s par for the course with Trump. “I like the way he thinks financially,” she said of the billionaire mogul, “but on social issues he’s terrible.” For evidence, she cited Trump’s habit of referring to people of Latino origin as “Mexico people”.
So I went to the #Trump rally today. I went with an open mind, hoping to hear his ideas on how he would handle the country if he were president. Instead, I listened to him slander other running candidates and the press. In all, I'd say my perception of Trump hasn't changed. If anything I feel more confident to say #dumptrump In honor of the insane amount of hatred in this mans campaign, here's a video I got of a reporter being choke slammed by a security guy #makeamericahateagain
“You don’t address a group of people like that!” she said indignantly. When asked whether such things would deter her from voting for Trump, however, she demurred. “We’ll see.”
Josh Neuse, who is still choosing between Trump and Ted Cruz but who had come to the rally to voice his support of gun rights, also said the KKK issue wouldn’t sway him one way or the other.
“I don’t really care because it’s such an irrelevant issue,” he said, adding that if he were the one on the campaign trail instead of Trump he’d take support from anyone who offered it. “If I were running for president and someone from the KKK said you have our support, I’d say thanks.”
And Jon Whitman, a military veteran and ardent Trump supporter from northern Virginia, felt similarly. Any hesitancy Trump had in denouncing Duke was likely a matter of “trying to decide how to describe it to the media”, which, Whitman said, has ganged up on Trump quite a bit.
“If I was in that situation I would probably pause and consider how to word things,” he reasoned, adding forcefully: “I 100% do not believe the guy is a racist in anyway. I do not believe he supports racism.”