By JONATHAN MARTIN
MISSOULA, Mont. – The Republican candidate in a hotly contested special House election in Montana was charged with assaulting a journalist 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 Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin said there was enough evidence to charge the candidate, Greg Gianforte, with misdemeanor assault. Gianforte, the Republican candidate for the state’s lone House seat, is scheduled to appear in court before June 7. If convicted, Gianforte faces up to a $500 fine, or six months in jail, or both.
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.
Two of the state’s largest newspapers, the Billings Gazette and the Missoulian, quickly rescinded their endorsements of Gianforte. But prospects that the altercation could tip the race to the Democrat, Rob Quist, were complicated by Montana’s early-voting tradition: More than half the estimated total ballots in the contest had already been returned by Wednesday.
Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian, said the altercation occurred during an interview at Gianforte’s campaign headquarters. Jacobs said 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 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!’”
Jacobs said the episode began when he asked Gianforte about the Congressional Budget Office’s new fiscal assessment of the legislation that House Republicans have passed to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Gianforte initially sidestepped the question, according to an audio recording that Jacobs posted, suggesting the reporter speak with his spokesman. But when Jacobs, in an even voice, persisted, the candidate in one of the most closely watched campaigns in the nation lost his composure and hit him.
“I’m sick and tired of you guys!” 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.”
Jacobs, sounding shocked, responded by saying: “You just body-slammed me and broke my glasses.”
“Get the hell out of here,” Gianforte said again. Jacobs said he would report the episode to authorities and asked for the names of the other individuals in the room. Then the recording ends.
In a statement, Gianforte’s spokesman offered a strikingly different version of events – and one at odds with the recording.
“After asking Jacobs to lower the recorder, Jacobs declined,” said Shane Scanlon, 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.”
Gianforte is not heard on the recording requesting that Jacobs lower the recorder.
Another witness, BuzzFeed’s Alexis Levinson, said: “Ben walked into a room where a local TV crew was set up for an interview with Gianforte,” Levinson wrote on Twitter. “All of a sudden I heard a giant crash and saw Ben’s feet fly in the air as he hit the floor.”
Gianforte never spoke at his own event, witnesses said, remaining behind closed doors and leaving after police officers arrived, well before the gathering was supposed to conclude.
Levinson said officers took statements from witnesses.
Federal Election Commission data show Gootkin donated $250 to Gianforte’s campaign in March.
In a telephone interview from a Bozeman hospital where he was getting an X-ray on his elbow, Jacobs said Gianforte was the sole aggressor.
“I landed on my elbow on a concrete floor,” he said.
Jacobs said Gianforte had been angry about a video about the campaign The Guardian posted Tuesday.
Before getting off the phone, Jacobs had a request for a reporter about the altercation: “Wait till my piece goes up. Don’t scoop me on this.”
Three hours to the west, in Missoula, Rob Quist, the Democratic nominee for the seat, which was vacated by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, seemed taken by surprise when he was asked about the altercation.
“That’s really not for me to talk about; I think that’s more a matter for law enforcement,” Quist said.
But the House Democratic campaign arm quickly seized on the episode, calling on Gianforte to “immediately withdraw” from the race.
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 this reporter in between greeting supporters. He immediately turned to his spokesman when approached but did respond to a question about the role of President Donald Trump in the race.
While Montana is a Republican-leaning state and Gianforte has been enjoying an advantage in private polling here, the campaign of Quist, a banjo-strumming folk singer, has caught fire with national progressive activists. He raised more than $6 million despite receiving scant help from Democrats in Washington. Much of that money, though, came in well after Republicans had been on the air here assailing Quist.