President Donald Trump on Thursday praised Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte for physically assaulting a reporter on the eve of a special election last year.
Addressing a rally in Missoula on his third trip to Montana this year, Trump at first only alluded to the 2017 incident. “Never wrestle him,” he said after calling Gianforte onstage.
But then the president went further.
“Any guy who can do a body slam — he’s my guy,” Trump said to loud cheers.
The president said he was overseas when he first heard about Gianforte’s altercation with Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs and the speculation that it could hurt Republican chances in the election for the open at-large seat.
“I know Montana pretty well, I think it might help him,” Trump recalled thinking. “And it did.”
Gianforte later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault. The Republican congressman has insisted that his constituents don’t ask him about it.“It’s really only the media that ask me about it,” he told Roll Call this summer.
Trump returned to Gianforte’s assault incident later in his rambling rally remarks when he was dishing out slights against potential 2020 Democratic contenders, including former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., whom he called “Sleepy Joe.” He reminded the audience of Biden’s 2016 comment about wanting to take Trump “behind the gym” if they were in high school. Trump suggested he’d win that fight.
“He’d be down faster than if Greg took him down,” the president said.
This wasn’t the first time Trump praised Gianforte’s behavior. He also alluded to the body slam episode at a rally in Billings, Montana, in September.
“I’ll tell you what: This man has fought — in more ways than one — for your state. He has fought for your state,” Trump said at the time. “Greg Gianforte. He is a fighter and a winner.”
Watch: In Montana, Searching for Votes in the ‘Teepee Capital of the World’
Gianforte faces a challenge from Democratic former state Rep. Kathleen Williams as he bids for a first full term. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Likely Republican. Like many Democratic candidates this cycle, Williams is raising impressive sums for a House candidate, bringing in $2.1 million during the third quarter that ended Sept. 30. Gianforte raised $1.1 million during the same period.
“Gianforte has a history of attacking people, whether physically or by undermining their livelihoods. Gianforte does not represent Montana’s values,” the Williams campaign said in a statement after Trump’s rally Thursday night.
Guardian US Editor John Mulholland, whose reporter was assaulted by Gianforte, called on Trump to apologize and drew parallels to the disappearance of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, whom Turkey has accused the Saudi government of murdering.
“The president of the United States tonight applauded the assault on an American journalist who works for the Guardian. To celebrate an attack on a journalist who was simply doing his job is an attack on the first amendment by someone who has taken an oath to defend it,” Mulholland said in a statement.
“In the aftermath of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, it runs the risk of inviting other assaults on journalists both here and across the world where they often face far greater threats. We hope decent people will denounce these comments and that the president will see fit to apologize for them.”
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.