JEFFERSON CITY • In his latest mission as Missouri’s governor, former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens is employing tactics taught in the military.
When it comes to interacting with the press, the political newcomer has been a disciplined operator, carefully picking his targets and keeping his distance from unanticipated questions that may impede his objective.
His stealthy approach is not uncommon behavior in this age of social media, when politicians routinely turn to Facebook and Twitter to spread their message directly to voters.
But now, after offering minimal opportunities for the press to ask him questions in his first six weeks in charge, the Republican chief executive is beginning to complain about the coverage he is receiving from the news media.
“Nobody [in the media] is going to write a story about how Sen. [Jamilah] Nasheed and I are working together, or how Sen. [Kiki] Curls has given my administration names and recommendations for positions. Nobody is writing about the work that we’re doing with the Black Legislative Caucus to advance issues that are important to all Missourians,” Greitens said at an NAACP-sponsored event in the Capitol on Feb. 14.
After he vented, Greitens was surrounded by reporters asking for more information. The governor left without answering questions.
The Post-Dispatch has since made multiple requests to the administration for details on the topics he said the media had ignored. There has been no response.
Greitens also has refused to answer a series of questions that stem from his campaign, including the identity of his biggest donors, who gave him nearly $2 million in such a way as to shield their identities from the public. When donors remain secret, the public has no way of tracking any decisions Greitens may make as governor that benefit them.
His refusal to answer or even listen to questions has drawn widespread criticism from several veteran Capitol watchers.
Radio reporter Phill Brooks, who has covered Missouri state government since 1970, bemoaned Greitens’ style in a recent editorial.
“A cloak of secrecy has descended upon Missouri government to a degree I never imagined in all my decades covering the statehouse,” Brooks wrote.
For now, Greitens’ media ground game is more akin to President Donald Trump’s than his own GOP allies in the Capitol.
While the president railed at the media during a contentious press conference Thursday in the nation’s capital, Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard and House Speaker Todd Richardson — both of whom are, like Greitens, Republican — conducted their weekly appearances answering questions from the media under the statehouse dome, without restrictions.
Richard said the practice was good for transparency.
“Ever since I’ve been Speaker of the House, I thought that was a fair way to do it, to give you a chance to talk to me and I can talk to you,” said Richard, the only Missourian to serve in the top leadership spot in both the House and Senate.
“I’ve always thought that sunshine and knowing how I feel about certain things — even if you don’t agree — is probably a better way to understand how I envision governing and leadership in the Senate,” said Richard, R-Joplin.
Richardson said he was carrying on a longtime tradition as the leader of the House by hosting his weekly media availability.
“Your all’s mission of communicating what we do in this body to the general public is important,” said Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, said talking with the press corps amplified what goes on in the Legislature.
“Just giving everybody an opportunity to know what’s going on, I think, is a good thing,” Kehoe said.
On Feb. 14, a day after complaining about the media during the NAACP speech, Greitens announced he would answer select questions from the public on Facebook, following the lead of fellow Republican governors such as Bruce Rauner in Illinois and Scott Walker in Wisconsin, both of whom also hold standard press conferences.
“We’re here in Jeff City to fight for you,” Greitens wrote in advance of his chat. “That means listening to the people and answering your questions about what’s going on in your government. If you have any questions about what we’re doing to take Missouri in a new direction, I’d love to answer them.”
Among the pre-selected questions he answered during his 15-minute session was one about being “bashed” by the media.
When Greitens has made himself available in person, he or his office has warned that he will not answer questions that are off the topic the governor has selected.
“Questions unrelated to this situation will not be answered at this press conference,” a recent advisory said.
The governor also evades reporters who cross paths with him in the Capitol.
While walking from the House chamber to his office on the second floor, a Post-Dispatch reporter asked Greitens about a recent trip to the nation’s capital.
“I am not going to do these drive-by interviews,” he answered. “If you want to sit down, I’ll be happy to talk with you. I’m just letting you know so you save your time.”
But numerous requests made by the newspaper for an interview dating back to his Nov. 8 election victory have been rebuffed.
“Rest assured, I will let you know when we have budgeted time for you to meet with the Governor,” said spokesman Parker Briden, who is paid $54,000 annually. “It is not a priority at this moment.”
In his recent editorial, Brooks points to an early January event in which Greitens spent time in the Senate chambers observing the proceedings. As the governor made his way back to his office, two reporters approached him seeking to ask questions.
His response, again, was to suggest scheduling an interview.
Brooks found the response puzzling.