Montana voters go to the polls today in a special election to fill their sole House seat, and the election got a lot more special last night than expected. Ben Jacobs, a reporter for the Guardian, accused Republican candidate Greg Gianforte of having “body slammed” him in response to a question on the eve of the election:
Greg Gianforte just body slammed me and broke my glasses
— Ben Jacobs (@Bencjacobs) May 24, 2017
Gianforte’s campaign insisted that Jacobs started the assault first. Gianforte’s media handler Shane Scanlon insisted that Jacobs had “entered the office without permission, shoved a recorder in Greg’s face, and began asking badgering questions.” Gianforte had allowed another news outlet to have an exclusive one-on-one, the statement continued, and Jacobs had interrupted. At that point, Scanlon said, Gianforte tried de-escalating the situation to no avail:
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.
There was only one problem with that explanation — Jacobs had been recording the conversation on the phone. The audio doesn’t include any request to lower the recorder (Jacobs’ phone), and sounds a lot more like Gianforte losing his cool immediately:
But what about the other news outlet? It turned out to be Fox News, and Alicia Acuna saw the whole incident unfold in front of her. Later in the evening, she reported that Gianforte’s version of events didn’t hold up at all:
During that conversation, another man — who we now know is Ben Jacobs of The Guardian — walked into the room with a voice recorder, put it up to Gianforte’s face and began asking if him if he had a response to the newly released Congressional Budget Office report on the American Health Care Act. Gianforte told him he would get to him later. Jacobs persisted with his question. Gianforte told him to talk to his press guy, Shane Scanlon.
At that point, Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him. Faith, Keith and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the man, as he moved on top the reporter and began yelling something to the effect of “I’m sick and tired of this!”
Jacobs scrambled to his knees and said something about his glasses being broken. He asked Faith, Keith and myself for our names. In shock, we did not answer. He then said he wanted the police called and went to leave. Gianforte looked at the three of us and repeatedly apologized. At that point, I told him and Scanlon, who was now present, that we needed a moment. The men then left.
To be clear, at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte, who left the area after giving statements to local sheriff’s deputies.
Later in the evening, local authorities charged Gianforte with misdemeanor assault, although the candidate did not get arrested at the time. According to the sheriff, Jacobs’ injuries and damage did not rise to the level of felonious assault, which would have created even more complications for Gianforte and Montana voters if he wins today. His trial date is June 7th, but that might be flexible if he’s in the middle of a session of Congress at that time.
Needless to say, there’s no excuse for this — at all. Regardless of whether Jacobs was being annoying or not, whether or not Gianforte likes the media, Jacobs was doing his job. Anyone running for Congress had better get used to getting tough questions from reporters, especially on the night before the election, when candidates go out of their way to get media attention — and Gianforte was no exception. A shouted insult out of frustration might be understandable, but physical assault is indefensible. If Gianforte can’t govern his own temper and keep his hands off of other people, it’s pretty difficult for him to make the case that he has the wisdom and temperament to govern others.
Gianforte will certainly have his defenders among those who rank media warfare as their highest issue, or those who see GOP vs Democrats as the ne plus ultra of politics. And he might very will win today. None of that makes Gianforte right, though, and perhaps those who will defend him might take a moment first to wonder what kind of leadership we’re putting in place to govern all of us.