On May 20, many of Michigan’s Republicans found a bizarre email in their inboxes.
“Breaking Scandal!” the message read. “[State Rep. Todd] Courser secretly removed from caucus several weeks ago due to male on male paid for sex behind a prominent Lansing nightclub!”
Written in a style that resembled knock-off Drudge Report headlines, the email had all the markings of a cheap attack on a socially conservative politician. Among other things, it called Courser, a Tea Party insurgent who won his seat in the state legislature in November 2014 by attacking the Republican establishment, “a Godless Addicted Monster” and a “a bi-sexual porn-addicted sex deviant.”
The truth, however, turned out to be much, much weirder.
As the Detroit News first reported on Friday, the email was not the work of a Democratic operative, or of a rival Republican, or even of a prankster. It was, instead, Courser’s idea.
The married father of four orchestrated the release of the email in an attempt to cover up an extramarital affair with a fellow Republican lawmaker, State Rep. Cindy Gamrat.
Recordings of Courser’s conversations show that he manufactured the email tale to “inoculate the herd” and create a “controlled burn.”
The recordings were made by Ben Graham, a 25-year-old political operative from Lansing, Michigan, who until recently worked as a legislative assistant at the office shared by Courser and Gamrat. When Graham realized they were both cheating on their spouses, he released the tapes to the Detroit News.
The stranger-than-fiction debacle began on May 19, when Courser and Gamrat both received an anonymous text message showing that someone knew about their affair. Around 10:30 that night, an anxious-sounding Courser summoned Graham to his office to discuss his damage control plan.
“They don’t want something from us,” Courser can be heard saying in the recording, referring to Michigan’s Republican leaders, whom he implied were behind the text message. “They want us dead.”
“Did your family know?” Graham can be heard asking.
“About that? No. Do I have to tell them? Probably,” Courser replied.
“Did Cindy [Gamrat]’s family know?” Graham said.
“Her husband knows,” Courser said. “They’re working through this, though.”
Courser then read the email out loud to Graham and tried to get his aide to send it. Graham appears to have thought it was a terrible, terrible idea.
“Are you serious? What are you talking about? That’s ridiculous!” the young aide said in the recording.
“It is ridiculous!” the legislator answered. “I need it to be over the top.”
The idea, Courser explained to his aide, was to release an attack on himself so vicious and unbelievable that it would taint the credibility of any eventual leak of the affair with Gamrat.
“Now anything that comes after this, it’s part of that,” Courser said. “People are going to be, ‘I’m not listening to that! That’s bullshit! They’re attacking him.’”
But Graham was unimpressed.
“Work with me, Benjamin!” Courser shouted. “I’ve been thinking about this since I ran for office.”
Graham refused to send the email and urged his boss to resign. Soon afterwards, he was fired.
Courser and Gamrat did not respond to emails and voicemails requesting comment. Graham did not respond to a request for comment made through social media.
As of Friday at 11:00 a.m., Courser hasn't resigned.
Nicolás Medina Mora is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Nicolás Medina Mora at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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