The flailing 2020 presidential campaign of former Rep. Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke (D-TX) claimed Wednesday that a staffer ejected Breitbart News senior editor-at-large Joel Pollak from a speech at Benedict College, a historically black college, to protect black students.
In a statement Wednesday, O’Rourke’s press secretary, Aleigha Cavalier, attempted to defend against the growing controversy stemming from Pollak’s removal, claiming that while the candidate “believes in the right to a free press,” Breitbart News “walks the line between being news and a perpetrator of hate speech.”
“Given this particular Breitbart employee’s previous hateful reporting and the sensitivity of the topics being discussed with students at an HBCU, a campaign staffer made the call to ask him to leave to ensure that the students attending the event felt comfortable and safe while sharing their experiences as young people of color,” the statement added.
>@joelpollak of Breitbart reported that he'd been ejected from an event by the O'Rourke campaign bc he'd been "disruptive" at previous events. https://t.co/RSNYTXjBUE I asked O'Rourke campaign for its side of the story and got this statement from Aleigha Cavalier: pic.twitter.com/3pNkZrek8Y
— ErikWemple (@ErikWemple) August 28, 2019
This reporter was standing along the side of a lecture hall in the basement of the Henry Pinder Fine Arts Humanities Center, waiting for the event to start, together with roughly 200 students and college staff members. Other news outlets had set up cameras in the back of the room.
Several minutes after the 3:00 p.m. event had been scheduled to begin, a staff member in a Beto O’Rourke t-shirt approached this reporter and asked what outlet I represented. Upon reading the press credential on my chest, he put a hand on my shoulder and said, cheerfully, “Oh, hey. All right.”
A few minutes later, before the event began, a campus police officer approached this reporter and motioned for me to accompany him to the back of the room, adding that I should bring any property I had with me. In the hallway outside, he informed me that I was to leave.
A different member of the O’Rourke campaign staff, who said his name was “Steven” and would not give a last name, said that I was being ejected because I had been “disruptive” at past events.
The incident occurred one day after a press gaggle in which Pollak politely asked O’Rourke whether misquoting President Donald Trump’s comments on the 2017 protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, was in line with his promise to not “inflame” divisions in the U.S.
The exchange went as follows:
Breitbart News: The president, Trump, after Charlottesville, said that he condemned the white supremacists and the neo-Nazis “totally.” Are you aware that you are misquoting him, or partially quoting him — not quoting the full extent of his remarks in Charlottesville? Are you concerned that that might inflame tensions rather than heal divisions?
Beto O’Rourke: No. I believe in the truth, and in being honest about what the president was doing. And it’s not just that he referred to Klansmen as “very fine people,” it’s that he attempted to ban all people of one religion from this country. We’re constantly warned of an “invasion” of killers, and rapists, and animals, from Central America and Mexico, though we know that they commit crimes at a far lower rate than those who are born in this country. This is a very coordinated attack on minorities in this country, on the most vulnerable and the defenseless, for political gain for the president. And he knows full well that it not only offends our sensibilities as a country, it is leading to violence and the taking of lives, as we saw in El Paso.
Breitbart News: But he said that he wasn’t referring to the neo-Nazis and the Klansman — just a clarification — he said he wasn’t referring to the Klansmen as “very fine people,” that he was referring to non-violent protesters, left and right.
Beto O’Rourke: He has openly courted the support of white supremacists and that’s a matter of fact and a matter of record. He has repeatedly, though given the opportunity, refused to disavow their support. I reference — and you can check the tape on this one — at a rally in Florida in May, when someone says, “Shoot them!”, referring to immigrants, he laughs and smiles and he joked about that. If that is not a total failure of leadership, and a total inducement to violence and hatred, I don’t know what is. And you can also check a rise in hate crimes in this country, every single year that he’s been a candidate, or in office, and in fact in those counties that hosted a Trump rally, you saw a more than 200% increase in hate crimes there. He is very much responsible for much of the violence, the hatred, and the racism that you see in this country.
The above transcript of the civil exchange between Pollak and O’Rourke shows the candidate made several false or misleading comments. Namely, O’Rourke claimed President Trump praised neo-Nazis at the Charlottesville protest as “very fine people” even though he specifically condemned them at a press conference addressing the deadly event. The president has also repeatedly disavowed the support of white supremacists, condemning the extremist ideology as recent as this month during a speech on the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
Ironically, the O’Rourke campaign’s removal of Pollak goes against another pledge the Texas Democrat has made: to protect press freedom. In an MSNBC town hall last year, O’Rouke said of his pledge: “If we don’t have a free press, if we cannot make informed decisions at the ballot box, if we can’t hold people like me accountable, and make sure that we’re held honest to the promises that we made, to the job that we’re performing in these positions of public trust, we’ll lose the essence of our democracy.”
“We need to vigorously defend the freedom of the press,” he added.
UPDATE — (5:30 p.m. EST): The O’Rourke campaign told CNN it will not block Breitbart News from the candidate’s future events.