The commander of the Ohio National Guard, a two-star general, appeared to shove his finger into a reporter’s chest during a chaotic state news conference Wednesday, according to police body camera footage published Thursday.
Maj. Gen. John C. Harris Jr. was seen arguing with Evan Lambert, a NewsNation reporter who was setting up a shot for a conference about a train crash that happened in the state. The uniformed soldier appeared to jab the reporter’s chest as the two men exchanged heated words.
During the altercation, an Ohio State trooper pushed the general away from the reporter as Lambert told another official — who was grabbing his arm — “I am allowed to be here.”
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Lambert was then arrested on charges of trespassing after authorities said he was being a “disruption” during the news conference, according to a statement from the East Palestine Police Department. The video shows Lambert being grabbed by police officers and pushed to the ground.
Harris has been the adjutant general for the Ohio National Guard since 2019, according to a public biography, a position that commands more than 16,000 members of the the Ohio Army and Air National Guard, as well as the state’s reserve component and naval militia.
NewsNation published a statement from Harris that it said conflicts with the events captured in the bodycam video.
In the statement, the general said he heard “very loud voices” emanating from the back of the conference and went to inform the reporter and an accompanying video journalist that they were disrupting the event.
After some confusion between Harris and the video journalist, the general said that he “went back to conversing with the reporter, who grew more agitated.”
“He then became enraged. His eyes opened wide, he stared at me while very aggressively lurching at me,” the statement said. “He is a much larger person than I am. At that point, I was convinced he was prepared to do harm to me. I instinctively put my hands on his chest to keep him from bumping into me, which I felt was inevitable if I had not protected myself.”
The bodycam video, however, showed Lambert giving his live shot, Harris apparently telling him to stop and then jabbing his finger into the reporter’s chest before other officials intervened.
The part of the video that shows the soldier pushing the reporter does not include sound, and the events leading up to Harris apparently approaching the reporter were not captured.
Both the police department and NewsNation identified Harris as the soldier who had a confrontation with the reporter. A spokesperson for the Ohio National Guard, Joe Gabriel, confirmed that the soldier in the bodycam video was Harris and that he gave the statement published by NewsNation to the Columbiana County Sheriff’s Department.
“Lambert-McMichael’s live reporting was loud, and two State Highway Patrol Troopers along with Adjutant Major General Harris from the National Guard went back and advised them to stop their live reporting in an effort to ensure that all members of the media were getting the necessary safety information,” the East Palestine Police Department said in a statement Thursday using Lambert’s full, legal last name.
“An argument then ensued between the general and Lambert-McMichael, which was now disrupting the press conference,” the statement continued.
The department said that Harris was “feeling threatened” by Lambert, who was “coming at him in an aggressive manner,” and then “pushed” the reporter away.
NewsNation rebuffed the general’s account, saying that Lambert was “simply doing his job” and “updating viewers about the latest developments” regarding the train crash.
Lambert’s attorney told NewsNation that the charges of trespassing, and subsequently resisting arrest, as well as the claims by the general were “false.”
Police said that, as he was being escorted out of the elementary school’s gymnasium where the conference was held, Lambert “attempted to pull away,” at which time he was forced to the ground and arrested.
The governor of Ohio said he was “shocked” when he heard that a reporter was arrested at the press conference and that he was “sorry that he was stopped from doing his job.”
“I don’t want to see him in jail, I don’t want to see him prosecuted,” Gov. Mike DeWine said Thursday of Lambert on NewsNation. “But for me to say I know what happened would simply not be the truth.”
Leland Vittert, an anchor for the broadcast and Lambert’s colleague, said that the reporter “did everything right” and that the general appeared to be “on a power trip.”
Harris was commissioned into the Guard in 1984 as an aviator, holding leadership roles at every tactical level in his nearly 40 years of service. He exclusively flew rotary-wing aircraft: the AH-1 Cobra, UH-1 Iroquois and OH-58 Kiowa, all of which have been decommissioned from active military service.
Harris deployed once to Kosovo in 2004, according to his Department of the Army photo and the assignments listed on his public biography.
The Ohio National Guard currently has many of its troops deployed to the Middle East supporting operations in Iraq and Syria, its largest mobilization since its mission in Afghanistan in 2011 during which three of its soldiers were killed.
Meanwhile, some of its troops are deployed domestically, responding to the train derailment that was the subject of the Wednesday news conference — a crash that involved roughly 100 train cars, some carrying hazardous material. Its air defense element is also deploying this month to Europe as NATO strengthens its borders amid the war in Ukraine.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated after Military.com received a response to a query to the Ohio National Guard after publication.
— Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.
— Steve Beynon contributed to this report.
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