SIX

A DENIAL, A DENIAL, A DENIAL, A DENIAL

Five weeks after he and his wife Melania descended the golden escalators at Trump Tower and kicked off a quixotic campaign for president in front of an enthusiastic crowd of paid actors, Donald J. Trump called into the Moon Griffon Show, a two-hour block of “Louisiana Cajun style” conservative talk radio that aired weekday mornings out of Lafayette’s KPEL studios.

During those five weeks, Trump had astonished the entire Republican Party and defied conventional wisdom by surging into the lead in practically every major national poll. To the dismay of the Washington establishment and those in New York already well-acquainted with his history of moral and business bankruptcies, the bigoted billionaire from Queens had no problem finding an audience.

Trump’s message was particularly resonating with people like Rusty Houser, who had been staying in Lafayette that summer, chronicling his political observations in a journal he kept on his nightstand. Houser was impressed by how Trump was “leapfrogging” his Republican opponents. “And yes, Donald, all in Washington are very stupid,” he wrote in one entry, likely in response to a comment Trump had just made on television that day.

Moon Griffon was actually away on vacation the day Donald Trump first appeared as a guest on his radio show. In fact, the interview had been lined up by the man filling in for him, former Congressman Jeff Landry, who, at the time, had been in the middle of a campaign for Louisiana attorney general and immediately understood the benefits of becoming an early member of Team Trump in Louisiana.

That morning, Landry was literally bouncing in his chair when the Donald dialed in.

“We really appreciate you joining us this morning,” he said, reading from a prepared script, “and I know we want to talk about illegal immigration and your trip to the border.”

“Right,” replied Trump.

“But you know Donald, I wanted to give you the opportunity to address the people of Louisiana in light of the terrible tragedy that hit our state with the shooting last week….”

“Right. That’s terrible.”

“And I thought you might want to say a few words to the victims and the families.”

It is a macabre fact of American life that mass shootings are so commonplace you would have no way of knowing which shooting the two men were discussing unless you first knew the date on which this was taped: July 27, 2015.

After dispensing with the obligatory statements of condolence and sympathy, Trump then handed out the red meat that listeners of the Moon Griffon Show were expecting.

“These are sick people,” Trump said, referring generally to those who commit mass shootings. It would become his standard line after almost all of these events: This had nothing to do with the fact that high-powered weapons of war are readily-available and woefully under-regulated. It was entirely the result of the shooter’s mental illness. He had no solution to this, unless it involved more guns in more places.

“And unfortunately every time something like this happens—because I’m a big Second Amendment guy and so are you— they start trying to whittle it down, right? Whittle, whittle, and it’s not going to happen. But you know these are sick people, and this guy was disturbed. And it’s too bad we can’t figure it out beforehand, you know? Because now they go back and they check his past and they see there was so much craziness in his life. But you know, people probably don’t want to report it because they figure it can’t be happening. You know, it’s like a surreal event, before the fact, when they see that he’s nuts.”

Four days before, on a Thursday night, a man carrying a .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol began shooting inside of Lafayette’s Grand Theater about 20 minutes into a screening of “Trainwreck,” a comedy starring Amy Schumer. He managed to fire off at least 15 rounds, standing at the back of the auditorium and taking aim at the audience of only 24 moviegoers, before eventually turning the gun on himself. The man killed two young women, 33-year-old Jillian Johnson, a beloved local musician and artist, and Mayci Breaux, a 21-year-old college student. He injured nine others, some severely.

July 24, 2015, a day after the mass shooting at Lafayette, LA’s Grand Theater. Photo credit: Lamar White, Jr.

In the tumultuous days that followed, as the national media camped out in the theater’s parking lot, Lafayette was a community reeling from the tragedy and searching for answers.

The gunman did, in fact, have a documented history of mental illness, yet the weapon he used had been purchased legally. This wasn’t because, as Trump implied, people had failed to report him to authorities; he had been reported, several times. At one point, his family had even attempted to have him involuntarily committed.

While he had been previously accused of domestic violence by his ex-wife, who ultimately decided not to press charges against him, the clearest evidence of his instability and his potential danger to the public was expressed in his increasingly radicalized politics. He was a virulent misogynist and homophobe, and in a series of tweets and posts on antigovernment bulletin boards, he expressed sympathy for white supremacists David Duke and Dylan Roof and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

Decades ago, he’d been a lawyer and a well-known businessman in his hometown of Columbus, Georgia, but his deteriorating mental health—he’d been diagnosed with and treated for bipolar disorder—coincided with his political radicalization.

And in the summer of 2015, much like David Duke, James Russell Houser, better known by his nickname Rusty, liked what he was hearing from the newest Republican presidential candidate, Donald J. Trump.

****

Four years later, on the eve of the 2019 jungle primary election, as Air Force One prepared to touch down in Lake Charles, Jeff Landry strode onto the stage at the James E. Sudduth Coliseum and addressed the 7,000 or so people who had gathered to experience the MAGA roadshow in 3D and surround sound.

“I am so glad to be with all of y’all. I’m glad the president asked me to kick off his Louisiana rally,” Landry told the crowd. “I don’t know if any of you remember, but back in 2015, I had asked President Trump to join me as I hosted the Moon Griffon radio show. It was his first radio show here in Louisiana, and of course, you know, we’ll take credit for it. And the rest is history, right?”


  1. Loyola Law School lists Landry as a member of the Class of 2004, but according to student loan records, he graduated from the school in 2005.
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Lamar White, Jr.
Lamar writes about the people, the politics, and the magic of Louisiana. He is the founder and publisher of the Bayou Brief and a contributing writer for the Daily Beast. Lamar is best known for his investigative reporting on public corruption, racism, and civil rights. He has appeared as a guest on CNN, MSNBC, and the BBC, and he's been the subject of profiles in The Washington Post, The Advocate, and Huffington Post. Before launching the Bayou Brief, he published CenLamar, a popular blog that initially covered the drama of City Hall in his hometown of Alexandria. Lamar is a graduate of Rice University in Houston and the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Today he lives in New Orleans and is currently writing a book about the life of reputed New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello. Support Lamar's work on Patreon.