Is Ensign Walking Back Extortion Claim?

Did John Ensign’s camp try to spin the announcement of his affair by smearing his girlfriend’s husband? And is it now trying to walk that back?

Let us explain:Numerous outlets have now reported that Ensign chose to go public because the woman’s husband was demanding money in exchange for his silence.

Here’s Politico from Tuesday evening, just as Ensign was flagellating himself before the cameras:

Political insiders in Nevada and in the Senate said that Ensign decided to acknowledge the affair publicly after the husband of the woman he had been seeing asked him for a substantial sum of money.

And here’s the Las Vegas Review-Journal around the same time:

A Washington source said Ensign decided to announce the affair after he was approached by the husband of the woman involved. The man asked Ensign for a “substantial” amount of money with the implication it would buy the couple’s continued silence, according to the source.

It was not immediately known how much money might have been involved, or whether Ensign reported the incident to authorities. Neither Ensign nor his spokesman would comment on the matter.

The use of the word “substantial” by both outlets — the Review-Journal puts it in quotes — suggests this was a coordinated leak from the same source.

Also Tuesday night, Fox News reported:

Two Senate Republican sources close to Sen. John Ensign of Nevada told FOX News that a former employee had asked Ensign for money in what both sources described as a case of “extortion.”

Meanwhile, NBC News reported that Ensign himself was a source of the information:

Ensign told other senators earlier today that the reason he decided to go public about the affair is that his ex-mistress was indeed trying to extort money out of him.

Roll Call, in a piece posted last night, suggested (sub. req.) the same thing:

According to several Republicans, Ensign told colleagues and others close to him that he was the subject of a blackmail scheme because of the affair.

And also last night, the New York Times seemed to have its own sources for the claim:

Mr. Albregts and the Hamptons did not respond to detailed messages asking about statements by people close to Mr. Ensign in Nevada and Washington that Mr. Hampton was seeking a large sum of money and that upon refusing him, Mr. Ensign decided to go public with the affair.

So it seems pretty clear that the Ensign camp made a conscious decision to put out the word that Ensign was being extorted by Doug Hampton — and that Ensign himself was part of that effort.

But today, the Review-Journal has new information on what triggered Ensign’s dramatic mea culpa:

According to Ensign’s aides, Doug Hampton had approached a television news network about the affair, prompting Ensign to go public. This could not immediately be confirmed.

That doesn’t necessarily contradict the earlier line that Doug Hampton was demanding money, but it’s certainly a different spin. And it’s coming directly from Ensign’s aides.

Now here’s the thing: Extortion can be considered a felony. So alleging that Doug Hampton was trying to extort Ensign is a serious charge. It would probably raise questions as to whether Ensign went to the police. And both the FBI and the Las Vegas police have now said they’re not investigating any such claim.

There’s copious evidence, of course, that Ensign was particularly helpful to the Hamptons in the months after the affair ended. As we just reported, both Doug and the Hamptons’ son Brandon have since landed jobs with a company run by a major Ensign backer. But the extortion claim seemed to go far further.

So is the leak about the threat to go to a TV news network — a far less serious charge against Doug Hampton, obviously — an effort by the Ensign camp to walk back the extortion claim, out of fear that they overplayed their hand?

With attention beginning to turn to the question of what prompted Ensign’s disclosure, we could soon be finding out…

Late Update: Team Ensign is doubling down on the new line about Hampton threatening to go to a TV news station. The senator’s spokesman tells the Las Vegas Sun

Mr. Hampton first approached the media. He approached a major television news channel before Tuesday. We learned of this fact before the press conference.

The paper adds:

Ensign’s office declined to say today whether the Hamptons sought funds to keep quiet.

In other words: nevermind about that whole extortion thing.

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