The audio recording is a phone conversation between two political candidates trying to schedule a meeting with each other. But at times, it sounds more like a Hollywood thriller — an especially melodramatic one.
“Oh, John Brunner, oh my God, you are such a weasel! Are you going to meet tomorrow or not?” demands Eric Greitens.
He then says, in an almost ominous whisper: “I can't wait to see you in person, John. I want to look in your eyes.”
Brunner, one of the Greitens' opponents for the 2016 Republican nomination for Missouri governor, spends much of the conversation appealing for calm and chuckling patiently, as Greitens calls him a “weasel,” “coward,” “corrupt” and a liar.
Then Brunner fires back. “You know what men do, Eric? They don't call people names,” he says. “They sit down and talk face to face. That's what men do.”
At issue is a campaign website by a third-party organization that is attacking Greitens as insufficiently conservative. The site is run by a former Brunner campaign employee. Brunner's campaign claims it has nothing to do with the site — though the ex-employee, Adam McLain, was still drawing payments from the Brunner campaign as late as September.
The recorded Nov. 14 telephone conversation was made by Brunner's office without Greitens' knowledge and obtained from a third party by the Post-Dispatch. In it, Greitens is demanding a meeting with Brunner to discuss his allegation that Brunner is, in fact, behind the website campaign.
It provides a rare peek at behind-the-scenes tension between candidates as they scuffle over the often dark realities of campaigning in the Internet age.
For Greitens and Brunner — both well-funded ex-military political novices fighting for a similar chunk of the electorate — that tension is apparently high.
Greitens repeatedly goads Brunner about the negative campaign website, saying Brunner is refusing to deny he's behind it. At one point (about 8:37 on the recording) a woman can be heard whispering to Brunner, “Just deny it. Deny it.”
Brunner addresses the issue dismissively, but he never actually denies it.
Here are some highlights, starting at about 7:05 on the recording:
Greitens: “I'm going to ask you one more time, John . . . when we sit down . . . I want you to look in my eye and I want you to tell me the truth.”
Brunner (laughing): “Listen, Eric, you don't need to tell me how to look in a person's eye. All right? . . .”
Greitens: “I want you to look in my eye – ”
Brunner: “Who do you think I am, telling me to look in your eye? (Laughing)
Greitens: “You won't answer.”
Brunner: “. . . You think I'm a kid? Let's have a decent respect for each other . . .”
Greitens: “A decent respect for each other? A decent respect for each other is not hiding.”
Brunner: “Eric, I've never hidden in my life . . . ”
Greitens: “. . . It's very clear, John, to everyone, that this (negative campaigning) is you. . . .
Brunner: (Laughs) “Well, Eric, that is nice that you can draw all these conclusions . . .”
Greitens: “You won't deny it. You won't deny it.”
Woman's voice, whispering to Brunner (at 8:37): “Just deny it. Deny it. Deny it.”
Brunner: “Eric, listen, the truth will come out when you and I sit down and talk, and I don't take accusations over the phone, I don't take people yelling at me, I don't take people insinuating anything, and frankly I think it's disgusting the way you've handled this phone call and the way you've handled this whole situation.”
Both campaigns confirmed this week that the recording is genuine, and Brunner's campaign confirmed it made the recording.
"While traveling to a campaign event on the afternoon of Nov. 14, John Brunner received a phone call from a highly emotional and irrational Mr. Greitens. A few minutes later Mr. Greitens called a second time,” Brunner's deputy campaign manager, Mike Hafner, said in a written statement to the Post-Dispatch.
“Because the prior call was bordering on a threatening nature, the staff traveling with Mr. Brunner advised that it would be prudent to make a record of the second call. There was no authorization by the campaign to release any aspect of this information."
Missouri is a “one-party consent” state, meaning it's legal to record a telephone conversation as long as at least one party in the conversation is aware of it.
Greitens' campaign says it wasn't aware the conversation was being recorded. Nonetheless, Greitens Campaign Manager Austin Chambers says the content favors Greitens.
"This recording shows that Eric Greitens is disgusted by sleazy politics, while John Brunner is a pro at it,” Chambers said in a statement.
“Brunner recorded a private conversation without Eric’s knowledge and then leaked it to the media. Eric repeatedly challenged Brunner to accept responsibility for the recent negative attacks on Eric’s integrity which, like a typical politician, Brunner ducked and dodged."
During the conversation, the two men discuss various possible meeting places, including Las Vegas, where both of them were going to be on other business. Both campaigns later confirmed the meeting ultimately took place in Las Vegas.
At that meeting, “Mr. Brunner was very civil towards Mr. Greitens and went out of his way to meet with him in hopes of moving forward in a much more productive manner,” wrote Hafner, of the Brunner campaign.
Chambers, Greitens' campaign manager, wrote: "They sat down and had a private conversation. But we are confident Mr. Brunner will soon provide a recording of that, too."
Four candidates are currently seeking the Republican nomination for Missouri governor: Brunner, Greitens, former Missouri House Speaker Catherine Hanaway and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder. State Sen. Bob Dixon dropped out of the race Monday.
Among them, Greitens and Brunner share some biographical similarities that could naturally compel them to fight for the same voters — in addition to being potentially the two best-funded candidates in the field.
Greitens, 41, is a former Navy SEAL turned best-selling author who has emerged as the top fundraiser in the campaign, garnering much of his money from wealthy supporters outside Missouri. Brunner, 63, is a former U.S. Marine Corps captain who later become CEO of his family's hand-sanitizer company, Vi-Jon Inc. He put $8 million of his own fortune into his failed 2012 bid for a U.S. Senate seat.
Neither man has held elective office before, a fact both are touting in their competition for the "political outsider" vote. In fact, in the days leading up to Greitens' late-September formal campaign launch, Brunner — not yet a formal candidate — used Twitter and other venues to repeatedly remind voters he had his own big announcement coming up, in a clear bid to prevent early pledges to Greitens.
The only announced candidate for the Democratic nomination is Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster.
Nicholas J.C. Pistor of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.