MISSOULA – President Donald Trump, at a rally here for Republican candidates Thursday evening, praised Montana U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte for assaulting a reporter on the eve of Gianforte’s election last year in Bozeman.
Shortly after Trump called Gianforte to the podium to make brief comments to the crowd, the president said “by the way, never wrestle him.”
“Any guy who can do a body slam, he’s my guy,” said Trump, referring to Gianforte’s May 24, 2017, attack on Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs in Bozeman. “I shouldn’t say this, but there’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”
Witnesses to the assault said Gianforte threw Jacobs to the ground and started punching him, after Jacobs had attempted to question Gianforte about health care, while at a campaign event in Bozeman.
Trump said he’d heard about the incident while traveling in Rome and initially thought it might hurt Gianforte in the election.
“Then I said, `well, wait a minute – I know Montana pretty well. I think it might help him,’ and it did,” the president said, to cheers from the partisan crowd.
Gianforte won the May 25 special election over Democrat Rob Quist, by a 50 percent to 44 percent margin. Because of Montana’s early absentee voting, more than 70 percent of the electorate who cast ballots had already voted by the time of the Gianforte assault.
On Friday, a spokesman for Gianforte said the congressman regrets what happened last year and that he’s taken responsibility for it.
“This has been widely covered, he’s moved on, and since Montanans elected him, he’s been delivering results for Montana – a booming economy, safer communities and a more secure America,” the spokesman said.
Trump’s comments drew quick condemnation from Guardian US editor John Mulholland, who called them “an attack on the First Amendment by someone who has taken an oath to defend it.”
Mulholland also said that, in the wake of the possible murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi two weeks ago, the president’s statement “runs the risk of inviting other assaults on journalists both here and across the world, where they often face far greater threats.”
The campaign of Gianforte’s Democratic opponent, Kathleen Williams, said in a statement Thursday that Gianforte is “not who we are” as Montanans and released a new campaign ad that played an audio clip of Gianforte assaulting Jacobs.
PEN America, a group representing journalists and other writers, also called the president’s comments “a startling new low in terms of the White House’s open hostility toward the press.”
“During a week when the world is riveted in horror at the brutal murder of a journalist by the Saudi government, Trump’s remarks are a chilling reminder that U.S. global leadership on press freedom has collapsed utterly under the president’s watch,” said Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America.
At Thursday night’s rally at the Missoula International Airport, Gianforte also spoke before the president arrived, warming up the crowd by praising the president’s record on the economy and other fronts and urging Montana voters to support Republicans in the coming election.
Later, just before Trump’s comments about the Gianforte assault, the congressman said to the president: “Let me just say, on behalf of all Montanans, thank you for giving us hope again.”
Three weeks after the attack on Jacobs, Gianforte pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and was fined $300 and given a six-month deferred sentence. He also was ordered to perform 40 hours of community services and take a 20-hour anger-management class.