Updated Thursday 1:08 a.m. | Greg Gianforte, the Republican nominee in Thursday’s special election in Montana, was cited for a misdemeanor assault Wednesday evening after allegedly assaulting Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs at a campaign event at Gianforte’s headquarters in Bozeman earlier that day.
On the eve of a special election in which many early votes have already been cast, it’s unclear what effect the incident could have on what has been expected to be a close race. Gianforte has been ahead by single digits in most public and private polling. But Montana’s largest newspapers pulled their endorsements of the two-time GOP candidate Wednesday night, and Democratic outside groups lost no time producing digital ads using Jacobs’ audio of the altercation.
Wednesday’s incident went public when Jacobs tweeted, “Greg Gianforte just body slammed me and broke my glasses.” Another reporter from BuzzFeed said she witnessed part of the incident.
Greg Gianforte just body slammed me and broke my glasses
— Ben Jacobs (@Bencjacobs) May 24, 2017
Gianforte reportedly left his own campaign event without saying anything else. Aides also would not answer questions about what happened, according to tweets from Alexis Levinson, the Buzzfeed reporter who was outside the room where the altercation took place.
Heard very angry yelling (as did all the volunteers in the room) – sounded like Gianforte
— Alexis Levinson (@alexis_levinson) May 24, 2017
All of a sudden I heard a giant crash and saw Ben’s feet fly in the air as he hit the floor
— Alexis Levinson (@alexis_levinson) May 24, 2017
Gianforte spokesman Shane Scanlon countered with a different version of events:
“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,” Scanlon said in a statement.
Gianforte’s Democratic opponent Rob Quist said, “I guess that’s not for me talk about, I think that’s more a matter for law enforcement.”
A team from Fox News was present in the room where the altercation took place. In an account posted on the network’s website, one of the reporters said Gianforte “grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him,” before punching him.
“As Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs, he began yelling something to the effect of, ‘I’m sick and tired of this!’” wrote Fox News’ Alicia Acuna.
The Guardian quickly posted an audio recording of the incident.
Jacobs begins by talking about a development on the health care bill: “…Because you know you’ve been waiting to make your decision about health care and it just came out.”
“We’ll talk to you about that later,” Gianforte responds.
Jacobs: Yeah, but there’s not going to be time, I’m just curious if you had [unintelligible]…right now.
Gianforte: Speak with Shane please [Loud noises.] I’m sick and tired of you guys. The last guy that came in here, you did the same thing. Get the hell out of here.
Gianforte: Get the hell out of here. The last guy did the same thing. You with the Guardian?
Jacobs: Yes, and you just broke my glasses.
Gianforte: The last guy did the same damn thing.
Jacobs: You just body slammed me and broke my glasses.
Gianforte: Get the hell out of here
Jacobs: You’d like me to get the hell out of here. I’d also like to call the police. Can I get you guys’ names?
Unknown: Hey, you got to leave.
Jacobs: He just body-slammed me.
Unknown: You got to leave.
The Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office issued its citation Wednesday night and said Gianforte is “scheduled to appear in Gallatin County Justice Court between now and June 7, 2017.” If convicted, Gianforte could face a maximum $500 fine and six months in jail. (Sheriff Brian Gootkin acknowledged he contributed $250 to Gianforte’s campaign in March but said that had “nothing to do with our investigation.”)
Even before the citation, The Missoulian retracted its endorsement of Gianforte. “There is no doubt that Gianforte committed an act of terrible judgment that, if it doesn’t land him in jail, also shouldn’t land him in the U.S. House of Representatives,” the editorial board wrote.
“He showed Wednesday night that he lacks the experience, brains and abilities to effectively represent Montana in any elected office,” the editorial continued.
The Billings Gazette followed suit, writing, “We clearly made a poor choice in our original endorsement.” The editorial alluded to “other questionable interactions Gianforte had with reporters.”
And Helen’s Independent Review noted “In the past, he has encouraged his supporters to boycott certain newspapers, singled out a reporter in a room to point out that he was outnumbered, and even made a joke out of the notion of choking a news writer, and these are not things we can continue to brush off.”
Democrats were quick to respond, too.
Tyler Law, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement that Gianforte “must immediately withdraw his candidacy.”
The committee also called on its Republican counterpart and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan to publicly denounce their candidate and apologize for the millions of dollars spent on his behalf. Gianforte’s biggest GOP backers, including the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund, have been silent.
Opponents of Gianforte quickly mobilized to turn Jacobs’ audio into digital ads. Late Wednesday, the liberal activist group MoveOn.org released a five-figure digital video ad that will run through the election Thursday. The DCCC also went up up with Facebook ads Wednesday night intended to target Democratic voters who may have been less likely to turn out Thursday. The Democratic super PAC Priorities USA debuted Facebook ads, as well.