Next for Montana's new congressman: Day in court, then DC

Greg Gianforte celebrates his win over Rob Quist for the open congressional seat at the Hilton Garden Inn Thursday night in Bozeman. The Republican multimillionaire won Montana's only U.S. House seat despite being charged a day earlier with assault.

AP photo

Greg Gianforte's physical attack on a reporter on the eve of his election as Montana's sole U.S. House member thrust both him and the state into the bright glare of the national spotlight, and it could have lasting repercussions.

Longtime election analyst Nathan Gonzales, the editor and publisher of the nonpartisan campaign news site Inside Elections, said he believes that Gianforte will “of course” get more attention from the press when he arrives in Washington.

“He didn’t just poke the bear, he body slammed the bear,” Gonzales said, referring to a criminal assault charge after Gianforte threw Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs to the ground and broke his glasses at a campaign event on Wednesday night when Jacobs began asking questions about the Republican health care plan.

Gianforte is scheduled to appear in court in Gallatin County before June 7.

“He’s going to come to Washington and have to deal with the consequences, more consequences I guess,” Gonzales said. “To put it another way, the D.C. press corps is going to treat him differently than Ron Estes, who won the special election (for Congress) in Kansas. There’s going to be more attention on Gianforte because of the last 48 hours of the campaign.”

Gonzales said that the fact that Gianforte hails from a rural state with a relatively low population will not allow him to keep a low profile.

“His constituency and his geographic location will have no bearing on the scrutiny he’ll receive at all,” Gonzales said. “It will all have to do with his interaction with that reporter.

"Time could heal some wounds, but there’s no going back with the reporters. He’ll get an extra level of scrutiny that most members of Congress don’t have. He’s not going to be able to sneak through the hallways of the Capitol. He’s going to attract attention.”

***

At least one longtime D.C. political analyst believes that Gianforte may also be shunned by the Republican leadership and given less important committee assignments in an effort to avoid tying the Republican party to his personal controversy.

James A. Thurber, a distinguished professor of government at American University and the founder of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, said the fact that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan had called on Gianforte to apologize was telling.

“For the Speaker to publicly say, 'The gentleman should apologize,’ something generally doesn’t get to this,” said Thurber, who has written 12 books on American politics. “Therefore, the party leadership may take him aside and say, 'You've got to be a little more civilized in terms of the way you interact with the press.’''

Thurber said the controversy could affect Gianforte's stature in Congress.

"People that have been around a long time, when they’re judging who should get certain committee assignments, this doesn’t help (Gianforte). There are things that are unsaid that happen. There will be opportunities that don’t come about (for Gianforte) because of things like this, but he’ll never know it.”

He added said that normally, not many people even know who freshmen members of Congress are.

“To pop out like this among freshmen, especially in a special election, is rare,” Thurber said. “To be a showboat this early is not good. Usually, nobody even knows who they are. They co-sponsor a few bills, do constituent work and vote with the party.”

Thurber also predicted that Gianforte would suffer politically if he becomes a national punchline, especially if his interaction with Jacobs is parodied by Saturday Night Live, which Thurber said on Friday afternoon would “probably” happen.

“If he turns into a joke, that’s deadly for a public official,” Thurber said.

***

Jeff Ballou, president of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., said that national journalists are very busy and also very professional.

“If people are thinking we’re going to be somehow waiting outside his door with pitchforks and torches, we frankly have better things to do,” he said. “And there are a cacophony of issues to cover in the nation’s capitol. Gianforte will be one of a crowd, low in seniority and high in profile.”

Ballou said that Gianforte does come in under unique circumstances.

“Like any high profile — for very different reasons in this case — member of Congress-elect, there’ll be a lot of attention, if for nothing else but a curiosity factor,” Ballou said. “Everybody knows what he’s done. He’s apologized for it. He will be given the same respect as any member-elect of Congress.”

Ballou said that the job of elected officials in a democracy, where the First Amendment prevents Congress from abridging the freedom of speech or the press, is to talk to the media.

“For any member of Congress, he or she will be expected to perform his or her duties and part of that is to take questions from members of the press,” Ballou said. “Our job is constitutional just like his.

"It is one thing to serve, but part of that service is being accountable for your service and to taking questions on votes you’ve taken or positions you take.”

It’s not the job or imperative of the D.C. press corps to mount a campaign against Gianforte to try to get him ousted, Ballou explained.

“Our gig is to treat him simply like the other 434 members of the House and 100 members of the Senate and call the balls and strikes as he delivers them,'' he said. "It’s not the job of the D.C. press corps to fan those flames.”

Ballou said that the people of Montana deserve to know more about Gianforte’s actions in Washington above and beyond just his roll call voting record.

“All his statements, all his movements, all the things that people expect to know about a member of Congress,” Ballou said. “He’s going to get some white hot spotlight, I’m sure, when he first arrives and at some point the press corps will move on.”

Ballou added that since the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, recently joked about shooting reporters at a gun event, he believes there is a concerning trend happening in the coverage of politics in America.

“It’s not funny when collectively there is this atmosphere of incivility and rhetorically undermining the Constitution,” he said. “That serves no one. It doesn’t serve the people of Montana or, in Gov. Abbott’s case, Texas."

The most important thing, he said, is to not let the controversy overshadow how Gianforte does his job.

"It just gets in the way of being able to see what (Gianforte) is actually doing for his new day job," Ballou said. "That’s all we want to do. If he starts slamming doors and hiding, the people of Montana are going to go ‘what gives?’ We wish him respectfully well to have a successful term in Congress, and we hope he doesn’t duck our questions.

"All we ask is for elected officials to respect the whole document (the Constitution) that they were elected to uphold and protect.”

***

Lesley Clark, who has worked as a journalist in D.C. for a decade and is now a national correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers’ D.C. Bureau, said no reporter wants to become the story.

“Reporters’ first instinct is to treat all members of Congress with respect and dignity,” she said. “However, we all want to get answers to questions.”

Clark and other D.C. journalists told the Missoulian that since President Donald Trump was elected, there have been more reporters on Capitol Hill.

She thinks it will be a little awkward when journalists interact with Gianforte for the first time.

“(Gianforte) will find himself with a recorder in his face pretty much all the time, walking through the hallway or coming in for votes,” she said. “He can’t really expect to not see reporters unless he’s in is own office or sitting on the House floor.

"But most members know that and are pretty good about it. They’ll come out and answer questions, and if they don’t want to, they’ll walk away. We will pester them a little and say things like, ‘Oh, come on, you can answer that.' So he’s going to have to get used to that. There’s no way to serve in Congress without that.”

Clark also said that at least initially, Gianforte will face greater scrutiny from the media than other low-profile members of Congress.

“People in the news get greater scrutiny'' she said. "All eyes are going to be on him when he first gets up here.”

David Lightman, a veteran national political correspondent for McClatchy, had a different opinion.

“He’ll get the same scrutiny anybody else does, the only difference is he’s better known because of the incident,” Lightman said. “He’ll get the same scrutiny we give anybody else.”

Gianforte is not the first member of Congress to serve while facing a criminal charge.

On Thursday, the news site Vox published an article explaining how elected officials continue to serve after committing offenses. For example, author Jeff Stein wrote that Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., was indicted on federal corruption charges two years ago, but is still serving in the Senate.

Rep Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., was indicted on federal racketeering charges in July of 2015 and continued to serve for more than a year. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, was indicted in 2008 on seven counts of failing to properly report gifts and served in Congress for five more months.

Gianforte is also not the first to threaten a reporter. Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., threatened to break a reporter in half and throw him off a balcony while on camera. Grimm was facing tax evasion charges at the time, and then-Speaker of the House John Boehner privately asked him to resign. Grimm later apologized and resigned from Congress after pleading guilty to felony tax evasion.

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