The special election to fill a U.S. House seat in Montana (which was vacated by new interior secretary Ryan Zinke) was already unpredictable heading into Thursday’s vote. But now the favorite in this Republican-leaning state, Greg Gianforte, has thrown something new into the mix by apparently attacking a reporter on election eve. Late on Wednesday night, police announced that the candidate has been cited for misdemeanor assault.
Ben Jacobs, a political reporter for The Guardian, claims that while asking Gianforte a question before a campaign event on Wednesday evening, the candidate suddenly slammed him to the floor, breaking his glasses and shouting, “Get the hell out of here.”
“He took me to the ground,” Jacobs told his colleagues by phone from the back of an ambulance. “This is the strangest thing that has ever happened to me in reporting on politics.”
Here’s audio captured by Jacobs’s recorder:
Shane Scanlon, a spokesman for Gianforte’s campaign, released a statement accusing Jacobs of crashing the candidate’s interview with another reporter. Scanlon claims he “aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg’s face, and began asking badgering questions.” He continued:
After asking Jacobs to lower the recorder, Jacobs declined. Greg then attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face. 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 at our campaign volunteer BBQ.
However, the journalists Jacobs allegedly interrupted — a team from the decidedly not-liberal Fox News Channel — offered a very different account. Fox News reporter Alicia Acuna said she and her two colleagues were making small talk with Gianforte as they set up for an interview when Jacobs entered the room:
[He] put it up to Gianforte’s face and began asking if him if he had a response to the newly released Congressional Budget Office report on the American Health Care Act. Gianforte told him he would get to him later. Jacobs persisted with his question. Gianforte told him to talk to his press guy, Shane Scanlon.
At that point, Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him. Faith, Keith and 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!”
Jacobs scrambled to his knees and said something about his glasses being broken. He asked Faith, Keith and myself for our names. In shock, we did not answer. He then said he wanted the police called and went to leave. Gianforte looked at the three of us and repeatedly apologized.
Acuna noted, “At no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte.” She and her team are cooperating with local authorities.
BuzzFeed’s Alexis Levinson, who was standing outside the room during the incident, said she heard yelling and saw Jacobs hit the floor. Then he emerged from the room holding his broken glasses.
Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin said Jacobs was examined at a hospital and released, then reported the incident to the police. After saying initially that his office had no immediate plans to charge Gianforte, Gootkin’s office released this statement shortly before midnight local time:
Following multiple interviews and an investigation by the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office it was determined there was probable cause to issue a citation to Greg Gianforte for misdemeanor assault (MCA 45-5-201). The nature of the injuries did not meet the statutory elements of felony assault. Greg Gianforte received a citation on Wednesday night and is scheduled to appear in Gallatin County Justice Court between now and June 7, 2017.
The maximum penalty is six months in county jail and a fine of up to $500.
The statement said the investigation is now complete, so it appears the candidate will not be cited for fleeing the scene. Gianforte was driven away shortly after the incident, though he was scheduled to address his supporters. Gootkin had said police were looking into the matter.
Gootkin donated $250 to Gianforte’s campaign in March, according to campaign finance reports. He said in a statement, “This contribution has nothing to do with our investigation.”
Guardian U.S. editor Lee Glendinning said the paper stands by Jacobs and they are “deeply appalled” by how he “was treated in the course of doing his job as a journalist.”
“We are committed to holding power to account and we stand by Ben Jacobs and our team of reporters for the questions they ask and the reporting that is produced.”
Last month, Jacobs reported that Gianforte, a tech millionaire, owns about $250,000 in shares of two index funds that are invested in the Russian economy and have holdings in companies under U.S. sanctions.
During a campaign event in Missoula, Gianforte’s Democratic opponent, Rob Quist, told reporters he hadn’t heard about the alleged body slam, and would leave the matter to law enforcement.
Late on Wednesday night, three local papers rescinded their endorsements of Gianforte. “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,” said The Missoulian. “He showed Wednesday night that he lacks the experience, brains and abilities to effectively represent Montana in any elected office.”
The editorial board of the Billings Gazette said they were “at a loss for words”:
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.
Referencing Gianforte telling Jacobs that he’s “sick and tired of you guys,” The Independent Record said:
We are also sick and tired — of Gianforte’s incessant attacks on the free press. 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, and these are not things we can continue to brush off.
It’s hard to say what the incident’s political impact will be. On the one hand, a potential act of criminal violence by a congressional candidate could bother some last-minute deciders. On the other hand, establishing rich software capitalist Gianforte as a rassler who body-slams media enemies could cut the other way, too.
All in all, it could show the Republican candidate making a fatal last-minute mistake, or exhibiting complicity in a sure victory. It probably matters that as many as two-thirds of the voters in this contest have already cast ballots by mail, for or against the body-slamming Republican. But if the race turns out to be really close tomorrow night, Montanans may wonder if they want to be represented in Washington by a crazy, rich wild man like Greg Gianforte, who idolizes another crazy, rich wild man named Donald Trump.
This post has been updated throughout.