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Eric Greitens’ lost chapter: Inside his disappearance from public life before US Senate run

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Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens resigns

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens announces his resignation in the governor’s office on May 29, 2018, in Jefferson City.

WASHINGTON — Around 20 minutes before Eric Greitens officially became the former governor of Missouri, he put out a 1,485 word list of his gubernatorial accomplishments.

It served as a resume of sorts for the man whose credentials had always been sterling. Full ride to Duke. Truman scholar, Rhodes scholar. Amateur boxing medals and sub-3 hour marathons. Spent time with Mother Teresa and served time in an elite branch of the United States military. Nonprofit founder, aide to veterans. Rising political star, possible future president.

But while climbing the mountain he had reached a cliff. Less than two years into his term, he was quitting because he was about to be fired by his own party. He was falling.

He had already faced the reporters and the cameras to make a short defiant speech before stepping down. His friend Gregg Favre, the deputy director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety, had already taken away his gun out of an abundance of caution.

“We’ve changed the direction of Missouri,” Greitens wrote. “Our team accomplished more than anyone ever thought possible. And now, we can look back with pride and forward with confidence.”

Then he went dark.

For the next year, eight months and 13 days, Greitens would not post on social media. He isolated himself from long-time friends and Missouri politicos. He separated from his wife. He appeared aimless, bumping from one former occupation to another, talking of writing a book, of being shipped to the Middle East with the Navy, of doing something in the media. He surrounded himself with people who, like him, believed he’d been the victim of a dirty political trick, one that had torn everything out from under him because he was fighting for the people of Missouri.

For the longest time, Greitens had the veneer of a man incapable of failure. People told stories about his perfectionism and his high expectations. But underneath the success was a powerful man with a seeming unwillingness to respect boundaries — the boundaries of campaign law, the boundaries of the woman with whom he had an affair. The veneer had slipped off.

When speaking to students at Harvard College in 2012, at the time still ascending the mountain of success, Greitens was asked how he handled failure.

He reached back to his experience as a boxer, getting beaten up in a gym in Durham, North Carolina before he knew how to fight; back to his time as a student, where he turned in a paper that had the first four paragraphs crossed out by a professor.

“When I was going through those moments of pain and fear and confusion and chaos, often what I had with me was I had the right friend,” Greitens said. “And I had friends who were there who cared enough about me that they were willing to help to push me through pain.”

Now, Greitens is attempting to push his way to the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, as old scandals resurface and new ones unfold. While late polls show Greitens may be fading, his effort could serve as a test for whether scandals still matter in American politics— and whether there’s a path to victory for a scandal-plagued and unapologetic former president in 2024.

His campaign did not respond to an interview request for this article. But through public records and interviews with former family, friends and staffers —many of whom declined to comment on the record, citing non-disclosure agreements and fear of retribution from Greitens — a portrait emerged of man who, at the expense of his marriage and carefully cultivated reputation, did not surrender but retreated, waiting for his opportunity to once again fight the battles that led to his downfall.

The Kansas City Star’s reporting shows that if Greitens learned any lessons in his time out of the public eye, it appears he learned just one — deny. Deny forcefully.

He emerged from his hiatus with the same defiance he projected going in, desperate to prove he hadn’t failed, conflating political relevance with redemption. He hired a reputation management firm to scrub his internet search results, partnered with a nonprofit to give out masks during the COVID-19 pandemic and found work producing a show geared at the Trump base of the Republican party.

There has been no public apology, no reconciliation. His version of redemption, it seems, will depend on whether he has convinced enough Missouri Republicans to send him to the U.S. Senate.

First he went with his family to the lake house.

A marriage deteriorates

Immediately after Greitens’ resignation became official, the former first couple of Missouri retreated with their two sons to their six-bedroom, four-bathroom home in Innsbrook to embark on two days of intensive therapy.

They brought in a marriage therapist from Louisville, Kentucky— one who specialized in private retreats. The therapist was a veteran of Operation Desert Storm and practiced a method of therapy that focuses on “ sound relationship house theory ” in which the couple rely on trust and commitment to navigate issues in their life.

Over the course of the session, Greitens was asked to lead with contrition, remorse and justice in order to rebuild the relationship. He committed to repairing a marriage shaken by an affair where the sordid details — that he allegedly taped a woman’s arms to exercise equipment, spit water on her, stripped her of her clothes, took a picture of her and forced her to perform oral sex on him — had been splashed in newspapers across the state.

The couple continued to have virtual sessions after the therapist returned to Kentucky, but they quickly deteriorated. Sheena emailed the therapist, saying she was concerned about her safety. Greitens had hit their three-year-old son at dinner, she alleged. His son claimed Greitens pulled his hair in the bathroom and hurt him.

“When I sent that email, it was really out of desperation,” Sheena Greitens told the Star last month. “I didn’t know what else to do. I felt unsafe at that point, really begging for help and trying to do it in a way that protected my family.”

Within a week, the couple began discussing a long-term separation. The two argued over how to split their time with the children. Sheena began renting a house in Columbia. They sought out lawyers.

It would be another in a long list of legal bills for Greitens in the aftermath of his resignation. His campaign paid six law firms a total of $1.2 million over 43 payments between June 2018 and Feb. 13, 2020 when the Missouri Ethics Commission fined his campaign $178,000 for campaign finance violations (he agreed to a settlement where he paid $38,000 instead).

There is some money Greitens may have had to pay out of pocket. In emails to her lawyer in 2018, Sheena Greitens expressed concern about $2 million Greitens had racked up in legal bills with Dowd Bennett defending himself against his indictment for invasion of privacy in St. Louis. The firm does not appear on Greitens campaign expenses.

Ken Harbaugh, a friend who helped co-found The Mission Continues and later went on to run for office as a Democrat in Ohio, said Greitens self-isolated and withdrew from his friends in a way he never had before. Harbaugh, who attended both of Greitens’ weddings and whose mother reached out to Greitens after the resignation, said he considered the withdrawal dangerous.

“When the circle of people around you doesn’t include people who truly care about you, doesn’t include people who know you for who you really are,” Harbaugh said, “it can reinforce some of the worst instincts and tendencies you have.”

Greitens, who surrounded himself with young staffers, kept some on his payroll in the aftermath of his resignation. Lexi Beck, who went on to work for Rep. Ann Wagner’s congressional office, stayed on through September 2018. Scott Turk, who is now working for Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s campaign, worked for Greitens through March 2019. They would eventually be replaced by his current campaign manager, 24-year-old Dylan Johnson.

There didn’t appear to be much for the staffers to do. While they continued to get expenses for travel and appeared to hold small events throughout the state, most of Greitens’ state campaign chest went to paying off his legal fees.

As his staffers bounced around, so too, did Greitens. In the immediate aftermath of the resignation, Greitens said he was going to spend more time with his family. But Sheena had moved out by June 11, just 10 days after his resignation became official.

Instead, he tried to get jobs doing the work he did before running for governor — nonprofit work, writing and the military.

Greitens had left the nonprofit he co-founded, The Mission Continues, in September 2015. In the aftermath of allegations that Greitens had improperly obtained their donor list for campaign purposes — one that could threaten their nonprofit status — The Mission Continues had spent the past few months distancing itself from the former governor.

“Regardless of someone’s history with The Mission Continues, we do not stand by actions that violate the core values we all strive to embody. And as uncomfortable as it may be, we must not fail to pronounce that,” Spencer Kympton, the then-president of The Mission Continues wrote in July 2018. “I want to make this clear to you: the actions of one individual will never detract from our achievements.”

Unable to return to one former occupation, Greitens tried to pick up another. The first Jewish governor of Missouri, Greitens told people he was writing a book that would focus on stories of redemption in Judaism. He talked about setting up interviews with Jewish faith leaders.

His publisher, Bruce Nichols, said Greitens never signed on for a book after Resilience. Harper Collins, which owns the outfit that published Greitens’ other books, said it had no intention of publishing any more books with Greitens.

There has been no fourth book. Greitens’ 2021 U.S. Senate Financial Disclosure form shows that he received $5,756 in royalties from his old books. It does not show a publishing agreement for a new book.

He also told people he would soon be deployed to the Middle East with the Navy. There is no evidence that Greitens was re-deployed overseas before resigning his commission in 2021.

His personnel file, obtained through an open records request, did not contain any information after 2015. The Navy did not respond when asked if Greitens was redeployed to the Middle East.

The SEALs said they did not want him back because of his age and the unlikelihood that he would get promoted. Greitens told the recruiter that Vice President Mike Pence wanted him to be affiliated because he had a job for him at the National Security Council and wanted Greitens to serve in the role in a Navy capacity.

According to emails at the time, the Navy believed Greitens had Pence’s support. Recruiters struggled to get a good idea of what, exactly, Greitens would do for the vice president. When one recruiter pressed him for details on work for Pence, they said Greitens was “cagey.”

Pence’s staff have denied that they worked to allow Greitens back in the Navy. A spokesman for Pence told the Associated Press in 2020 that Pence did not intervene and did not authorize any of his staff to intervene. Pence’s chief of staff at the time, Nick Ayers, was a former Greitens adviser. Ayers did not respond to a request for comment.

The emails show Greitens intended to affiliate with the Navy Reserve in Washington, D.C. It is unclear if he went through with the transfer. It is unclear what role Greitens played after re-joining the active reserve.

At some point, Greitens began working for Fort Ashford Funds, a California-based investment company. In his 2021 candidate financial disclosure filing with the U.S. Senate, Greitens listed the California company as one of his sources of compensation for the previous two calendar years.

The co-founder of Fort Ashford Funds is Frank Kavanaugh, a former donor to Greitens’ gubernatorial campaign. It is unclear what role Greitens — whose Ph.D from Oxford is about how international humanitarian efforts help children in war torn areas and has few investments of his own beyond mutual funds — served with Fort Ashford Funds.

Kavanaugh did not respond to a request for comment.

On February 12, 2020, the Missouri Ethics Commission fined Greitens’ campaign $178,000 for failing to report donations from two outside groups. The commission said they found no evidence of direct wrongdoing by Greitens, nor evidence that he had played a role in the violations. The investigation focused specifically on campaign finance and did not address the other allegations made against Greitens.

Greitens claimed he was “fully exonerated.”

“Many people have asked about revenge,” he wrote on Facebook. “That’s not what we need. Revenge is about the past. Justice is about the future. And, I’ll tell you, the future is bright.”

It was his first post since his resignation.

Out of the darkness, into the spotlight

In the immediate aftermath of the Missouri Ethics Commission ruling, Greitens set out to reclaim his image. He purchased ads on Facebook and spent more than $68,210 on Push Digital, a political digital advertising agency. He spent another $6,000 on Driver Eight Media, a firm that helps people book television appearances.

Casting his resignation in the same language used to defend former President Donald Trump against impeachment, Greitens set about attempting to re-frame the narrative of the litany of scandals that brought him down as governor.

He was aided by the complicated nature of the swirling investigations — one was bungled by an investigator, another dropped because he had agreed to resign, another blamed on his campaign staff, another slowly moving through the court system. The investigator who bungled the sexual blackmail investigation would later plead guilty to misconduct. His staff’s use of a self-deleting messaging app would later score victories in court.

Despite the Republican-controlled legislature deeming his alleged victim’s testimony about sexual assault credible, despite the Missouri Ethics Commission finding that his campaign had actually violated financial ethics rules and imposing a record fine, Greitens denied wrongdoing and claimed it was a political witch hunt.

The lesson he learned from failure, it seemed, was not to accept it. To forcibly deny, to never concede that he had made any mistakes.

He began traveling with campaign funds again, first to St. Louis, then to Kansas City, then to New York City, where he stayed in the Kimpton Muse Hotel in Manhattan, paying bills on March 9 and March 11, 2020. That day, the NBA shut down its season. The country was about to come to a grinding halt.

As the world grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, Greitens was able to use the opportunity to drum up positive publicity. Quickly, he partnered with a nonprofit called VirusRelief and was listed on a team that had ties to China. Among them was Rick Niu, the president of Starr Strategic Holdings. Greitens had known Niu while he was governor. On the nonprofit’s site, Niu’s bio mentions Hank Greenberg, the former CEO of AIG who donated to Greitens gubernatorial campaign.

The nonprofit was also backed by several prominent organizations with ties to China, including the Committee of 100, which is an advocacy group for Chinese Americans.

In late April 2020, Greitens paid $10,000 to StatusLabs, a company that advertises its ability to bury unfavorable search results about people. It was hired just as Greitens started picking up credit for donating masks to first responders — even though some were faulty. He paid them another $20,000 that September.

The last Facebook post by VirusRelief came on May 31, 2020. It featured Johnson, who was on Greitens’ campaign payroll and would later go on to serve as the manager of his Senate campaign.

By July of 2020, the conversation had changed to Black Lives Matter protests. Greitens was booked on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News, where he criticized the protests. He also criticized Kim Gardner, the St. Louis prosecutor who had brought the charges that helped lead to his downfall in 2018. He’d do the same on Laura Ingraham’s show days later.

Meanwhile, Greitens pushed deeper into the Trump base of the Republican Party, falling into the orbit of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. He started a show called Actionable Intelligence, which appeared on Just the News, an organization founded by former Fox News contributor John Solomon.

Through the show, he was able to talk to several prominent Trump Republicans, like former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani, former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson. He had on his show at least one other governor who was indicted in a corruption scandal — former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.

“You were obviously targeted for political prosecution,” Greitens told McDonnell. “I have some experience with that as well.”

If there was anyone in Greitens’ inner circle holding him accountable, it is unclear. Throughout his political career, Greitens surrounded himself with young, eager staffers. As he slowly rebuilt himself, he leaned on Johnson, who would sometimes do minor tasks for Greitens like making lunches for the kids and trimming trees at the Innsbrook house. After publication, Johnson denied trimming trees or making lunches.

“I don’t know who gave you your information for your story pontificating what the Governor has been up to prior to announcing his candidacy. But it’s riddled with total lies,” Johnson said.

Johnson worked as a low-level staffer on Greitens’ 2016 campaign before becoming his advance director, where he handled the logistics of the governor’s events. He briefly worked on the advance team for Trump in 2018 but was back working for Greitens by February 2019, helping him get ready for his return to politics.

“When all you have is people around you, who are either enabling you or attaching themselves because of your rise to power, it has a corrosive effect on your soul, on your self identity, on all of that,” Harbaugh said.

Greitens’ last show with Actionable Intelligence was in February 2021. A little more than a month later, he appeared on Fox News and announced his bid for U.S. Senate.

“That big wave of lies has now crashed on the rocks of the facts,” Greitens said. “And one of the things that I know as a boxer is that you can lose a round and still stay in the fight and you can win the fight.”

The Kansas City Star reporter Kacen Bayless contributed reporting.

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