MISSOULA, Mont. â Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte was charged late Wednesday with misdemeanor assault after witnesses said he âbody-slammedâ a reporter for the Guardian who had been trying to ask him about the GOPâs health-care bill.
Hours before polls close Thursday after nearly four weeks of voting in a special election to replace Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, three of Montanaâs largest newspapers rescinded their endorsements of Gianforte. His opponent, Democrat Rob Quist, declined to wade in on the incident, but other Democrats called on him to quit the race.
âFollowing multiple interviews and an investigation by the Gallatin County Sheriffâs Office it was determined there was probable cause to issue a citation,â said Sheriff Brian Gootkin in a statement, adding that Gianforte would need to appear before judges by June 7.
That decision came after the Guardian published an audio recording of the incident made by reporter Ben Jacobs. Gianforte was preparing for a final campaign rally at his Bozeman headquarters, and Jacobs had followed him into a room where a camera was set up for an interview before the event.
In the recording, Jacobs can be heard asking Gianforte to respond to the fresh Congressional Budget Office score of the American Health Care Act, a bill Gianforte has said he was glad to see the House of Representatives approve.
According to Alexis Levinson, a reporter for BuzzFeed, Jacobs had followed the candidate into a room where a camera was set up for an interview, before the event began.
âWeâll talk to you about that later,â Gianforte says in the audio.
âYeah, but thereâs not going to be time,â Jacobs says. âIâm just curious about it right now.â
After Gianforte tells Jacobs to direct the question to his spokesman, Shane Scanlon, there is the sound of an altercation, and Gianforte begins to shout.
âIâm sick and tired of you guys!â Gianforte says. âThe last guy that came in here did the same thing. Get the hell out of here! Get the hell out of here! The last guy did the same thing. Are you with the Guardian?â
âYes, and you just broke my glasses,â Jacobs says.
âThe last guy did the same damn thing,â Gianforte says.
âYou just body-slammed me and broke my glasses,â Jacobs says.
âGet the hell out of here,â Gianforte says.
After that, Jacobs can be heard on the tape promising to contact the police. Gianforte left without appearing at the rally. Scanlon released a campaign statement putting the onus on Jacobs, saying that he âaggressively shoved a recorder in Gregâs face and began asking badgering questions,â prompting the candidate to act.
âGreg then attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face,â Scanlon said. âJacobs grabbed Gregâs wrist, and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground. Itâs unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene.â
On the tape, Gianforte cannot be heard asking Jacobs to lower the recorder. And Scanlonâs description was challenged by a Fox News reporter who witnessed the scuffle and described Gianforte throwing Jacobs to the ground, grabbing his neck, striking him and exclaiming, âIâm sick and tired of this!â
âNothing in the campaign statement is accurate except my name and my employer,â said Jacobs in a text message to a Post reporter.
By dawn on election day, the assault charge was the biggest political story in the state, and three of the stateâs largest newspapers had pulled their endorsements â endorsements that the candidate had been touting in TV ads. The Billings Gazette, which serves Montanaâs largest city, told readers it had made a âpoor choiceâ by ignoring âquestionable interactionsâ the candidate has had with reporters in the past.
âWe previously supported Gianforte because he said he was ready to listen, to compromise, to take the tough questions,â wrote the newspaperâs editors. âEverything he said was obliterated by his surprising actions that were recorded and witnessed Wednesday. We simply cannot trust him. Because trust â not agreement â is essential in the role of representative, we cannot stand by him.â
The Helena Record, which serves the stateâs capital city, wrote that the concepts of democracy and press freedom were âunder attackâ from Gianforte.
âIn the past, he has encouraged his supporters to boycott certain newspapers, singled out a reporter in a room to point out that he was outnumbered, and even made a joke out of the notion of choking a news writer,â editors wrote. âThese are not things we can continue to brush off.â
The Missoulan, which had taken heat from readers for backing Gianforte, pulled its support while suggesting that the candidate, who narrowly lost a race for governor last year, should bow out of public life.
âGianforte committed an act of terrible judgment that, if it doesnât land him in jail, also shouldnât land him in the U.S. House of Representatives,â editors wrote. âHe showed Wednesday night that he lacks the experience, brains and abilities to effectively represent Montana in any elected office.â
Gianforte was expected to appear on Fox News later on election day. Quist, his Democratic opponent, made no further statements on the incident after telling reporters in Missoula, where he held his final rally, that it was âa matter for law enforcementâ and he would focus on âissues facing Montana.â
The AHCA had become the dominant issue. In the closing days of the race, Quist focused his events and TV ads on his opposition to the Republican bill and brought in Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) to amplify his own preference â universal health care.
Gianforte, meanwhile, had struggled to explain his own position on the bill. In early May, reporters for the New York Times and Washington Post received a tape of Gianforte telling donors he was glad that the AHCA passed â but in public, he said he still had questions about the bill. In a commercial that was still runing on election day, Gianforte continued to obfuscate on the question of whether he could support the bill.
âI will not vote for a repeal-and-replace unless it protects people with pre-existing conditions, brings premiums down, and protects rural access,â Gianforte says in the ad.
Despite saying that he would have a better idea of his vote when the CBO score arrived, Gianforte released no statement Tuesday â and refused to give one to Jacobs.
As word spread of the alleged assault in Bozeman, some supporters who had been knocking on doors for Quist began playing voters the audio clip. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has invested more than $500,000 in the race, released a statement after the tapeâs release, calling for Gianforte to quit the race.
âGreg Gianforte must immediately withdraw his candidacy after his alleged violent assault of an innocent journalist,â said DCCC spokesman Tyler Law. âFurther, Speaker [Paul] Ryan and the National Republican Campaign Committee should not waste another minute before publicly denouncing their candidate and apologizing for the millions of dollars they spent on his behalf.â
But in interviews at Quistâs final rally, at a Missoula micro-brewery, voters were skeptical that the attack could change the race. Gianforte entered the race with high negative ratings, and an image as a hard-charging bully whoâd sued to keep people from fishing on public lands near his home. Heâd nearly won the governorâs mansion anyway, and had deflected attention from his own low approval numbers with ads attacking Quist over unpaid taxes.
âGreg thinks heâs Donald Trump,â said Brent Morrow, 60. âHe thinks he could shoot a guy on Fifth Avenue and get away with it.â
The alleged assault took place at Gianforteâs headquarters in Bozeman, where Foxâs Alicia Acuna and her crew were preparing a story to air on âSpecial Report with Bret Baier.â
As the crew was setting up, Jacobs put a voice recorder âto Gianforteâs face and began asking if he had a response to the newly released Congressional Budget Office report on the American Health Care Act,â the Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act, Acuna wrote in her own account of the event.
âGianforte,â Acuna wrote, âtold him he would get back to him later. Jacobs persisted with his question. Gianforte told him to talk to his press guy, Shane Scanlon.â
âAt that point,â she wrote, âGianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him.â
Gianforte was later cited for misdemeanor assault. The sheriffâs department said the incident did not meet the stateâs statutory definition of felony assault.
Acuna and her crew âwatched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter. As Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs, he began yelling something to the effect of, âIâm sick and tired of this!ââ
Acuna said that Jacobs âscrambled to his knees and said something about his glasses being broken.â He asked the Fox reporter and crew for their names but âin shock, we did not answer.â
Gianforte would face a maximum $500 fine or six months in jail if he is convicted. The sheriffâs statement added that Jacobsâs injuries did not meet the legal definition of felony assault.
Gootkin, the sheriff, had previously donated $250 to the Republicanâs campaign. He said the donation had ânothing to do with our investigation.â
In other races, candidates have been badly damaged for appearing to blow up at reporters or people recording them on tape. In 2006, the Democratic nominee for governor of Minnesota lost a close race after accusing a reporter who asked tough questions of being âa Republican whore.â In 2010, North Carolina Democratic congressman Bob Etheridge lost what had been a safe seat after manhandling a Republican tracker who asked if he supported âthe Obama agenda.â
In Montana, where more than 200,000 of the 700,000 eligible voters have already cast early absentee ballots, it was unclear how Gianforteâs blowup would affect the race. Jacobs, who had been covering the race for weeks, spent Wednesday evening telling and retelling the story from a hospital, for media outlets and for the police.
Some Democrats quietly fretted that the alleged assault would not change the race â or would help Gianforte with his base. Last month, a voter at a Gianforte town hall pointed out a reporter in the room; then, according to the Missoulian, the voter called the media âthe enemyâ and mimed the act of wringing a neck.
âIt seems like there are more of us than there is of him,â commented Gianforte.
Fred Barbash contributed to this report.