NEW YORK — New York’s Rep. Michael Grimm is a hothead.
That, at least, is what some politicians and journalists who have tangled with the Staten Island lawmaker have maintained for years. The criticism, however, never made much of a dent.
After all, Grimm, 43, the only New York City congressman who is a Republican, was a fringe character in Washington. Plus, many of the illustrations were of the “he said, she said” strain.
But Grimm’s latest eruption was recorded in living color for all to watch. Watch they did.
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On Tuesday night, after President Obama completed his State of the Union speech, an unorthodox scene unfolded for anyone tuned into NY1, the cable news channel for New York City.
It began innocuously. Grimm ventured over to the interview area of NY1’s Washington reporter, Michael Scotto, in the Capitol rotunda. After Grimm delivered what Scotto found to be a predictable reaction, Scotto tried to pose a question about an ongoing federal investigation into Grimm’s fundraising.
Irritated, Grimm stormed off. He then returned and threatened to toss Scotto over the balcony, employing an obscene adjective to characterize the balcony. During the exchange, the congressman, standing close to Scotto, spoke in a whisper, facing away from the camera.
At one point, he said Scotto was “not man enough” and suggested: “I’ll break you in half. Like a boy.”
The camera kept rolling.
The snappish exchange quickly became the topic of choice in political circles and on social media, as video of the showdown whipped around the Internet.
The burst of attention on Grimm, a two-term congressman, a former Marine and a former FBI undercover agent, prompted revelations of other situations involving him that showed a hair-trigger temper. Incidents involving a butter knife, for instance, and a gun in a Queens nightclub.
Bob Hardt, NY1’s political director, said the “bizarre and scary rant” was indicative of Grimm’s behavior whenever the station raised the campaign-finance probe. In December 2012, he said, Grimm “blew his top” off camera after Errol Louis, a political anchor, asked about it. Hardt said Grimm shouted at Hardt and Louis and insinuated that they resolve things by “taking it outside.”
Grimm’s initial response to Tuesday’s incident was a huffy, unapologetic statement. Later Wednesday morning, he called Scotto and apologized. Scotto, 35, described it as a short conversation during which Grimm said he had overreacted.
“He said the behavior he showed last night was ‘not me,’” Scotto said. “I accepted his apology. He said he wanted to bury the hatchet over lunch.”
Scotto said the apology seemed sincere “but it’s always hard to gauge these things in a phone conversation.”
Speaking later at the Capitol, a more congenial Grimm said he had had “a long day fighting for flood insurance” for his constituents and “I lost my cool.” Asked if he had been drinking, he laughed it off as “silly.”
Criticism came fast after the incident. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York called the conduct “absolutely inappropriate” and said the House should sanction Grimm. Domenic Recchia Jr., a Democrat running to unseat Grimm, called the behavior “disgraceful.” The Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a left-leaning government watchdog, filed a complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics.
Had Scotto made the same threat against Grimm, Scotto could have been charged with a federal crime.
The general sense among Republicans in Washington was that as odious as Grimm’s rant was, it was more a campaign headache than a disqualifying offense.
A spokesman for Speaker John Boehner called it “appropriate” that Grimm, whose district includes Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn, had apologized.
Others said that what ultimately mattered was the outcome of the investigation into Grimm’s fundraising during his 2010 campaign. This month, Diana Durand, one of his fundraisers, was charged with illegally funneling more than $10,000 into the campaign. Investigators are also examining whether Grimm illegally solicited money from foreign donors.
“If he’s cleared, then he’s fine,” said Peter King, a Republican congressman from Long Island. “So what happened here is not make or break.”
Grimm has few close relationships with Republican politicians on Staten Island, aside from his mentor, Guy Molinari, the former congressman and borough president, and Councilman Vincent Ignizio.
Molinari defended Grimm. “I think he’s just been working so hard,” he said. “He gets very little sleep.”
A number of Grimm episodes have come to light over the years.
A 2011 article in The New Yorker described an evening in 1999 when Grimm, then an agent for the FBI, went to a Queens nightclub with a woman and got into a tussle with her estranged husband. At one point, Grimm said to a bouncer that he would make the husband “disappear where nobody will find him,” the article said. The evening also involved a fistfight, Grimm flashing his gun and racist comments by Grimm, the article said. Grimm called the account baseless.
In 2012, City & State, a politics website, reported that while Grimm was at a breakfast with labor leaders, Rep. Steve Israel, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, made a joke aimed at Grimm. The account said Israel looked at Grimm and said, “You’re not laughing, Grimm.”
Grimm picked up a butter knife, the report went on, and said: “I’m not laughing.”
Various individuals on Wednesday recounted personal run-ins. Ned Berke, a reporter for The Bensonhurst Bean, a blog, wrote about a 2012 incident at a civic group’s meeting when Grimm “began shouting, spittle raining down on me, and jutting his index finger into my chest.”
Danny Panzella, a tea-party activist, said in an interview that in 2011, Grimm got mad at him and suggested a boxing match. Another time, he said, Grimm vowed to knock his teeth out if he did not stop filming him.
When he first entered Congress, Grimm was seen as a potential Republican star, with his Marine and FBI background seen as potent selling points.
During the 2010 primary, Michael Allegretti, his opponent, accused him of wearing combat ribbons he had not earned.
“You sleep under a blanket of freedom that I helped provide. You should just say, ‘Thank you,’” Grimm said. “What I’ve done in my life, you see in the movies.”
The words drew attention because they were very similar to those spoken by actor Jack Nicholson in the movie “A Few Good Men.”