Republican politicians and groups are making clear that having another vote in Congress is more important to them than having congressmen who do not physically assault reporters.
On Wednesday night, Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte allegedly assaulted Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs after being asked a question about the new Congressional Budget Office score for the House health care bill. Eyewitnesses — Fox News reporters in the room — said that Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck, slammed him to the ground, and began punching him. Jacobs was briefly hospitalized.
Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin, who has actually donated $250 to the Gianforte campaign, announced that night that Gianforte had been charged with misdemeanor assault, which could carry a $500 fine or six months in jail if he is convicted.
Three of Montana’s biggest newspapers — the Billings Gazette, the Missoulian, and the Independent Record —had abruptly pulled their endorsements of Gianforte by early Thursday morning. Gianforte had touted their endorsements on Twitter hours before the alleged assault.
But national and state Republicans have been mostly silent on the status of their prior support of Gianforte — except when they’ve been making jokes or maintaining their support for another Republican vote in the House.
Speaker of the House
During his weekly press conference, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) referred to Gianforte as a “gentleman” who should apologize, but nevertheless would be welcomed in Congress if Montanans voted to send him there:
There’s never a call for physical altercations. There is no time where physical altercations should occur, with the press, or just between human beings. So that is wrong, and should not about happened. Should the gentleman apologize? Yeah, I think he should apologize. I know he has his own version, and I’m sure he’s going to have more to say, but there’s no call for this no matter what, on any circumstance. The people of the state of Montana are going to decide today who they will send to Congress. If he wins, he has been chosen by the people of Montana who their congressman will be. I’m going to let the people of Montana decide who they want as their representative. That’s not our choice, that’s the people of Montana who choose that.
Pressed further, Ryan said he did not think the alleged assault was “acceptable behavior” but reiterated that he thought the choice of whether to elect Gianforte is up to the people of Montana.
Reporters on Capitol Hill have found many Republicans unwilling to comment on the incident — though several of Gianforte’s potential colleagues indicated his alleged assault of a reporter did nothing to change their support for him joining the House GOP caucus.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) joked that “we didn’t have a course on body slammin’ when I went to school — I missed that course” before leaving the interview.
Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) pinned the blame elsewhere.
“The left has precipitated this tense, confrontational approach throughout the country in recent months,” Franks told MSNBC in the Capitol. “I reject any kind of thing where we use physical violence in a situation like that. It should not have happened, and the law will have to be the ultimate arbiter.”
Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ) did say that “I believe we all should treat the press with respect and I try to lead by example.” However, Lance admitted that “I of course hope that the Republican is successful today, because I think that his views are the views of the people of Montana.”
Many others ignored questions about the incident.
Dozens of House Republicans are entering a closed door mtg on the budget ignoring questions about the Montana body slamming incident
— Alex Moe (@AlexNBCNews) May 25, 2017
Another told The Hill’s Scott Wong that if Gianforte wins, “he’ll be welcomed with open arms.”
2nd GOP lawmaker: "I wouldn't be surprised if [Gianforte] wins. If the voters of Montana send him here, he'll be welcomed with open arms."
— Scott Wong (@scottwongDC) May 25, 2017
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), a moderate in the GOP caucus, also said that Gianforte would be welcomed in the Republican conference. He said that “all I’ve heard is audio” and that “we don’t know all the facts.” The incident, he said, did not come up in the GOP conference meeting.
Q: Would Gianforte be welcomed into the GOP conference?
Dent: [pause] Of course
Q: He was charged with assault
Dent: Hey, he was charged… pic.twitter.com/I7GWf9gpMi
— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) May 25, 2017
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) said, “it’s not appropriate behavior. Unless the reporter deserved it.”
Rep. Duncan Hunter said of MT reporter assault, “It’s not appropriate behavior. Unless the reporter deserved it.”
— Mary Clare Jalonick (@MCJalonick) May 25, 2017
Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) joked that House Republicans “would be careful not to make him mad.”
Asked Rep. Sanford what kind of greeting House R's would give Gianforte if he won: "I think people would be careful not to make him mad."
— Lissandra Villa (@LissandraVilla) May 25, 2017
Later, Sanford pointed the blame more generally at Trump’s dangerous language toward the press:
— Mike DeBonis (@mikedebonis) May 25, 2017
The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis also got several reactions from other congressmen. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) said “when you run for office, you can’t put your hands on people” but put the decision on whether Gianforte should be in Congress to Montana voters. Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA) said he did not know what happened, but he did know that “everyone was laughing, Democrats and Republicans.” Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) said he had heard there would be criminal charges, and marveled at how interested reporters were about the alleged assault.
Reps. Roger Williams (R-TX) and Glenn Grothman (R-WI) both accepted the alleged assault as a sort of bizarre new reality the nation is facing. Williams said running for office involved “tension” and “it’s kind of game time, you know?” before punting the verdict to the people of Montana. Grothman actually said “I think he’d be very welcome here, seems like a good guy,” and rebutted a question about criminal charges with an open embrace of how he thought Gianforte would help Republicans “drain the swamp.”
— Mike DeBonis (@mikedebonis) May 25, 2017
Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), issued a statement on Thursday morning saying he does not “condone violence in any way” and has “confidence in local law enforcement.” He did not rescind his endorsement, but neither did he reiterate it, saying instead that he will “leave questions and answers to local law enforcement.”
My statement: pic.twitter.com/0lysRZFtkA
— Steve Daines (@SteveDaines) May 25, 2017
Daines later tweeted that “Greg Gianforte needs to apologize.”
No other Senate Republicans have publicly issued statements on the alleged assault, although Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) made a joke prior to an unrelated press conference, telling reporters, “this looks like the group that has not been body slammed.”
— Seung Min Kim (@seungminkim) May 25, 2017
Flake later said “I don’t think there’s ever any excuse to throw down a reporter.”
The Republican National Committee
The RNC tweeted on Monday that Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) was making calls for Gianforte. The national party has been otherwise quiet on the alleged assault.
— GOP (@GOP) May 23, 2017
The RNC also began running controversial recorded calls from Donald Trump on Wednesday wherein he refers to Gianforte as “my friend” and “a wonderful guy” and urges people to vote for him. (Robocalls are illegal in Montana, but the GOP defended the calls because the permission of the target is obtained by a live operator before the message plays.)
The Trump family
The president has not been active on Twitter during his trip abroad, and has not tweeted or publicly spoken about Gianforte since the incident. Other than the recorded phone calls he did for the RNC, Trump has been quiet on the race recently.
The White House told reporters traveling with the president they had “no comment” on the incident.
White House spox has "no comment" on whether POTUS stands by Gianforte endorsement. VP's office is not responding to q's on that.
— Katherine Faulders (@KFaulders) May 25, 2017
His son, Donald Trump Jr., came to Montana in April to stump for Gianforte, and returned again two weeks ago, racing through four cities for campaign stops. Trump Jr. and Gianforte went hunting together during the April trip.
Trump Jr.’s Twitter feed has been quiet and he has not issued any public statements regarding his support for Gianforte since the alleged assault.
The state Republican party has not issued any statement on Gianforte or Jacobs, but it did tweet shortly after the incident that “a vote for Greg Gianforte is a vote for Montana values.”
— MT Republican Party (@MTGOP) May 24, 2017
The National Republican Campaign Committee
The NRCC initially directed reporters asking about the alleged assault to Gianforte’s statement, which blamed Jacobs for the incident and contradicts the Fox News reporters’ eyewitness accounts. On Thursday morning, chairman Steve Stivers said, “from what I know of Greg Gianforte, this was totally out of character, but we all make mistakes.”
NEW: NRCC chairman Steve Stivers responds to Gianforte body-slam incident, after previously deferring comment. pic.twitter.com/3Z1opEYDTa
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) May 25, 2017
The NRCC has poured more than $1.8 million into the race.
Vice President Mike Pence
The last time Pence tweeted, he said “Let’s send Greg Gianforte to Congress next,” referencing a campaign stop in Billings, Montana supporting Gianforte. He has not issued any statements on Gianforte’s alleged assault of a journalist, or on whether his endorsement has wavered. His office had initially not responded to questions from other reporters on the topic but later said there would be no comment on whether Pence’s endorsement would change.
— Mike Pence (@mike_pence) May 13, 2017
Pence also recorded robocalls for Gianforte that began running on Tuesday, telling Montana 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.”
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke
Zinke, whose onetime House seat Gianforte seeks, campaigned for the Republican earlier this month with Pence. He has also issued no public statements on the alleged assault.
Gianforte was supposed to appear on MSNBC’s Meet the Press Daily for an interview with Chuck Todd at 5 p.m. Thursday, but the campaign cancelled his appearance. He has also reportedly cancelled his 2 p.m. interview on Fox News.
Apart from his statement, Gianforte has been silent on the incident. His last tweet shares an ad that touts his defense of the Second Amendment. There is no evidence that he was armed at the time of the alleged assault.
Rob Quist, Gianforte’s Democratic opponent, left questions about the alleged assault to law enforcement when he was asked about it Wednesday evening.
Quist responds (sort of) pic.twitter.com/cvnfAm0NyE
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) May 24, 2017
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, however, called for Gianforte to suspend his campaign.
Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT) issued a statement calling Gianforte’s assault “unsettling on many levels.”
— Whitney Bermes (@wabermes) May 25, 2017
UPDATE: This story has been updated with additional reactions from other politicians.