MISSOULA, Mont. — Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate in Montana’s special congressional election, was charged with misdemeanor assault Wednesday after allegedly assaulting a reporter for the Guardian who had been trying to ask him a question. Gianforte, who is seen as the slight favorite in a race that ends Thursday, left what was supposed to be a final campaign rally at his Bozeman headquarters without making remarks.
The Gallatin County sheriff’s office announced the charges in a press release posted to the county website. At a press conference earlier in the day, Sheriff Brian Gootkin said that witnesses were being interviewed, and that four other people had been present for the incident.
In an audio recording published by the Guardian, the reporter, Ben 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,” says Jacobs. “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 scream.
“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, which he did. After the incident, 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 does not ask Jacobs to lower the recorder.
In an article published Wednesday night, Fox News reporter Alicia Acuna wrote that Gianforte punched Jacobs after pulling him down.
“Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him,” Acuna wrote. “At no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte.”
Gianforte’s Democratic opponent Rob Quist heard about the incident while holding one of his final pre-election events at a campaign office in Missoula. After it wrapped, and before the audio was published, he told reporters that he would not comment on what happened.
“That’s a matter for law enforcement,” he said. “I’m just focused on the issues that are facing the people of Montana.”
At his final rally at a Missoula micro-brewery, Quist did not mention the incident, and brushed past reporters who continued to ask about it.
Other Democrats were less cautious. As word spread of what Gianforte allegedly did, some supporters who had been knocking on doors for Quist began playing voters the audio. 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.”
The NRCC, when asked for comment, referred reporters to Gianforte’s statement.
The Guardian’s U.S. editor, Lee Glendinning, said in a statement that the newspaper is “deeply appalled” by how the reporter was treated in the course of doing his job. “We are committed to holding power to account and we stand by Ben and our team of reporters for the questions they ask and the reporting that is produced,” she said.
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.
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 blow-up would affect the race. Jacobs, who had been covering the race for weeks, spent Wednesday evening telling and re-telling 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.