The St. Louis circuit attorney on Thursday opened an investigation into claims that Gov. Eric Greitens of Missouri, a former Navy Seal regarded as a Republican rising star, threatened a woman with whom he had an extramarital affair shortly before he was elected governor.
Mr. Greitens had acknowledged the night before that he had an affair in 2015, but denied he had threatened the woman with whom he had the relationship.
“The serious allegations against Missouri Governor Eric Greitens are very troubling,” said Kimberly Gardner, the city prosecutor and a Democrat, in a statement, adding: “It is essential for residents of the City of St. Louis and our state to have confidence in their leaders. They must know that the Office of the Circuit Attorney will hold public officials accountable in the same manner as any other resident of our city.”
The accusations were relayed by the woman’s ex-husband, but she has not commented.
Mr. Greitens and his wife, Sheena, released a joint statement after a number of inquiries from the news media about the relationship late Wednesday night, shortly after the governor’s State of the State address, in which the couple revealed that there “was a time when he was unfaithful in our marriage.”
“This was a deeply personal mistake,” the Greitens, who have two young children, said in the statement. “Eric took responsibility, and we dealt with this together honestly and privately.”
Mr. Greitens’s attorney, James F. Bennett, said Thursday the governor “is very confident he will be cleared in any investigation,” calling the relationship “a personal matter that presents no matters of public or legal interest.”
The woman with whom Mr. Greitens, who was elected in 2016, had the affair is a St. Louis-area hairdresser, according to Albert Watkins, a lawyer for the woman’s former husband. Mr. Watkins said that she had told her then-husband in 2015 that Mr. Greitens had been a customer at the hair salon where she cut his hair and that during their first sexual encounter, Mr. Greitens had threatened her with retribution if she revealed their relationship.
Mr. Watkins said his client had recorded the conversation, and Mr. Watkins provided a transcript and audio tape of it to The New York Times and other news organizations. The tape was first broadcast on KMOV, St. Louis’s CBS affiliate, during the late evening news Wednesday.
Neither the woman nor her former husband could be reached for comment.
Roy Temple, a former Missouri Democratic Party chairman, said in an interview that he had met with the woman’s former husband in 2016 and he told him then that Mr. Greitens had threatened her. But Mr. Temple said the man was not willing to go on the record with the claims during the campaign because of the couple’s children.
Mr. Watkins said his client changed his mind after becoming convinced that the story would come out because of “relentless media inquiries.”
“My client realized he had no choice but to get the truth out in a way that was committed solely to doing the best he could to protect his family,” Mr. Watkins said.
On Thursday, Mr. Greitens held a conference call with donors to make the same admission of infidelity and denials of blackmail his lawyer offered the news media, according to a Republican official familiar with the call, hewing carefully to his public statements and adding only that he would remain in office.
A former Democrat, Mr. Greitens, 43, has a résumé that National Review described in a profile last year as “almost too good to be true”: Duke graduate, Rhodes scholar and Bronze Star recipient. He defeated the state attorney general, Chris Koster, on the strength of his record as a political outsider and decorated member of the Navy SEALs.
But he immediately began to clash with legislators, both Republican and Democrat, and is widely seen in the state’s political circles as using the governorship as merely a steppingstone to the presidency. (Mr. Greitens secured the web address EricGreitensforPresident.com years before he ran for governor.)
His travels outside the state only fueled this speculation. Mr. Greitens appeared in Iowa, on the campaign trail in the Virginia governor’s race and at a Republican conference on Mackinac Island in Michigan that is a traditional proving ground for White House hopefuls. At home, Mr. Greitens gleefully clashed with legislators and the statehouse press corps, making a show of his willingness to take on the establishment and boasting about his approach in interviews with conservative news media outlets.
In addition to accepting out-of-state speaking invitations, he aggressively sought to position himself in the national party by cultivating relationships with influential Republican figures. The former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove, for example, got a call on his cellphone out of the blue last year from Mr. Greitens asking how he could help the party, according to a Republican briefed on the call.
As word of his affair spread through Jefferson City, the governor found little sympathy from his ostensible political allies, appearing to pay a price for his treatment of legislative Republicans.
A group of Republican state senators signed a letter that called on the state’s attorney general, also a Republican, to investigate the claims against Mr. Greitens.
“Like many Missourians, we find these serious allegations shocking and concerning,” the Republican State Senate leadership said in a joint statement Thursday. “As this situation is evolving, we expect the governor to be honest and forthright.”
Mr. Greitens has also come under fire for his extensive reliance on “dark money” political groups that are not required to disclose their contributors.
“Whatever happens around this issue, I already think we need a new governor, somebody who doesn’t deal in dark money,” said State Senator Rob Schaaf, a Republican, alluding to Mr. Greitens’s affair. “For me, this is just another problem.”
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