By JOHN T. BENNETT And REMA RAHMAN
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan became the first Republican leader to address Montana GOP House candidate Greg Gianforte’s alleged assault on a reporter, saying, “There’s never a call for physical assault.”
Ryan told reporters Thursday that Gianforte should apologize for an incident that occurred the previous night in Bozeman, Montana, but he sidestepped a question about whether the GOP candidate for the state’s at-large House seat would be accepted into the Republican Conference should he win Thursday’s special election.
“The people of the state of Montana are going to decide today who they will send to Congress,” Ryan said. “I do not think this is acceptable behavior but the choice will be made by the people of Montana.”
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC endorsed by House GOP leaders, has spent upward of $2.7 million on the race on Gianforte’s behalf.
Rep. Steve Stivers, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Campaign, also said the violence was unacceptable, but appeared ready to give Gianforte a break and stood by the GOP’s standard-bearer in the race.
“From what I know of Greg Gianforte, this was totally out of character, but we all make mistakes,” the Ohio Republican said in a statement. “We need to let the facts surrounding this incident unfold.”
“Today’s special election is bigger than any one person; it’s about the views of all Montanans. They deserve to have their voices heard in Washington,” Stivers said.
The GOP candidate was cited for a misdemeanor assault Wednesday evening after allegedly assaulting Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs during an event at his campaign headquarters in Bozeman earlier that day. The incident went viral on Twitter and cable news almost instantly when Jacobs and another reporter at the scene began tweeting about it.
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence remained silent on the matter Thursday.
Trump is participating in a summit at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, but is traveling with a large contingent of senior aides. The White House issued two morning statements, about U.S.-Philippines relations and a Justice Department probe of intelligence leaks, but nothing about Gianforte.
Two White House spokeswomen — one of whom is traveling with Trump — did not respond to requests for comment about the Montana incident.
Pence is not only the second-highest ranking Republican leader, he also is well-respected among the House GOP conference and with conservative voters. The vice president knows a thing or two about running for office: he was an Indiana congressman from 2001 to 2013, then the state’s governor from 2013 until January.
But he, too, was yet to speak about the alleged assault as of 11 a.m., Eastern time on Thursday, more than 12 hours after the incident. A Pence spokesman had not responded to a separate request for comment.
In a robocall recorded Tuesday, Pence told Montana voters that “the stakes are high” in the special election. “President Trump and I need Greg working with us in Washington to cut your taxes, secure our borders and protect your Second Amendment rights,” the vice president said.
The next day, the Republican National Committee released a recording of Trump also endorsing Gianforte. The president dubbed him a “wonderful guy,” telling voters it was important to vote for the GOP candidate so they can get “great health care” and “all of the other things you so desperately want and need.”
Trump also said a vote for Gianforte would be one for “lower taxes, good paying jobs and secure borders.”
Pence had tweeted an endorsement of Gianforte on May 12.
GOP Rep. Mark Sanford, a former South Carolina governor, told Roll Call he wants Trump and Pence to weigh in now on the situation — and to condemn Gianforte’s alleged actions.
“It’s one of the weights that goes with leadership,” Sanford said. “You’ve got to call it as you see it. What obviously occurred there is wrong. We can verbally disagree all day long with each other, but to take it to the notion of physical contact doesn’t fit with the norms and requirements of our society.”
With Trump focused on diplomatic and security issues while surrounded by nearly 30 other Western leaders, Sanford said Pence, a former House GOP leadership team member, is well-suited to address the incident as Ryan did.
“I think he should comment on it,” Sanford said.
While the physical altercation occurred on the eve of the special election, many early votes have already been cast, making it murky what effect the incident could have on what was expected to be a close race. Gianforte had been ahead by single digits in most public and private polling.
Three of the state’s largest newspapers pulled their endorsements of the Gianforte on Wednesday night, and Democratic outside groups lost no time producing digital ads using Jacobs’ audio of the altercation.
An audio recording released by The Guardian features Jacobs, following the incident, telling Gianforte that he had just “body-slammed” him.
But an account posted online by a Fox News crew that was also present in the room depicts what in professional wrestling is called a “chokeslam,” as Gianforte’s hands were around Jacobs’ neck when he allegedly lifted him off the ground. A proper body slam would have required both hands to be around the torso or hips.
In an account posted on the network’s website, one of the reporters said Gianforte, who objected to the timing of a question about the Congressional Budget Office’s score of a House-passed health care bill, “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,” wrote Fox News’ Alicia Acuna, “he began yelling something to the effect of, ‘I’m sick and tired of this!’”
Simone Pathé contributed to this report.