Republican Candidate Charged With Assault After 'Body-Slamming' Guardian Reporter
The Republican candidate for Montana’s congressional seat has been charged with misdemeanor assault after he is alleged to have slammed a Guardian reporter to the floor on the eve of the state’s special election, breaking his glasses and shouting: “Get the hell out of here.”
Ben Jacobs, a Guardian political reporter, was asking Greg Gianforte, a tech millionaire endorsed by Donald Trump, about the Republican healthcare plan when the candidate allegedly “body-slammed” the reporter.
“He took me to the ground,” Jacobs said by phone from the back of an ambulance. “I think he wailed on me once or twice … He got on me and I think he hit me … This is the strangest thing that has ever happened to me in reporting on politics.”
Fox News reporter Alicia Acuna, field producer Faith Mangan and photographer Keith Railey witnessed the incident at Gianforte’s campaign headquarters in Montana, according to an account published on the Fox News website. After Jacobs asked Gianforte his question, Acuna wrote: “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!’ … 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.”
Jacobs subsequently reported the incident to the police. The Gallatin county sheriff’s office said on Wednesday night it had completed its investigation and that Gianforte had been issued with a charge of misdemeanour assault.
“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,” sheriff Brian Gootkin said in a statement. “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 7 June 2017.”
A statement by campaign spokesman Shane Scanlon blamed Jacobs for the altercation, saying that he “entered the office without permission, aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg’s face, and began asking badgering questions.”
“Jacobs was asked to leave,” the statement reads. “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.”
Scanlon’s account is contradicted by audio of the abortive interview recorded by Jacobs, as well as the Fox News account. The audio does not capture Jacobs being asked to leave or lower his recorder, but does contain an apparent reference to the Guardian’s previous attempts to report on Gianforte. “I’m sick and tired of you guys,” Gianforte said. “The last guy who came 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! You just broke my glasses,” Jacobs replied.
“The last guy did the same damn thing,” Gianforte said.
“You just body slammed me and broke my glasses,” Jacobs said.
“Get the hell out of here,” Gianforte yelled.
At a press conference on Wednesday evening, sheriff Brian Gootkin said that there had been four witnesses to the altercation, in addition to Gianforte and Jacobs. Gianforte briefly spoke with sheriff’s deputies following the altercation but has not been interviewed. Gootkin said that he was not aware of any video of the incident. He also requested that reporters and members of the public stop calling Gallatin’s 911 dispatch.
According to campaign finance filings, Gootkin donated $250 to Gianforte’s campaign in March. Gootkin’s later statement acknowledged the contribution but said it had “nothing to do with our investigation which is now complete”.
Guardian US editor Lee Glendinning 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 Jacobs and our team of reporters for the questions they ask and the reporting that is produced.”
The altercation took place at Gianforte’s campaign headquarters in Bozeman, Montana. Gianforte was in a side room with a local television news crew when Jacobs attempted to ask his question, according to Jacobs.
“I decided there was no harm in asking one question, and the worst thing that could happen was they would tell me to go to hell,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs’s account was also partially confirmed by BuzzFeed News reporter Alexis Levinson, who wrote on Twitter that she had been in an adjacent room during the incident.
“This happened behind a half closed door, so I didn’t see it all, but here’s what it looked like from the outside – Ben walked into a room where a local TV crew was set up for an interview with Gianforte. All of a sudden I heard a giant crash and saw Ben’s feet fly in the air as he hit the floor. Heard very angry yelling (as did all the volunteers in the room) – sounded like Gianforte…”
Levinson told the Guardian by phone that before the incident, she overheard Gianforte’s staff telling Jacobs that the campaign was upset with the Guardian’s previous reporting and that the candidate would likely not have time to talk to him. Jacobs then entered the side room to try to talk to Gianforte, whose campaign has been backed by robocalls to voters from Trump and his vice-president, Mike Pence.
On Tuesday, the Guardian published the latest episode of its video series Anywhere but Washington about the Montana special election. The video includes two instances when Gianforte refused to be interviewed by reporter Paul Lewis. Video producer Adithya Sambamurthy said Wednesday that he and Lewis had been “blindsided” by the candidate’s unwillingness to answer questions, because they had been in contact with the campaign spokesman prior to their trip. Gianforte eventually agreed to speak with the Guardian for the video.
The special election called when Ryan Zinke vacated his seat has attracted national attention, and spending has reached $17m as the race has tightened. Democrat Rob Quist is a political novice and folk singer. Quist declined to comment on the altercation when approached by reporters on Wednesday.
Quist responds (sort of) https://t.co/cvnfAm0NyE— Dave Weigel (@Dave Weigel)1495670218.0
Gianforte is a tech mogul who mounted an unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2016.
On 28 April, Jacobs reported on Gianforte’s financial ties to Russian companies that have been sanctioned by the US. Gianforte’s wealth is estimated at between $65m and $315m.
Last month, the Missoulian newspaper took Gianforte to task for his attitude toward the press. At an event hosted by the Advancing Conservatism Society, an audience member reportedly said: “Our biggest enemy is the news media. How can we rein in the news media?”
Gianforte responded by pointing at a reporter and saying: “We have someone right here. It seems like there is more of us than there is of him.” Gianforte later told the Billings Gazette that his comments were a joke.
The Missoulian editorial board interpreted Gianforte’s statement as “demonstrat[ing] Gianforte’s agreement that news media are ‘the enemy’”.
“While his apology is appreciated,” they wrote, “Gianforte needs to take pains to set a better example of civility from now on.”