Montana’s GOP House candidate Greg Gianforte has been charged with misdemeanor assault after attacking a reporter for The Guardian.
He will have to appear in Gallatin County Justice Court in Bozeman, MT between now and June 7.
Last night, we reported Gianforte had “body slammed” The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs, breaking his glasses and telling him to “get the hell out of here” after Jacobs queried him about the latest CBO score for the House’s healthcare bill. Gianforte was at his campaign headquarters in Bozeman, MT for a BBQ with staffers.
Audio of the incident is available below, courtesy of The Guardian.
According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the Gallatin County Sherriff’s Office arrived around 5 p.m. After conducting several witness interviews, Gallatin County Sherriff Brian Gootkin cited Gianforte for misdemeanor assault, adding the incident “did not meet the criteria” for felony assault. You can see footage of Sheriff Gootkin’s press conference below.
The campaign issued a statement alleging Jacobs was the aggressor in this instance, wherein Jacobs “entered the office without permission, aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg’s face” while Gianforte was giving a separate interview with a Fox News affiliate crew. The statement then alleged Jacobs grabbed Gianforte by the wrist and spun them to the ground.
The Fox crew, however, released their account of the incident, contradicting the campaign statement—even suggesting Jacobs undersold the degree to which Gianforte assaulted him. From the Chronicle:
A Fox News crew was in the room and posted their account on that company’s website, which contradicted the campaign’s statement.
“Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him … I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the man, as he moved on top the reporter and began yelling something to the effect of ‘I’m sick and tired of this!’” a Fox News reporter wrote in the story.
Jacobs was evaluated in an ambulance at the scene and taken to Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital, according to the Hyalite Fire Department.
Jacobs left the hospital at approximately 7:25 p.m. in a sheriff’s vehicle. He was wearing a sling around his arm. He refused to comment on the incident.
Gianforte was seen sitting in a vehicle near his campaign headquarters during the incident and had been speaking with Gallatin County deputies. Medical responders provided initial care to him, and he left the scene shortly before 6 p.m. without speaking to reporters.
Sheriff Gootkin said investigators interviewed witnesses Wednesday night, including Jacobs. It was unclear whether Gianforte gave a formal statement to investigators later Wednesday night.
Gootkin added his office retrieved the audio recording from Jacobs and was in contact with Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert.
The sheriff said charges were not filed at the scene because investigators didn’t have enough information at the time. He said the detective division is treating the case like any other investigation.
“After this week, this is the last thing we needed,” Gootkin said, referring to the shooting death and funeral of Broadwater County Sheriff’s Deputy Mason Moore.
Earlier this morning, according to the Chronicle, Jacobs appeared on Good Morning America contesting the Gianforte campaign’s account, adding that “the only thing that is factually correct … is my name and place of employment.”
In the wake of last night’s incident, several Montana newspapers have rescinded their endorsement of Gianforte. Indeed, the Billings Gazette retracted their support in a blistering op-ed from the editorial board:
Although we’re greatly troubled by this action against a member of the media who was just doing his job, to make this an issue of media intrusion or even a passionate defense of the role of a free press during an election would be to miss the point.
If what was heard on tape and described by eye-witnesses is accurate, the incident in Bozeman is nothing short of assault. We wouldn’t condone it if it happened on the street. We wouldn’t condone it if it happened in a home or even a late-night bar fight. And we couldn’t accept it from a man who is running to become Montana’s lone Congressional representative.
We will not stand by that kind of violence, period.
We previously supported Gianforte because he said he was ready to listen, to compromise, to take the tough questions. Everything he said was obliterated by his surprising actions that were recorded and witnessed Wednesday. We simply cannot trust him. Because trust — not agreement — is essential in the role of representative, we cannot stand by him.
While we clearly made a poor choice in our original endorsement, an even bigger mistake would have been to stand by it, or say nothing even though this editorial appears on Election Day and may open us to criticism of trying to unduly influence the outcome.
We’d point out that all the other questionable interactions Gianforte had with reporters, including one case where he joked about ganging up on a reporter, must now be seen through a much more sinister lens. What he passed off as a joke at the time now becomes much more serious.
To the voters who have not voted yet, we simply urge you to evaluate each candidate very carefully and make the best choice.
To those who have voted: Unfortunately, Montana does not allow those who voted early to reconsider and vote again. We’re one of the few states that does not. This would seem to be the best reason we should urge our state leaders to change that law.
In separate op-eds, the Missoulian and the Helena Independent Record also lambasted Gianforte’s conduct, with the Missoulian saying “There is no doubt that Gianforte committed an act of terrible judgment that, if it doesn’t land him in jail, also shouldn’t land him in the U.S. House of Representatives.”
Although Gianforte was seen as the favorite to win Montana’s special election—and may well win still—this incident should, by all rights, haunt him. And according to CNN, this puts the Republican Party in a tight, tight spot. If Gianforte loses, the GOP loses Montana’s only House seat, which has been red since the 1990s. But if Gianforte wins, he will have the scent of scandal about him—be it a whiff or a stench—and his mere presence in the House would dog GOP leadership, giving them yet another branding headache.
Another possible issue CNN broaches: if Gianforte has to resign (or is made to by GOP leadership), Montana will have to conduct yet another election.
Gianforte was a less than ideal candidate for Montana’s lone congressional seat since, in his previous electoral foray, he ran for governorship of Montana in 2016, losing to incumbent Steve Bullock (D).
This incident also shows how contentious the debate over healthcare is and how it’s wearing on candidates even in “safe” races like Montana.
UPDATE: Several politicians have issued statement regarding Gianforte’s actions yesterday.
According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, U.S. Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) tweeted a call for Gianforte to apologize. His Democratic counterpart, Jon Tester, tweeted somewhat more obliquely. You can see their tweets below.
Greg Gianforte needs to apologize.
— Steve Daines (@SteveDaines) May 25, 2017
— Jon Tester (@jontester) May 25, 2017
Gianforte’s Democratic challenger Rob Quist also responded in a video posted on journalist Dave Weigel’s twitter, which you can see below.
Quist responds (sort of) pic.twitter.com/cvnfAm0NyE
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) May 24, 2017
Libertarian candidate Mark Wicks also released a statement, courtesy of the Billings Gazette:
“While details are still not entirely clear about what happened between Greg Gianforte and the Guardian reporter, it is clear that Greg Gianforte lost his temper when he shouldn’t have. Most days in Washington D.C. won’t go as planned and obstacles will arise daily.”
Montana Governor Steve Bullock issued a statement through social condemning Gianforte’s actions:
It is unsettling on many levels that Greg Gianforte physically assaulted a journalist and then lied, refusing to take responsibility for his actions. Yesterday’s events serve as another wake up call to all Montanans and Americans that we must restore civility in politics and governing, and demand more from people who hold the public’s trust. One thing is clear: no matter what happens today, the actions of Gianforte do not reflect the values of Montana or its people.
Finally, according to Talking Points Memo, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) also called on Gianforte to apologize, but said he would seat Gianforte should he win tonight’s election. “If he wins, he has been chosen by the people of Montana who their congressman is going to be,” Ryan said. “I’m going to let the people of Montana decide who they want as their representative. That’s not our choice.”
While Ryan is correct that Congress has no sway over who Montana elects, the House has a variety of options available to deal with problem members. Under Article 1, Section 5, Clause 2 of the Constitution, the U.S. House is allowed to “punish its Members for disorderly Behavior, and, with the Concurrence of two-thirds, expel a Member.”