Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate for Montana’s at-large district, did earn an endorsement from President Donald Trump before he was charged with misdemeanor assault for allegedly “bodyslamming” Guardian journalist Ben Jacobs the night before today’s special election. Gianforte’s opponent is Democrat and country singer Rob Quist.
Jacobs was trying to ask Gianforte about the Republican healthcare plan when the interview went awry. “He took me to the ground,” Jacobs told his Guardian colleagues from 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 confirmed Jacobs’ account, reporting that she, field producer Faith Morgan and photographer Keith Railey also witnessed the incident.
“Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him,” Acuna wrote. “Faith, Keith and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began 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!'”
Gatallin County Sheriff Brian M. Gootkin said in a statement that Gianforte was charged with “misdemeanor assault” and has to report to court by June 7. Gootkin admitted that he donated $250 to Gianforte’s campaign, but insisted, “This contribution has nothing to do with our investigation which is now complete.”
In their own statement, the Gianforte team contradicted the other statements. Spokesman Shane Scanlon said Jacobs “aggresiveley shoved a recorder in Greg’s face and began badgering questions.” Scanlon said that, during the incident both men landed on the ground. He also called Jacobs a “liberal journalist.”
Here’s a look at Gianforte’s relationship with President Donald Trump.
1. Trump Called Gianforte ‘My Friend’ & ‘A Wonderful Guy’ In a Robocall
While Trump hasn’t had the time to personally appear in Montana to support Gianforte, he did record a robocall, which was obtained by CNN. In the message, Trump tells Montanans that Gianforte is “a wonderful guy” and calls him “my friend.”
“He knows how to win. He’s going to win for you and, I’ll tell you what, the people of Montana are going to be happy,” Trump says in the message. “We’re going to have lower taxes, safe borders, great healthcare and all of the other things you so desperately want and need.”
At the end of the message, Trump tells voters that, “You’ll be very proud of him for years to come.” The ad was paid for by the Republican National Committee.
Vice President Mike Pence, who did visit Montana to support Gianforte, also recorded a robocall.
“Hello, this is Vice President Mike Pence, calling to say there is an important special election being waged right now for Montana’s open congressional seat,” Pence tells voters. “Greg Gianforte is running to be your next congressman and President Trump and I need Greg working with us in Washington to cut your taxes, secure our borders, and protect your Second Amendment rights.”
2. Donald Trump Jr. Appeared at Gianforte Events & Went Prairie Dog Hunting With the Candidate
Trump sent out his son, Donald Trump Jr., to Montana in April and May to appear at Gianforte campaign events. Trump Jr. attended three events for Gianforte just a week before the election.
During Trump Jr.’s four-day trip to Montana in April, he went prairie dog hunting with Gianforte, notes the Associated Press.
“As good Montanans, we want to show good hospitality to people,” Gianforte told the AP. “What can be more fun than to spend an afternoon shooting the little rodents?”
However, the hunt was criticized because the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks lists prairie dogs as a species of concern. The Humane Society of the United States also condemned the hunt. Still, they are considered “agricultural pests” and there are no hunting limits on them.
“He doesn’t need this job. Just like my father didn’t need this job,” Trump Jr. said of Gianforte in May. “He wants this job because he loves this country. He wants this job because he loves this state.”
3. Gianforte Tried to Distance Himself From Trump During his Failed Gubernatorial Campaign
Just six months ago, Gianforte was running for Montana Governor. Even though Trump won the state by 20 points over Hillary Clinton, Democratic incumbent Steve Bullock easily won re-election.
During his 2016 campaign, Gianforte tried his best to distance himself from Trump. As NPR notes, Gianforte didn’t appear with Trump when the future president held a rally in Billings in May 2016. He later reluctantly endorsed Trump for president.
But Gianforte changed his tune during his congressional campaign.
“I look forward to taking my engineering skills, my ability to do math and the ability to find common ground with people with different views to have a good outcome for both sides, back to D.C. to work with Donald Trump, to drain the swamp and make America great again,” Gianforte said at a Great Falls rally on May 23.
4. The Missoulian Previously Called Out Gianforte for Agreeing That the Press is the ‘Enemy’
Even before the incident with Jacobs, Gianforte had a combative relationship with the press, similar to Trump’s own relationship. After all, Trump once said the “fake news” media is the “enemy of the people.”
Back in April, The Missoulian called out Gianforte for appearing to agree with a supporter at the Advancing Conservatism Society who told him that, “Our biggest enemy is the news media.”
“We have someone right here,” Gianforte responded while pointing to a journalist. “It seems like there is more of us than there is of him. I don’t have a simple solution for you. I will say that doing town hall meetings and getting out and visiting with people is very important.”
Gianforte later apologized to the Billings Gazette editorial board and said he was making a joke.
“This ‘joke’ made at the reporter’s expense wasn’t funny at all,” the Missoulian editorial board wrote. “In fact, on its face, the statement demonstrated Gianforte’s agreement that news media are ‘the enemy.'”
“While his apology is appreciated, Gianforte needs to take pains to set a better example of civility from now on,” the Missoulian added.
5. Gianforte Once Said He Was ‘Thankful’ for Trump’s AHCA Passing in the House
Gianforte has made conflicting statements about the American Health Care Act, which the Trump Administration endorsed with a Rose Garden victory party after the House passed it.
Gianforte has said that he doesn’t endorse the bill as it stands now, but The New York Times obtained a recording where Gianforte said he was “thankful” to see it pass.
“The votes in the House are going to determine whether we get tax reform done, sounds like we just passed a health care thing, which I’m thankful for, sounds like we’re starting to repeal and replace,” Gianforte told Republican-leaning lobbyists in Washington, D.C., according to the Times.
Gianforte’s team later tried to explain what he meant in hindsight, insisting that he wouldn’t vote for the bill before the Congressional Budget Office released its analysis.
“Greg would not have supported the bill in its current form because he did not have those assurances,” Spokesman Shane Sncalon told the Washington Times. “Rob Quist wants to double down on Obamacare with a complete government takeover of our health care system, but he won’t tell Montanans how it’s going to work or how we will pay for it. The results would be rationed care, reduced access and higher premiums.”
The CBO estimates that 23 million people will be uninsured by 2026 if the AHCA became law. The bill is now in the hands of the Senate, which also has a Republican majority.