MISSOULA, Montana — 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.
On Thursday, hours before polls were set to close in the special election for Montana’s lone congressional seat, Republican leaders criticized Gianforte and three of the state’s largest newspapers rescinded their endorsements of his campaign.
“There is no time where a physical altercation should occur,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., said at his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill. “It should not have happened. Should the gentleman apologize? Yeah, I think he should apologize.”
Asked twice whether Republicans would let Gianforte join their House conference, Ryan said they would. “I’m going to let the people of Montana decide who they want as their representative,” he said.
Gianforte canceled a television appearance on MSNBC scheduled for Thursday night amid reports that Montana voters were calling state and county election officials in the hopes of changing their early votes. A spokeswoman for the Montana secretary of state’s office said they had received a dozen phone calls from voters on Thursday morning.
“In Montana, we vote only once,” Christi Jacobsen, chief of staff to Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, wrote in an email. “Once you voted you can’t change your vote.”
Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the candidate’s behavior was “totally out of character” for Gianforte but said that “we all make mistakes.”
“We need to let the facts surrounding this incident unfold,” Stivers said in a statement. “Today’s special election is bigger than any one person; it’s about the views of all Montanans. They deserve to have their voices heard in Washington.”
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., a longtime friend and former colleague of Gianforte in the private sector, called on him to apologize and did not defend the candidate in a statement he posted Thursday on Twitter. “I have confidence in local law enforcement,” said Daines, one of Gianforte’s closest allies in state politics. “I do know Greg Gianforte has been charged with misdemeanor assault and will leave the questions and answers to local law enforcement. I do not condone violence in any way.”
The incident took place after nearly four weeks of voting in a special election to replace Ryan Zinke, who became President Donald Trump’s interior secretary in March. Gianforte’s opponent, Democrat Rob Quist, declined to comment on the scuffle, but other Democrats called on Gianforte to withdraw his candidacy.
At a Thursday afternoon news conference, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called Gianforte a “wannabe Trump.”
“That’s his model. Donald Trump’s his model,” Pelosi said. “How do you explain that to children? You ask a question and I’ll strangle you? I mean, really.”
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., suggested Gianforte had shirked an essential duty to voters by refusing to answer Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs’s question. “Part of the job representing the people of Montana is answering basic questions on important topics, topics such as how a dangerous health-care plan could impact the very people you are trying to represent. It’s part of the job,” the senator said.
Gianforte has not apologized for the incident, which upended the race considered by many to be a bellwether for Republicans’ political chances in the era of Trump.
Gallatin County police announced the charges late Wednesday. “Following multiple interviews and an investigation by the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office it was determined there was probable cause to issue a citation,” Sheriff Brian Gootkin said 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 Jacobs, the reporter. Gianforte was preparing for a final campaign rally at his Bozeman headquarters on Wednesday. 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.
In the recording, Jacobs can be heard asking Gianforte to respond to the newly released Congressional Budget Office score of House Republicans’ American Health Care Act, a bill Gianforte has said he was glad to see the House approve.
“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 saying he will be contacting the police. Gianforte left without appearing at the rally. Scanlon released a campaign statement putting the onus on Jacobs, saying that the reporter “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 Channel 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,” Jacobs told The Washington Post.
By dawn on Election Day, the assault charge was the biggest political story in Montana, and three of the state’s largest newspapers had pulled their endorsements, which the candidate had been touting in TV ads. The Billings Gazette, which serves Montana’s largest city, told readers that 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,” the newspaper’s editors wrote. “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 Independent Record, which serves the state’s capital city, wrote that the concepts of democracy and press freedom were “under attack” by 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 Missoulian, which had taken heat from readers for backing Gianforte, pulled its support and suggested 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 about the incident after telling reporters in Missoula, where he held his final rally, that it was “a matter for law enforcement” and that he would focus on “issues facing Montana.”
The American Health Care Act – the Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act – had become the dominant issue in the campaign. 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 help promote his position on U.S. health care: universal coverage.
Gianforte, meanwhile, had struggled to explain his own position on the bill. In early May, reporters for The Post and the New York Times received a tape of Gianforte telling donors that he was glad that the AHCA had passed the House. But in public, he said he still had questions about the bill. In a commercial that was still running on Election Day, Gianforte continued to obfuscate on the question of whether he could support the measure.
“I will not vote for a repeal-and-replace unless it protects people with preexisting conditions, brings premiums down and protects rural access,” Gianforte says in the ad.
Although he said that he would have a better idea of his vote when the CBO score arrived, Gianforte released no statement – 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 recording was made public, calling for Gianforte to quit the race.
“Greg Gianforte must immediately withdraw his candidacy after his alleged violent assault of an innocent journalist,” DCCC spokesman Tyler Law said. “Further, Speaker 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 microbrewery, voters were skeptical that the attack could change the race. Gianforte entered the contest with high negative ratings and an image as a hard-charging bully who had sued to keep people from fishing on public land near his home. He had nearly won the governor’s mansion anyway and had deflected attention from his 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.”
Fox News’s Alicia Acuna said she and her crew were also at Gianforte’s Bozeman headquarters on Wednesday 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,” Acuna wrote in her account of the event.
“Gianforte told him he would get back to him later,” she wrote. “Jacobs persisted with his question. Gianforte told him to talk to his press guy, Shane Scanlon.”
At that point, Acuna said, “Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him.”
Acuna said that she 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!’ “
She said that Jacobs “scrambled to his knees and said something about his glasses being broken.” He asked the Fox News crew for their names, but “in shock, we did not answer,” Acuna said.
A notice issued to Gianforte charged him with assault, or “purposely or knowingly caused injury … to another,” and required him to appear personally in court on June 7. The document was shared on Twitter by a Bozeman Daily Chronicle reporter.
Gianforte would face a maximum $500 fine or six months in jail if he is convicted. The sheriff’s statement said that Jacobs’s injuries did not meet the legal definition of felony assault.
Gootkin, the sheriff, had donated $250 to Gianforte’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. In 2006, Mike Hatch, 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, then-Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., lost what had been a safe seat after manhandling a Republican tracker who asked whether he supported “the Obama agenda.”
In Montana, where more than 200,000 of the 700,000 eligible voters have cast early absentee ballots, it was unclear how Gianforte’s blowup would affect the race. Jacobs, who had been covering the contest for weeks, spent Wednesday evening telling and retelling the story from a hospital, for the police and media outlets.
Some Democrats fretted that the incident would not change the race – or that it would actually help Gianforte with his base. Last month, a voter at a Gianforte town hall meeting pointed out a reporter in the room, according to the Missoulian, and then 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,” Gianforte said at the town hall.
The Washington Post’s Fred Barbash contributed to this report.