GOP candidate cited for assault as newspapers pull endorsements – Washington Post

— Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte was charged late Wednesday with misdemeanor assault after witnesses said he “body-slammed” a reporter for the Guardian who had been trying to ask him about the GOP’s 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weeks of voting in a special election to replace Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, three of Montana’s largest newspapers rescinded their endorsements of Gianforte.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.

“Following multiple interviews and an investigation by the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office it was determined there was probable cause to issue a citation,” 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.

“We’ll talk to you about that later,” Gianforte says in the audio.

“Yeah, but there’s not going to be time,” Jacobs says. “I’m just curious about it right now.”

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.

“I’m sick and tired of you guys!” Gianforte says. “The 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?”

“Yes, and you just broke my glasses,” Jacobs says.

“The last guy did the same damn thing,” Gianforte says.

“You just body-slammed me and broke my glasses,” Jacobs says.

“Get the hell out of here,” 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 “aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg’s face and began asking badgering questions,” prompting the candidate to act.

“Greg then attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face,” Scanlon said. “Jacobs grabbed Greg’s wrist, and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground. It’s unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene.”

On the tape, Gianforte cannot be heard asking Jacobs to lower the recorder. And Scanlon’s 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, “I’m sick and tired of this!”

“Nothing in the campaign statement is accurate except my name and my employer,” 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 state’s largest newspapers had pulled their endorsements — endorsements that the candidate had been touting in TV ads. The Billings Gazette, which serves Montana’s largest city, told readers it had made a “poor choice” by ignoring “questionable interactions” the candidate has had with reporters in the past.

“We previously supported Gianforte because he said he was ready to listen, to compromise, to take the tough questions,” wrote the newspaper’s editors. “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.”

The Helena Record, which serves the state’s capital city, wrote that the concepts of democracy and press freedom were “under attack” from Gianforte.

“In 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,” editors wrote. ‘These are not things we can continue to brush off.”

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.

“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,” editors wrote. “He showed Wednesday night that he lacks the experience, brains and abilities to effectively represent Montana in any elected office.”

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 “a matter for law enforcement” and he would focus on “issues facing Montana.”

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 — 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 — 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.

“I will not vote for a repeal-and-replace unless it protects people with pre-existing conditions, brings premiums down, and protects rural access,” 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 — 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 tape’s release, calling for Gianforte to quit the race.

“Greg Gianforte must immediately withdraw his candidacy after his alleged violent assault of an innocent journalist,” said DCCC spokesman Tyler Law. “Further, 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.”

But in interviews at Quist’s 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 who’d sued to keep people from fishing on public lands near his home. He’d nearly won the governor’s mansion anyway, and had deflected attention from his own low approval numbers with ads attacking Quist over unpaid taxes.

“Greg thinks he’s Donald Trump,” said Brent Morrow, 60. “He thinks he could shoot a guy on Fifth Avenue and get away with it.”

The alleged assault took place at Gianforte’s headquarters in Bozeman, where Fox’s Alicia Acuna and her crew were preparing a story to air on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”

As the crew was setting up, Jacobs put a voice recorder “to Gianforte’s face and began asking if he had a response to the newly released Congressional Budget Office report on the American Health Care Act,” the Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act, Acuna wrote in her own account of the event.

“Gianforte,” Acuna wrote, “told him he would get back to him later. Jacobs persisted with his question. Gianforte told him to talk to his press guy, Shane Scanlon.”

“At that point,” she wrote, “Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him.”

Gianforte was later cited for misdemeanor assault. The sheriff’s department said the incident did not meet the state’s statutory definition of felony assault.

Acuna and her crew “watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter. As Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs, he began yelling something to the effect of, ‘I’m sick and tired of this!’”

Acuna said that Jacobs “scrambled to his knees and said something about his glasses being broken.” He asked the Fox reporter and crew for their names but “in shock, we did not answer.”

Gianforte would face a maximum $500 fine or six months in jail if he is convicted. The sheriff’s statement added that Jacobs’s injuries did not meet the legal definition of felony assault.

Gootkin, the sheriff, had previously donated $250 to the Republican’s campaign. He said the donation had “nothing to do with our investigation.”

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 “a Republican whore.” 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 “the Obama agenda.”

In Montana, where more than 200,000 of the 700,000 eligible voters have already cast early absentee ballots, it was unclear how Gianforte’s 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 — 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 “the enemy” and mimed the act of wringing a neck.

“It seems like there are more of us than there is of him,” commented Gianforte.

Fred Barbash contributed to this report.

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