Updated: May 25, 10:38 a.m.
BOZEMAN – Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate for Montana’s sole congressional seat, has been cited with misdemeanor assault for allegedly body-slamming a reporter on Wednesday, the day before the polls close in the nationally watched special election, an allegation that has been corroborated by multiple witnesses.
According to a statement from Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin, Gianforte was cited after “multiple interviews and an investigation … determined there was probable cause to issue a citation to Greg Gianforte for misdemeanor assault. The nature of the injuries did not meet the statutory elements of felony assault.”
If convicted, Gianforte could face up to 6 months in jail and a $500 fine. He must appear in Gallatin County Justice Court before June 7.
According to campaign spokesman Shane Scanlon, Gianforte was in a private office giving an interview when Guardian newspaper reporter Ben Jacobs came in without permission.
In an audio recording posted by the Guardian, the reporter asks the congressional candidate about the GOP’s health care bill, which was just evaluated hours earlier by the Congressional Budget Office.
“We’ll talk to you about that later,” Gianforte says on the recording, referring Jacobs to a spokesman.
When Jacobs says that there won’t be time, Gianforte says “Just–” and there is a crashing sound. Gianforte yells, “The last guy who came here did the same thing,” and a shaken-sounded Jacobs tells the candidate he just body-slammed him.
“Get the hell out of here,” Gianforte says.
Members of a Fox News Channel crew who say they witnessed the incident published a firsthand account, offering details that are at odds with the campaign’s version of the event, which blames Jacobs.
In the Fox News post, Alicia Acuna writes that “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!'”
The report continues: “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. As for myself and my crew, we are cooperating with local authorities. It is not clear if charges will be filed against Gianforte at this time.”
At a news conference prior to announcing the charges, Sheriff Gootkin said authorities were still interviewing witnesses and the investigation was ongoing. News of the allegations spread rapidly across state and national news organizations, as well as social media channels, as reporters from the Bozeman Daily Chronicle tweeted updates and photos.
Gootkin also addressed a $250 contribution that he made to Gianforte’s campaign on March 23, news of which surfaced following the press conference.
“This contribution has nothing to do with our investigation, which is now complete,” he stated.
Scanlon’s full statement on the incident reads: “Tonight, as Greg was giving a separate interview in a private office, The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs entered the office without permission, aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg’s face, and began asking badgering questions. Jacobs was asked to leave. 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.”
It is a last-minute curveball in Thursday’s race, which was partly seen as a referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency. The majority of voters were expected to have already cast ballots through early voting, and it was unclear how much of an effect it may have.
Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist, who declined to comment, are seeking to fill the state’s seat in the U.S. House left vacant when Ryan Zinke resigned to join Trump’s Cabinet as secretary of the Interior Department.
Alexis Levinson, a reporter for Buzzfeed who was outside the office where the incident occurred, tweeted that she heard angry yelling and saw Jacobs’ “feet fly in the air as he hit the floor.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee says Gianforte must quit the race and the Republican Party should publicly denounce him.
Requests for comment went unanswered Wednesday night from House Speaker Paul Ryan and the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Among Gianforte’s staunchest allies is Montana’s Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, who previously worked for Gianforte as an executive at RightNow Technologies, the Bozeman tech startup that grew to employ 1,100 people worldwide and which Gianforte sold to software giant Oracle Corp. for $1.8 billion.
On Thursday morning, Daines, who lives in Bozeman and is close friends with Gianforte, acknowledged Wednesday’s incident.
“I have confidence in my hometown sheriff’s department. I do know Greg Gianforte has been charged with misdemeanor assault and will leave the questions and answers to the sheriff’s department,” according to a statement. “I do not condone violence in any way.”
Daines later tweeted: “Greg Gianforte needs to apologize.”
Gianforte had been scheduled to attend a meet-and-greet with campaign volunteers Wednesday at his headquarters in Bozeman, but he left early without addressing the crowd.
As a candidate, he has already had to apologize for his treatment of the press, including after an incident last month at a meeting of a Christian group where a man complained about reporters and said he wanted to “wring their necks.”
Gianforte pointed out a reporter covering the meeting and said, “It seems like there is more of us than there is of him,” according to the Helena Independent Record newspaper.
Three of Montana’s largest newspapers — the Missoulian, the Helena Independent Record and the Billings Gazette — endorsed Gianforte earlier this month, but all three rescinded their endorsements after news of the assault allegations broke.
A political science professor at the University of Montana says it’s unclear how Gianforte’s physical confrontation with a reporter will play out on Thursday.
Robert Saldin, who has followed the race closely, called Wednesday’s altercation “nuts” but notes that a lot of voters have already cast their ballots.
The professor also suggests it might appeal to some Republican voters who became accustomed to strong rhetoric against journalists during President Trump’s campaign. Gianforte has closely aligned his candidacy with Trump’s agenda, and the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., has stumped with the Republican, including at an event in Kalispell. Vice President Mike Pence has also campaigned with Gianforte.
The Guardian, for whom Jacobs works, is a British newspaper that opened a U.S. edition 10 years ago. Its U.S. editor, Lee Glendenning, said in a statement: “The Guardian is deeply appalled by how our reporter, Ben Jacobs, was treated in the course of doing his job as a journalist while reporting on the Montana special election. 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.”
Scott Sales, the Republican president of Montana’s state senate, unsuccessfully vied against Gianforte for his party’s congressional nomination. On Wednesday evening, he said he could not understand why the scuffle took place.
“There’s always two sides to a story, but this doesn’t look good,” Sales said. “It’s not what you want to see happen on the eve of an election.”
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