Late Tuesday, Rep. Michael Grimm capped off a night usually reserved for ceremonial pomp and decorum by threatening to throw a reporter off a balcony. “Let me be clear to you, if you ever do that to me again, I’ll throw you off this f——— balcony,” Grimm told NY1 reporter Michael Scotto, who dared to ask the congressman about an investigation into his campaign finances. “I’ll break you in half,” he added, “like a boy.”
Those who are familiar with the Staten Island Republican’s career are allowed to be shocked, but they shouldn’t be surprised. The world first learned that Grimm—who was elected in 2010 on the strength of his experience as an undercover FBI agent on Wall Street—might not be the most level-headed guy when he appeared in a 2011 New Yorker story by Evan Ratliff. The story was about a man named Josef von Habsburg, a confidential informant and scam artist who worked with Grimm when he was with the FBI. The story contained a disturbing scene in which Grimm is alleged to have wielded a gun at a Queens nightclub in 1999. According to the story, Grimm showed up at the club with a woman and had a confrontation with her estranged husband. Ratliff picks up the story from here:
Around 2:30 A.M., there was a commotion on the dance floor. According to [off-duty NYPD officer Gordon] Williams, somebody was shouting, “He’s got a gun!” Following a crowd into the club’s garage, Williams discovered that Grimm and the husband had returned, and Grimm was holding a weapon. Grimm was “carrying on like a madman,” Williams said. “He’s screaming, ‘I’m gonna fuckin’ kill him.’ So I said to him, ‘Who are you?’ He put the gun back in his waist and said, ‘I’m a fucking F.B.I. agent, ain’t nobody gonna threaten me.’ “
Grimm denied making those threats. But the story goes on:
Grimm left the club, but at 4 A.M., just before the club closed, he returned again, according to Williams, this time with another F.B.I. agent and a group of N.Y.P.D. officers. Grimm had told the police that he had been assaulted by the estranged husband and his friends. Williams said that Grimm took command of the scene, and refused to let the remaining patrons and employees leave. “Everybody get up against the fucking wall,” Williams recalled him saying. “The F.B.I. is in control.” Then Grimm, who apparently wanted to find the man with whom he’d had the original altercation, said something that Williams said he’ll never forget: “All the white people get out of here.”
You should really read Ratliff’s entire story, as well as his follow-up posts explaining what Grimm denies and how Ratliff sourced the story, to get a full understanding of the context of the claims. Ratliff also goes on to detail some of the more recent campaign finance issues Grimm is facing, including allegations that he and a New York rabbi, now under investigation for allegedly embezzling millions from his congregation, collected donations that far exceeded campaign finance limits on individual giving. (That rabbi later pleaded guilty to visa fraud.) Earlier this month, the FBI arrested a former fundraiser for Grimm, alleging she funneled $10,000 worth of illegal donations to his campaign.Even before that New Yorker story came out, I had a good sense of Grimm’s temper. In March 2011, he was part of the freshman class I covered as a reporter for Politico, and I wrote a story about him criticizing fellow conservatives for risking a government shutdown. “I don’t represent the tea party or anybody like that, I represent Staten Island and Brooklyn. If we’re going to make those cuts they’re going to be smart,” he told me at the time. The tea party did not appreciate that statement. So Grimm’s press secretary called me back to insist he’d said “I don’t represent only the tea party” and that I needed to issue a correction. I checked my notes, confirmed my quote, and told them I was sorry but I couldn’t issue a correction. At the time it seemed like a matter of principle: I wasn’t going to issue a correction just because someone was experiencing a bit of controversy over his words. And that’s when Grimm got on the phone and started shouting at me.
It’s been a few years since this happened, and I don’t remember all of the details. I do remember him repeatedly yelling that he “did not serve 10 years in the FBI!” to have to put up with something like this. To be clear, at no time did I feel threatened, nor did I feel particularly scared or upset—although that seemed pretty clearly to me to be what he was trying to accomplish. I was a little shocked, but I gave as good as I got, and he took it to my editor, and we eventually settled on this blog post where he got to clarify his claims. Compared to last night’s outburst, it was pretty tame. Still, I’ve never dealt with anyone so angry before, or since.
I’ve seen some people on Twitter this morning suggest that the outrage over Grimm’s outburst is overblown. Politics ain’t beanbag, and if you want to be involved in it you should learn to toughen up. Fair enough. But putting aside the annoying double standard with which we treat emotional outbursts on the job (crying at work is seen as unacceptably shameful, even though that display of emotion is inwardly directed and harms no one, whereas anger, which actually can harm people, is often rationalized as a display of passion or intensity) Scotto was asking Grimm, a public official, about a serious and important issue. Do we really want a political culture in which journalists can’t ask public officials legitimate questions without getting browbeaten?