One of the silliest moments of Saturday night’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner came after the main event when an after-party briefly erupted into fisticuffs. The quick brawl, between Huffington Post DC bureau chief Ryan Grim and Fox News correspondent Jesse Watters, has been recounted by witnesses many times over.
But in an interview with Washingtonian, Grim says it all started when he tried to get Watters to apologize for something he did seven years ago to one of Grim’s current Huffington Post colleagues. Watters is known for his ambush-style interview tactics. His off-guard subjects, who are then often portrayed as unaware in the resulting clips, have ranged from New Yorker writer Hendrick Hertzberg to sitting governors to homeless people in New York.
Watters’s most notorious encounter, though, came in 2009 when he bum-rushed Amanda Terkel, now Huffington Post’s managing editor for politics. In that incident, Watters and a colleague followed Terkel—who was then the managing editor for Think Progress—from DC to Winchester, Virginia, about two hours away. Watters, irked by Terkel’s criticism of Fox host Bill O’Reilly‘s appearance at a benefit for rape survivors (O’Reilly has made statements implying that rape victims who drink or dress certain ways bear some responsibility), approached Terkel with his camera rolling as she was checking into a hotel and demanded an apology.
Grim tells Washingtonian he saw Watters at Saturday’s party—hosted by MSNBC at the United States Institute of Peace in Foggy Bottom—and attempted to extract an apology. Watters initially said he would, Grim recalls, but then hedged on the offer.
“I came up to him with the phone and said ‘Amanda Terkel is here, do you want to apologize for what you did?'” Grim says. Grim also mimicked Watters’s reporting style by pulling out his phone and recording the exchange. Upon seeing the phone, Grim says Watters snatched the device and chucked it about ten feet away—while it was still filming.
Watters has a contentious history with the Huffington Post. The website has covered many of Watters’s other outlandish capers, including his overeager visit to Brown University in 2013 for “Nudity Week,” the time he ambushed former Vice President Al Gore and came away empty-handed, and a Fox News segment in which commentator Bob Beckel gave him the middle finger.
Grim says he and Watters had never met before Saturday, but it’s clear there was some ready-made animosity, especially after they started discussing the 2009 segment with Terkel.
“He did tell me that he psychologically scarred her, like celebratory, then clinked glasses with the guy next to him,” Grim says. “It was kind of gross.”
Grim retrieved his phone from Watters’s toss and re-approached him with the camera still rolling. Watters then snatched Grim’s phone and pocketed it. “For three minutes he was refusing to give me the phone, threatening to throw out the window,” Grim says. “Eventually I just took it back.”
That’s when things got rough. Grim says he “patted [him] down” and then reached for the phone inside Watters’s pocket. Grim says Watters pushed back, “and we started scuffling.” The Washington Post, which reported the first blow-by-blow account of the fight, wrote that Grim and Watters “flailed around a bit, upending a table and bumping into several people.”
Punches were thrown, but Grim won’t say who fired the first jab. “He may have, but nothing landed,” Grim says. He also says he’s not sure if he’ll ever make public the footage his phone recorded. That leaves a photo tweeted by the Washington Post‘s David Weigel as the only visual document of the fight so far.
— daveweigel (@daveweigel) May 1, 2016
Fox News declined to make Watters available for this story, other than to say that he will “address the issue tonight on the O’Reilly Factor which you can note.” Grim says he was not invited on to tell his version of events—”That’s not their style,” he says of Fox News—and that he may not be watching live when Watters goes on.
“I’ll probably DVR it,” he says.
UPDATE, 6:07 PM: The Huffington Post has published Grim’s footage from his Saturday-night encounter with Watters. The video, about six minutes long, is included in a post by Terkel addressing her 2009 run-in with Watters and how Grim attempted to extract an apology from the Fox News personality.
The clip itself shows that it was Grim who initiated the interaction with Watters. Here’s a bit of the transcript:
Grim: “Jesse, I want to you to meet Amanda Terkel for a second, do you have a second?”
Watters: “Oh yeah, she loves me. Bring her over.”
Grim: “Let’s make up.”
Watters: “Let’s make up.”
Grim then spots Terkel a few feet away and beckons her over to where he and Watters are standing. She declines to leave her group—”Absolutely no way,” she says—and Grim reports back to Watters, who says he’ll only apologize if Terkel leaves her spot. Grim responds by comparing it to his jaunt following Terkel all the way to Winchester.
“You went all the way out to the middle of fucking nowhere, you can go five feet over there, come on,” Grim says.
Watters then rescinds his offer of a cement-footed apology: “I love Amanda Terkel, she’s a good girl. I’m not going to apologize, but she’s a good girl. … She said some nasty shit, though. I had to call her out. I had to call her out.”
From there the video becomes more contentious, including Watters’s clinking glasses after saying Terkel is “psychologically scarred,” his slapping of Grim’s phone after realizing the camera is rolling, and his pocketing Grim’s phone, which led to the physical altercation.