On Saturday, April 26, at 8:54am, Melanie Sojourner, campaign manager for Mississippi state senator Chris McDaniel’s primary challenge of Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), sent an irate email.
“Someone has created a video about Thad and Kay,” Sojourner wrote in the email, a partially redacted version of which was provided to Breitbart News. “It must come down ASAP. Does anyone know where this came from?”
Sojourner was responding to a video posted online by Clayton Thomas Kelly, 28, a blogger who had been compiling documents and other information about Cochran’s relationship with his executive assistant, Kay Webber.
Kelly was arrested Friday night for illicitly entering the residence of Cochran’s wife Rose at a retirement home in Madison, MS. The photo Kelly allegedly took was in the video that Sojourner said she was angry about.
“If I find out anyone associated with our staff had anything to do with this it is immediate grounds for dismissal,” Sojourner wrote in the April 26 email. “We have to know we cannot engage in these attacks.”
Kelly’s arrest has upended the race between six-term incumbent Cochran and McDaniel, providing Cochran a moment of sympathy when he needed it most, while putting McDaniel on his heels about what he knew and when he knew it.
The incident helped national GOP establishment figures swoop in to attack McDaniel, and offered a public exhibit of an inexperienced grassroots campaign in crisis mode. But the initial war over the incident has operated without a key fact: the McDaniel campaign knew about the video when it came out, and sent out a wide call to aides and volunteers to find the person who posted it and get them to take it down.
Hours later, a campaign aide contacted two local Republican activists who had been posting about the video on social media, who in turn talked to Kelly, relaying the message that the campaign wanted the video down. Kelly complied.
McDaniel’s campaign adamantly denies having any communications with Kelly before he illicitly entered Rose Cochran’s room. But Cochran’s campaign and officials at the National Republican Senatorial Committee are pushing for more information from the campaign after a series of facts undermined its top official’s – including McDaniel’s – insistence they knew nothing the incident when initially asked by the media about it Saturday morning. The police, meanwhile, are analyzing Kelly’s computer to learn who he communicated with before he took the photo.
For months leading up to the break-in, rumors circulated around Washington, D.C., and Mississippi about the relationship between Cochran and longtime aide Webber. Politicos on Capitol Hill inside the halls of Congress and the various GOP campaign committee buildings whispered that it might become an issue in the brutal campaign. Those rumors whizzed around the political world, yet nobody in the press touched it.
Enter Kelly, who often trafficked in conspiracy theories on his low-traffic blog, a review of his writings shows. Interviews suggest he believed, however twisted it might be, he was engaged in journalism. Friends say Kelly was intent on taking rumors about Cochran and Webber mainstream.
First, he compiled a hodgepodge of publicly available documents, news stories and photographs of Webber with Cochran. It’s unclear whether Kelly was aided by research from any outside person, but various opposition research packages on Cochran have been floating around that did not appear to have originated with the McDaniel campaign.
Kelly made an initial video featuring his narration of the facts as he saw them, but friends didn’t think it amounted to much. It was never published, and only a few people saw it.
Undeterred, the Mississippi-based blogger–whose day job is a restaurant manager, according to his Facebook page–set out to get more: He visited Cochran’s wife Rose Cochran’s nursing home in Madison, MS, camera in tow with plans to get a photograph of Rose.
Kelly’s logic? That somehow a photo of Rose Cochran would help make his case, even though it had been widely reported in Mississippi media that she was residing in the retirement home and not in good health.
He was exuberant, blogger friends of his say, when he got in and got out with it: He took the photos and quickly made a new video–this time intended for publication. That video, which he posted online on April 26, contained photographs of Rose Cochran with a feeding tube largely lifeless on her bed.
Kelly thought he was breaking a big story, but Mississippi politicos viewing the video found it horrific. The macabre video spread quickly, was viewed by hundreds of people, and made its way before long to McDaniel operatives, people with knowledge of the situation said.
Those sources described McDaniel aides as being deeply concerned about the video. Only later would they realize that McDaniel had been photographed with Kelly at a campaign event in a routine grip-and-grin shot.
Following Sojourner’s email, the campaign initiated a wide call to aides and volunteers to find the person who posted the video and get them to take it down.
According to documents reviewed by Breitbart News, a campaign aide contacted two local Republican activists who had been posting about the video on social media, who in turn talked to Kelly, relaying the message that the campaign wanted the video down. Kelly complied.
The campaign did not contact Cochran about the video, which included a photo of his wife in her residence, or the police. Officials said they thought the matter was over when Kelly un-published his video.
It wasn’t. After the video was briefly published, a rumor began to spread: there was a photo of Cochran’s wife circulating around the internet and Clayton Kelly was the first man who posted it.
As word about the existence of Kelly’s photographs and video spread, even this reporter learned of it.
Several Mississippi conservative activists not affiliated with the McDaniel campaign told this reporter of the video, how it came to be and what it contained. On May 11, I asked Kelly about the matter on Facebook, the first and only time I contacted him.
“I heard you may have had a video of Rose Cochran,” this reporter wrote to Kelly.
“Yep,” he replied, to my surprise.
“Any way you can send to me?” this reporter followed up.
“I can send you the info, but I don’t want that picture of Rose to get out,” he answered. “I can give you the one of her sign though.”
He followed up by sending a photograph of the sign outside the door to Rose Cochran’s room at St. Catherine’s bearing the name “Rose Cochran.”
The photo, for a variety reasons, was never published. First, it raised legal questions about how it was obtained – questions that seem even more pertinent now that Kelly’s been arrested. But secondly, and more importantly, Rose Cochran’s tragic situation was irrelevant to her senator husband’s public life, and sneaking into her residence to take a photograph of her seemed cruel and even deranged.
Meanwhile, Breitbart News and other media outlets, including the Huffington Post, The Daily Caller, The Hill, and many local outlets–had independently reported on stories about Cochran and Webber, putting Cochran on the defensive.
Cochran listed his official address as a townhouse Webber owns on Capitol Hill on a series of official documents, including multiple statements of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). And Cochan used taxpayer money to take Webber on 33 trips to 42 countries since 2002, travel expense records filed publicly with the U.S. Senate and printed in the Congressional Record over the past decade plus showed.
In a risky and aggressive response, the campaign sent out a spokesman to take McDaniel’s stage after a press conference Thursday to call him a “liar.”
On Thursday, Cochran’s lawyer–who works for the same law firm as Haley Barbour–went to the Madison Police Department with information about this case. Weeks had already passed since the incident first occurred, but as the police noted in their press release, they received the information–which Cochran’s lawyers have taken credit for giving to police–on May 15.
Cochran’s team has not said when they obtained information about the incident or otherwise explained the nearly one-month gap between it and when they contacted the police.
Kelly was arrested for his actions late Friday night. The news hit quickly on political blogs–the Jackson Jambalaya political blog was the first to break it.
Though the Jambalaya’s Friday evening post did not mention the victim of Kelly’s alleged crime, comments that quickly appeared on the blog post suggested a relatively wide universe of Mississippi politicos knew what Kelly did, who he did it to, where and perhaps a bit of why he did it.
Noel Fritsch, McDaniel’s spokesman, said campaign Sojourner–who is, like McDaniel, a state senator–first learned of Kelly’s arrest via blog posts about it around 1 a.m. central time on Saturday. She was “alarmed that it was likely Ms. Cochran who had been photographed based on the preponderance of evidence, including the name of the rest home and the comments on the blog,” Fritsch said in an email.
Fritsch said around 7:30 a.m. central time on Saturday, McDaniel himself “was notified only briefly of the incident and the need to personally reach out to Sen. Cochran.”
Around 7:45 a.m., Sojourner left a voicemail for Cochran’s campaign manager Kirk Simms. According to The Hill, on the voicemail Sojourner “emphasized that their campaign was appalled, and that McDaniel himself was disgusted by Kelly’s actions and wanted to speak to Cochran directly to express his outrage.”
At 9:24 a.m., the Jackson Clarion-Ledger picked up on the story, breaking the news of who the victim of the crime was–Rose Cochran. For an update shortly thereafter to that original 9:24 a.m. story, two McDaniel aides were quoted–both Fritsch and Scott Brewster, McDaniel’s coalition director.
“I’ve never even heard his name,” Fritsch said.
Brewster said he did “remember when it came out,” referring to the video Kelly posted online on April 26 with the photograph of Rose Cochran contained within.
“I think people made some phone calls [to have the video removed],” Brewster said. “I didn’t personally — nobody personally talked to [Kelly]. I don’t know if anybody made phone calls about it. I’m not sure. Just, I remember all of a sudden it was gone.”
The Clarion-Ledger reported in a follow-up story that Fritsch was contacted at 9:47 a.m., and “said he knew nothing about the arrest or news.”
On the campaign trail around 9:30 a.m. that morning, McDaniel was approached by Alex Jaffe, a reporter from The Hill newspaper. Appearing “visibly surprised,” according to Jaffe, McDaniel stated: “I don’t guess I’ve been awake long enough to see what’s happened.”
“Never in a million years would we condone that,” McDaniel added to Jaffe. “Such behavior is appalling. It should never take place. The things that matter in this campaign are his voting record. That’s the only thing that matters.”
During that 9:30 a.m. interview with McDaniel, according to audio obtained by Breitbart News, Jaffe noted that the photograph where McDaniel posed with Kelly during an event “is being blasted out by folks in Washington,” meaning it was being sent by political aides using it to raise questions about McDaniel’s involvement in the issue.
“That’s at that barbecue place where we did that meet and greet in Flowood,” Sojourner told McDaniel and Jaffe as they viewed the photograph on the spot. “That packed barbecue place. See those deer heads?”
“Okay, it does look like a meet and greet,” Jaffe responded.
Cochran’s campaign and NRSC jumped on the series of comments, asking how McDaniel and Fritsch could claim to not know about the arrest when Sojourner had expressed the campaign’s – and McDaniel’s – horror about it in the earlier voicemail.
Indeed, the campaign and its surrogates even went further, suggesting that because the voicemail was left before the original Clarion-Ledger story publicly identified a victim, McDaniel must have had some level of participation in the plot to photograph Rose Cochran.
“If the McDaniel camp had no involvement in Cochran incident how did they know about the arrest before everyone else?” Brian Walsh, a former NRSC spokesman who is paid by the campaign committee as a consultant, tweeted.
The latter charge, given the involved backstory now being made public for the first time, does not seem to have merit. A relatively large universe of people might have, and did, connect the dots about the arrest even without the initial news story naming the victim.
But a more serious question is why Fritsch and McDaniel both said they knew nothing about it, when the campaign had known about the incident and intervened to stop Kelly April 26, three weeks earlier, Sojourner had called earlier that morning to express her and McDaniel’s disgust about it, and according to the campaign, McDaniel had been briefly notified about it that morning.
Under fire, the McDaniel campaign hit back on Saturday afternoon.
“Senator McDaniel has denounced the break-in and called Senator Cochran to extend his condolences,” Fritsch said in a statement released after the attacks. “It is unconscionable for the Cochran campaign and the liberal media to use the act of a sick individual to lob despicable accusations.”
Editors Note: This story has been updated to reflect additional information about how the campaign’s request to take the video down was relayed to Kelly.