U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, in her first public appearance since a video surfaced Sunday in which she joked that she would attend a “public hanging,” dodged reporters’ questions about the firestorm.

Journalists asked Hyde-Smith eight questions about the controversial comment, but she declined to answer, each time stating, “I put out a statement yesterday, and that’s all I’m gonna say about it.”

Cindy Hyde-Smith blasted for ‘public hanging’ comments; she calls criticism ‘ridiculous’

The comments came at a press conference announcing the endorsement of a pro-life group for Hyde-Smith’s reelection bid.

On Nov. 27, Hyde-Smith faces Democrat Mike Espy, who is seeking to become the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate in Mississippi history, in an officially nonpartisan runoff election. Espy denounced her comment via a statement Sunday afternoon and an appearance on CNN on Monday morning.

For her part, Hyde-Smith previously distributed a brief statement stating she, “used an exaggerated expression of regard, and any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous.”

After numerous attempts Monday to get Hyde-Smith to elaborate, reporters directed questions to Gov. Phil Bryant, who stepped to the podium at Mississippi Republican headquarters and fielded questions as the senator stood beside him.

“I think that she is … addressing the fact that she has put out a statement,” Bryant said when reporters asked why the senator wasn’t answering questions. “I can tell you all of us in public life have said things on occasion that we could’ve phrased better. When you make as many speeches as we do in public life, that does occur. But I know this woman and I know her heart. I knew it when I appointed her, and I know it now. She meant no offense by that statement.”

Before Monday, Bryant, who appointed Hyde-Smith to the Senate in April, had not publicly weighed in on the matter. However, during the campaign, he offered a strong rebuke of fellow Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who came in third place behind Hyde-Smith and Espy, for characterizing black Mississippians as beggars on a national television news program. In a Twitter post at the time, Bryant said McDaniel’s statements did “not reflect the beliefs of the Mississippi Republican Party or the average Mississippian.”

In defending Hyde-Smith this week, Bryant questioned the motive behind the release of the video. Lamar White Jr., the publisher and founder of The Bayou Brief, a nonprofit news organization based in Louisiana, first posted the video but has not revealed its source.

“Now, in a political campaign, people can make anything you say what they want it to say. They can spin it. They can go on social media and accuse you of all sorts of things. She feels certain, I believe — I won’t speak for her — that her statement spoke to it.”

Bryant continued: “We’re in the middle of a political campaign. And those that oppose Cindy Hyde-Smith will take advantage of this. You might want to ask yourself, ‘Where did this video come from?’ I’m not blaming the person that took it, but this was clearly designed for a political purpose.”

The governor then talked about race relations and other issues.

“We have been sensitive to race relations in this state. I brought the president of the United States here to open the Civil Rights Museum. African American leadership would fail to come to the event because the president of the United States was there,” Bryant said.

In December, at Bryant’s invitation, President Donald Trump attended the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, which coincided with the state’s bicentennial. Trump’s visit sparked protests and prompted African American officials, including U.S. Reps. John Lewis and Bennie Thompson and Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba, to skip the Trump event.

“Today, I talked about the genocide of over 20 million African American children. See in my heart, I’m confused about where the outrage is in that. No one wants to say anything about that. No one wants to talk about that. That’s a conflict we see.”

The governor attributed the claim to Wikipedia, but a search of the website yield no results for the statistic. A general internet search turns up various religious and anti-abortion websites that repeat the claim, but do not cite its source.

After abruptly ending the press conference, Hyde-Smith campaign manager Jordan Russell asked reporters why they didn’t ask questions about abortion, the scheduled purpose of the Monday press conference.

“There’s issues of substance in the race that y’all aren’t asking about,” Russell said to reporters after the press conference. “You ask the same question 10 times, you’re gonna get the same answer.”

Russell left the room when television cameras approached him and turned on their lights.

Follow Mississippi Today’s full coverage of the historic runoff election between Cindy Hyde-Smith and Mike Espy.

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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.