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How Breitbart spiraled into chaos after its reporter got assaulted at a Trump rally

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Breitbart's newsroom is in a state of chaos.

Michelle Fields, the reporter physically assaulted allegedly by Donald Trump's campaign manager, resigned from Breitbart Monday morning; editor at large Ben Shapiro announced he will also be leaving the Trump-friendly news organization, BuzzFeed reported.

"Today I informed the management at Breitbart News of my immediate resignation," Fields said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. "I do not believe Breitbart News has adequately stood by me during the events of the past week and because of that I believe it is now best for us to part ways."

Breitbart senior editor at large Joel Pollak told writers and editors on the news outlet's internal messaging software to stand down after many expressed their support for Fields. Do not "retweet or respond," Pollak said, according to screengrabs obtained by the Independent Journal.

According to BuzzFeed, Pollak has ties with the Trump campaign, having reached out for a speechwriting position in January.

Breitbart published and later deleted an article smearing Shapiro for "abandoning Andrew Breitbart’s lifelong best friend, widow, hand-picked management team and friends in pursuit of an elusive contributorship at the Fox News Channel."

In his resignation letter, Shapiro said he no longer believed Breitbart was staying true to its anti-establishmentarian founder Andrew Breitbart:

Both Lewandowski and Trump maligned Michelle in the most repulsive fashion. Meanwhile, Breitbart News not only stood by and did nothing outside of tepidly asking for an apology, they then attempted to abandon Michelle by silencing staff from tweeting or talking about the issue. Finally, in the ultimate indignity, they undermined Michelle completely by running a poorly-evidenced conspiracy theory as their lead story in which Michelle and Terris had somehow misidentified Lewandowski.

How it started

This all started on Tuesday night at a Trump rally in Jupiter, Florida, where Fields stepped forward to ask Trump a question as he was trying to leave.

According to Washington Post reporter Ben Terris, who was there, Trump's campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, grabbed Fields and yanked her out of the candidate's way. According to Terris, Lewandowski nearly knocked Fields over. Fields later tweeted a photo of her arm that showed finger-size bruising. Politico obtained an audio recording of the incident, which reflected Terris's account.

Trump's campaign denies this even happened, and has taken to Twitter to question Fields's character.

Fields filed a criminal police report against Lewandowski on Friday after alleging he "manhandled" her. The Jupiter Police Department confirmed Friday that it has received a report about an "alleged battery" that occurred at Trump National earlier this week.

Just in: Jupiter Police statement on investigation of "alleged battery" at "Trump National" on March 8: pic.twitter.com/O4TCn24Yhv

— Ari Melber (@AriMelber) March 11, 2016

Authorities have not confirmed that Lewandowski is a subject of a criminal investigation, and Trump's campaign has attacked Fields's story.

The campaign released the following statement Friday:

The accusation, which has only been made in the media and never addressed directly with the campaign, is entirely false. As one of the dozens of individuals present as Mr. Trump exited the press conference, I did not witness any encounter. In addition to our staff, which had no knowledge of said situation, not a single camera or reporter of more than 100 in attendance captured the alleged incident."

Also on Friday, Breitbart published a story in which it openly disagreed with Fields's characterization of the incident. Citing an extensive review of video footage, Breitbart said it appears "unlikely" that Lewandowski was responsible for roughing up Fields.

Breitbart reporter Patrick Howley was also vocal on Twitter doubting Fields's account, and Brietbart suspended him on Thursday. But on Monday, the same day news broke that Fields had resigned, Howley tweeted that he still has his job with the organization.

However, both Fields and Terris, the Washington Post reporter, have said that Lewandowski grabbed Fields.

Breitbart's story on Friday was immediately questioned by skeptical journalists who accused the publication, which has been favorable to Trump in its coverage, of trying to shore up its relationship with the Republican frontrunner.

What happened?

Terris described the event this way:

As security parted the masses to give him passage out of the chandelier-lit ballroom, Michelle Fields, a young reporter for Trump-friendly Breitbart News, pressed forward to ask the GOP front-runner a question. I watched as a man with short-cropped hair and a suit grabbed her arm and yanked her out of the way. He was Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s 41-year-old campaign manager.

Fields stumbled. Finger-shaped bruises formed on her arm.

He spoke with Fields immediately after the incident. She appeared shaken.

"I’m just a little spooked," she told Terris. "No one has grabbed me like that before."

She took [Terris's] arm and squeezed it hard. "I don’t even want to do it as hard as he did," she said, "because it would hurt."

On Thursday, Fields recounted the incident in a post on Breitbart in her own words:

I wasn’t called upon to ask a question during the televised press conference, but afterwards Trump wandered around, stopping at every reporter to take their questions. When he approached me, I asked him about his view on an aspect of affirmative action.

Trump acknowledged the question, but before he could answer I was jolted backwards. Someone had grabbed me tightly by the arm and yanked me down. I almost fell to the ground, but was able to maintain my balance. Nonetheless, I was shaken.

[...]

I hope this article answers those questions and I can get back to reporting the news, not being a part of it.

She also sent a tweet that appears to show her arm was bruised:

I guess these just magically appeared on me @CLewandowski_@realDonaldTrump. So weird. pic.twitter.com/oD8c4D7tw3

— Michelle Fields (@MichelleFields) March 10, 2016

Trump's campaign says this never happened

Trump's people dispute this account. In fact, they say the incident never even happened.

Trump campaign spokesperson Hope Hicks released a statement to ABC News denying the incident in its entirety, claiming that neither Fields nor Terris had ever met Lewandowski, let alone seen him harm Fields.

"The accusation which has only been made in the media and never addressed directly with the campaign is entirely false," Hicks said in the statement. "There are often large crowds aggressively seeking access to Mr. Trump and our staff would never do anything to harm another individual, while at the same time understanding that Mr. Trump and his personal space should never be invaded."

Trump's strategy is to go personal

It doesn't stop at denial. Hicks goes on to question Fields's credibility, saying Fields has a history of "becoming part of the news story." She cited Fields's wish to move on from the incident and continue with her campaign reporting:

NEW: Trump campaign spokesperson Hope Hicks responds to allegations campaign manager assaulted Breitbart reporter: pic.twitter.com/LHRMKXzy3K

— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) March 10, 2016

Lewandowski jumped on board with the personal attacks, tweeting that Fields had previously "accused" former US Congress member Allen West of groping her — citing a story by Charles C. Johnson, whom Gawker once called "the web's worst journalist":

Michelle Fields is an attention seeker who once claimed Allen West groped her but later went silent. https://t.co/J86Ej42eYx

— Corey Lewandowski (@CLewandowski_) March 10, 2016

As Johnson himself says, Fields "repeatedly and emphatically refused comment on the record" for his piece.

This is not the first time Trump and his campaign have gone after a perceived adversary on personal grounds. The New York Times documented recently how the campaign has gone on offense repeatedly through the campaign, using personal attacks to go after opponents, particularly using Twitter, as was the case again Fields:

With his enormous online platform, Mr. Trump has badgered and humiliated those who have dared to cross him during the presidential race. He has latched onto their vulnerabilities, mocking their physical characteristics, personality quirks and, sometimes, their professional setbacks.

The media has been a big target for Trump, who has been known to mock publications and networks during his rallies throughout the campaign. And he has made headlines for holding grudges against journalists, regardless of their publication's partisan leanings (remember the Megyn Kelly/Fox News feud that spanned several months).

Breitbart was forced to tiptoe around the issue

Breitbart, meanwhile, has been forced to walk a fine line between backing its reporter's account and maintaining a friendly relationship with the GOP's leading presidential candidate.

Breitbart CEO Larry Solov released a statement Tuesday night using skeptical language about the incident:

It’s obviously unacceptable that someone crossed a line and made physical contact with our reporter. What Michelle has told us directly is that someone "grabbed her arm" and while she did not see who it was, Ben Terris of the Washington Post told her that it was Corey Lewandowski. If that’s the case, Corey owes Michelle an immediate apology.

On Wednesday, however, Solov responded to the Trump campaign's statement with more resolve, expressing disappointment for "in particular their effort to demean Michelle's previous reporting."

.@BreitbartNews statement defending @MichelleFields & calling on @CLewandowski_ to apologize for grabbing her. pic.twitter.com/1gemquVMFl

— Kenneth P. Vogel (@kenvogel) March 10, 2016

Breitbart was not wrong to be wary about what it says to the Trump campaign. After Solov named Terris as a source in his original statement, Terris, who said he had interviews scheduled with Lewandowski and the Trump team in his account of the incident, had his meetings canceled.