Montana GOP House Candidate Charged With Assault After Body Slamming Reporter
It was just yesterday morning that I wrote about today’s Special Election in Montana to fill the seat vacated by Ryan Zinke when he became Secretary of the Interior. By late in the day and overnight, that race was turned upside down when the Republican candidate Greg Giancorte was charged with assault after he physically assaulted a reporter trying to ask him a question about the CBO score of the American Health Care Act, which was released late yesterday:
MISSOULA, Mont. — The Republican candidate in a hotly contested special House election in Montana was charged with assaulting a journalist on Wednesday at what was to be a final rally in Bozeman on the eve of the vote. The attack brought police officers to the event and sent the reporter to the hospital for X-rays.
In a statement late Wednesday, the office of the Gallatin County sheriff, Brian Gootkin, said there was enough evidence to charge the candidate, Greg Gianforte, with misdemeanor assault. Mr. Gianforte, the Republican candidate for the state’s lone House seat, is scheduled to appear in court before June 7.
It was an extraordinary development in a race that was already being closely watched for clues about the national political environment in the tumultuous first months of the Trump presidency.
Three of the state’s largest newspapers, The Billings Gazette, The Missoulian and The Helena Independent Record, quickly rescinded their endorsements of Mr. Gianforte. But prospects that the altercation could tip the race to the Democrat, Rob Quist, were complicated by Montana’s early-voting tradition: Over half the estimated total ballots in the contest had been returned by Wednesday.
Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian, said the episode occurred during an interview at Mr. Gianforte’s campaign headquarters. Mr. Jacobs said Mr. Gianforte “body-slammed” him when pressed on a question about the Republicans’ health care bill.
Members of a Fox News television crew witnessed the encounter, and in a firsthand account posted on the network’s website, one of the Fox journalists described Mr. Gianforte as “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!'” according to the Fox News account.
Mr. Jacobs said Mr. Gianforte became agitated when asked about the Congressional Budget Office’s new fiscal assessment of the legislation that House Republicans have passed to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Mr. Gianforte initially sidestepped the question, according to an audio recording of the episode Mr. Jacobs posted, suggesting the reporter speak with his spokesman. But when Mr. Jacobs persisted, the candidate lost his composure.
“I’m sick and tired of you guys!” Mr. Gianforte can be heard saying on the recording shortly after the sounds of a physical struggle and a crash. “The last time you came here you did the same thing. Get the hell out of here. Get the hell out of here.”
Mr. Jacobs responded: “You just body-slammed me and broke my glasses.”
“Get the hell out of here,” Mr. Gianforte said again. Mr. Jacobs said he would report the episode to the authorities and asked for the names of the other individuals in the room. Then the tape ends.
In a statement, Mr. Gianforte’s spokesman offered a strikingly different version of events.
“After asking Jacobs to lower the recorder, Jacobs declined,” said Shane Scanlon, Mr. Gianforte’s spokesman. “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.”
Mr. Gianforte is not heard on the recording requesting that Mr. Jacobs lower the recorder.
If convicted, Mr. Gianforte faces up to a $500 fine, or six months in jail, or both.
Three hours to the west, in Missoula, Mr. Quist, the Democratic nominee for the seat, which was vacated by Ryan Zinke when he became the Interior Department secretary, seemed taken by surprise when he was asked about the episode.
“That’s really not for me to talk about; I think that’s more a matter for law enforcement,” Mr. Quist said.
But the House Democratic campaign arm quickly seized on the episode, calling on Mr. Gianforte to “immediately withdraw” from the race.
The newspapers were swift in withdrawing their endorsements of the Republican candidate, with The Missoulian saying that Mr. Gianforte “should lose the confidence of all Montanans.”
The Billings Gazette’s editorial board released a blistering statement. The board’s members said they were “at a loss for words.”
“We will not stand by that kind of violence, period,” The Gazette said.
Mr. Gianforte ran for governor in Montana last year, his first bid for office after amassing a fortune as a technology executive.
Earlier Wednesday, after a rally in Helena, he spoke briefly with a reporter in between greeting supporters. He immediately turned to his spokesman when approached, but he did respond to a question about the role of President Trump in the race.
While Montana is a Republican-leaning state and Mr. Gianforte has been enjoying an advantage in private polling here, the campaign of Mr. Quist, a banjo-strumming folk singer, has caught fire with national progressive activists. He raised over $6 million despite receiving little help from Democrats in Washington.
Here’s the audio recording of the incident, which largely corroborates Mr. Jacobs’ written version of what happened:
Additionally, the incident was witnessed by Buzzfeed reporter Alexis Levinson:
Ben walked into a room where a local tv crew was set up for an interview with Gianforte
— Alexis Levinson (@alexis_levinson) May 24, 2017
You can read the full chain of tweets in which Levinson describes what she saw by clicking on this link.
And, by a Fox News crew that was preparing to interview Gianforte and in the room when the alleged assault occurred:
Faith, Keith and I arrived early to set up for the interview in a room adjacent to another room where a volunteer BBQ was to take place. As the time for the interview neared, Gianforte came into the room. We exchanged pleasantries and made small talk about restaurants and Bozeman.
During that conversation, another man — who we now know is Ben Jacobs of The Guardian — walked into the room with a voice recorder, put it up 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. 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 reporter. As Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs, he 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. Jacobs then said he wanted the police called and went to leave. Gianforte looked at the three of us and repeatedly apologized. At that point, I told him and Scanlon, who was now present, that we needed a moment. The men then left.
To be clear, at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte, who left the area after giving statements to local sheriff’s deputies.
Here’s an interview with the Fox News reporter describing what she saw:
— Tom Namako (@TomNamako) May 25, 2017
Based on all of the available evidence, including the Jacobs written account, the recording, and the accounts of the four witnesses to the event, this clearly seems like a clear cut case of assault and battery. Even if you accept the argument of the campaign that Jacobs ‘barged’ into the room and began asking Gianforte questions while holding out his recorder, that does not justify what Giancorte did when he shoved Jacobs to the ground, punched him, and at some point appeared to even be attempting to choke him by putting his hands around his neck. Indeed, based on the recording and the contemporaneous accounts from the witnesses it would appear that the initial statement from the Giancorte campaign was nothing but a complete and total lie that tried to make Jacobs out to be the aggressor when it was, in fact, Gianforte who had initiated the use of force in this situation. Because of all of this, it was entirely appropriate that the local Sheriff, who is apparently a Republican himself who had donated to Gianforte’s campaign in the past, chose to file charges against the candidate after Jacobs swore out at a complaint against him.
The immediate question, of course, is what impact this incident will have on the outcome of today’s election. As I noted yesterday, the polling in this race has been limited but what little has been done has been much closer than would ordinarily be expected in a state like Montana. The most recent poll, from Google, even showed Democrat Rob Quist leading Gianforte by fourteen points, but it’s unclear how reliable that poll is or what impact this incident will actually have on the race. Unfortunately, it’s entirely possible that this incident may have no real impact at all on the outcome of the race. Montana is a state where many voters either vote by mail or via absentee ballot and according to some reports, there was a heavy early vote in this Special Election, with somewhere between 50% and 65% of likely voters having already voted. This suggests that it may not matter what impact these charges have on the outcome of the race if Gianforte already has a big advantage in the early vote. On the other hand, this assault could cause people who may have stayed home for this election to get out and vote thanks to the overwhelmingly negative coverage Gianforte has gotten from this incident. Additionally, the presence of a Libertarian Party candidate who has polled between 5% and 11% in the race could end up working to the advantage of the Democratic candidate if people who were inclined to vote for Gianforte decide to register their distaste for what he did but can’t bring themselves to vote for a Democrat. All that being said, there’s a good possibility that Gianforte could still win this election.
The possibility that Gianforte could win the election has led many early commenters to suggest that the House of Representatives should refuse to seat him, however, it’s not at all clear that they have the power to do so. Under Article I, Section Five, Clause 1 of the Constitution, the House and the Senate are given the right to be the sole authority to judge the qualifications of their members, meaning that they could reject a candidate if they deemed him unqualified. However, in Powell v. McCormack 395 U.S. 486 (1969) the Supreme Court ruled that Congressional authority to exclude members is limited to the confines of whether that prospective member is in compliance with the qualifications of members clause as set forth in Article I, Section Two, Clause Two which requires that members be at least 25 years old, that they have been a citizen of the United States for at least seven years, and that they have been an inhabitant of the state in which their district is located. There is nothing in the clause that says that a person who is charged with, or even convicted of, a crime prior to taking office is unqualified for the position and nothing that gives the House (or the Senate) the authority to bar someone who was duly elected if they are otherwise meet the criteria of the Qualifications Clause. Given that, it would appear that Congress has no real authority to bar Gianforte from being seated should he win today.
Even though this incident is less than twenty-four hours old, there’s already been plenty of commentary about it, all of it overwhelmingly negative. As many pundits have pointed out, this incident occurs in the context of a recently concluded Presidential election in which the Republican candidate and eventual winner spent the better part of his campaign openly attacking the press, and even individual reporters. At his rallies, he would encourage his supporters to verbally abuse the press pool that was covering him and falsely accuse them of not even airing speeches that were being aired live on every cable news channel at the time. On more than one occasion, individual reporters in the press pool had to be escorted out of the building by a member of Trump’s Secret Service detail or local law enforcement due to concerns for their safety. Since taking office, Trump and his Administration has repeatedly attacked the news media for truthfully reporting what they label as “Fake News” and used the Press Secretary to mock the media for simply doing their job. Is it a surprise that, under this kind of guidance, candidates for office are now assaulting members of the media for asking a question about an important piece of legislation? Of course it’s not. This, my friends, is Donald Trump’s America.