WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Saturday cheered on protesters who harassed News 12 Long Island reporter Kevin Vesey when he covered a right-wing group Setauket Patriots’ rally in Commack this week demanding the reopening of Long Island's economy.
As the news clips of protesters berating Vesey while he walked through the Setauket Patriots' demonstration along Jericho Turnpike Thursday went viral, support for him came in from many corners, while Trump’s supporters followed his lead in disparaging the news media.
Trump, who is spending this weekend at Camp David, on Friday night tweeted a video clip of the protesters hounding the reporter and repeated their chant in capital letters: “Fake news is not essential.”
On Saturday, the president posted a clip on Twitter of protesters calling Vesey “enemy of the people” and “fake news” and using vulgar epithets and commented: “People can’t get enough of this. Great people!”
The Setauket Patriots on Saturday posted that presidential tweet on its Facebook page and said: “Thank you President Trump.”
Two days ago on the same Facebook page, the Setauket Patriots apologized to Vesey and blamed outsiders unaffiliated with its group for harassing him.
The White House press office did not respond to questions about whether Trump knew that Setauket Patriots had disavowed the treatment of Vesey shown in the clips.
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), whose district includes Commack and Setauket, is at Camp David with the president but did not respond to a request for a comment on Trump’s tweets. A Zeldin aide said he doesn’t have access to his phone, which is standard Camp David protocol.
Vesey declined to comment. Lisa Anselmo, spokeswoman for News 12, said in an email, "The events that transpired during Kevin’s reporting were unfortunate but he calmly and objectively captured the raw emotion occurring during this pandemic."
Vesey, who last month revealed he had been infected with COVID-19, said in his report he was particularly concerned that some protesters without face coverings tried to violate social distancing rules by walking toward him to get close to him.
Police made no arrests and handed out 50 masks at the rally of fewer than 200 people along Jericho Turnpike, a Suffolk County Police Department spokeswoman said Saturday.
In a clip posted on Twitter, Vesey said he covered the rally alone, without a camera operator, and that confrontations began after he encountered two women with megaphones, who confronted and followed him, one of them without a mask.
He said he had interviewed that woman at a Setauket Patriots' rally two weeks earlier and later learned she didn’t like his reporting about the lack of masks and social distancing. “A lot of people think the coverage was unfair last time around,” Vesey said in a story posted by News 12.
But he expressed concern about his treatment in tweets after covering the rally.
“The level of anger directed at the media from these protestors was alarming,” he posted in a tweet Thursday.
“I'll probably never forget what happened today. I was insulted. I was berated. I was practically chased by people who refused to wear masks in the middle of a pandemic,” he tweeted. “All the while, I was there to tell THEIR story.”
Asked on Saturday for his reaction to the Trump tweet and the video of the reporter being harassed by protesters in Commack, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said he had not seen either. But he had heard about it from people in conversation, he said.
When a reporter read him the tweet, Bellone said, “I’m not going to get into any kind of back and forth on what the president may be saying here. What I can tell you about is my strongly held belief on the critical importance to our country and our democracy of a free press.”
He added, “We could not have the country we have without a free press and the ability of journalists to report the news, who sometimes do that at great risk to themselves.”
Bellone also said, “Anytime anyone is talking about someone from the news trying to do their job, and denigrating that, I would completely disagree with that.”
Asked if he will instruct Suffolk County police to do more to protect journalists at these rallies, Bellone said, “I can tell you that the police will be prepared to protect anyone who is in any way threatened at a protest or a rally. Obviously the police will do that. The police are attempting to educate and inform people at these rallies. They are handing out face coverings.”
He said it is unacceptable for anyone at these rallies to threaten another person. “If it gets to a point where that is necessary, I am fully confident that the Suffolk County police will take appropriate action to protect anyone, including journalists, who are importantly fulfilling their critical function in our society of reporting the news and protecting the First Amendment, which is a foundation of our democracy.”
Bellone added, “There should be no expectation that a journalist doing their job here on the local level, should be concerned for their safety. I will make sure and I know the Suffolk County Police Department will make sure that everyone who is attending a rally like this — and that of course includes members of the media — are protected.”
Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said, “We did obviously have uniformed personnel at the rally, and you can see in the video they are close by to Kevin throughout.”
Hart said that at a rally in Shirley Saturday, there were police department press representatives there, making sure the media had enough protection to do their job.
With Craig Schneider