In a new television ad and an interview, Republican Greg Gianforte ratcheted up his criticism of Gov. Steve Bullock for not defending Montanans by seeking to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Montana.
“I’m not playing this game with you,” he told a reporter and members of the Missoulian editorial board on Thursday, pounding the table in response to persistent questioning about the details of his position. “I’ve been very clear. Montanans' safety is at risk and I will protect it and my opponent will not.”
Starting Monday, stations across the state began airing an advertisement paid for by Gianforte's campaign that shows Bullock's face, a map of Syria and images of thousands of fleeing refugees then a clip of apparent street violence in the nation torn by civil war and then the arrival of the Islamic State.
Democrats and some letter writers have criticized Gianforte’s stance against Syrian resettlement as uncompassionate or a departure from an American responsibility to provide aid, particularly after two print mailers critical of refugee resettlement arrived in Missoula the same week as African refugees. On Thursday, a group of Montana clergy went a step further with a letter sent to media outlets titled, “Faith leaders oppose racism in Gianforte’s TV ad.”
The group of Christian leaders from Missoula, Billings, Great Falls and Bozeman argued that faith demanded believers to “not isolate ourselves with judgment or misguided fear” and to “welcome them to our communities with open arms.”
“The safety and security of all Montanans is not something we take for granted. We never will. And we trust our governor to keep us safe,” the letter read. “But we will never overcome the tragedies of war and persecution and violence by hawking fear designed only to win votes. Especially on an issue over which a governor has no jurisdiction.”
Campaign Spokesman Aaron Flint responded to the letter, which arrived after Gianforte’s meeting with the Missoulian.
"Whether it is efforts to shut down Colstrip, or support illegal immigration, Hillary Clinton and Steve Bullock will always trot out some astroturf letter like this to support their position,” Flint wrote. “Most Montanans agree with Greg: Don't bring the war here. Instead, help the refugees over there."
The letter, only the latest of several on both sides of the issue, reflects growing tensions in some Montana communities. The resettlement of Syrian refugees in America became a hot political debate last November and has spilled over into campaign attacks across the country. The concerns grew out of the announcement of a federal goal to bring 10,000 of the millions of displaced Syrians here in 2016 and upon the heels of terror attacks in Paris linked to ISIS, including at least one man who had traveled that far as a refugee.
On Thursday, Gianforte referenced June testimony to Congress by CIA Director John Brennan that terrorists might try to sneak into the United States as refugees. Brennan's comments have fueled anxiety, particularly among some in Missoula County.
There, images of a dead Syrian boy on a Greek beach inspired some residents to aid those fleeing violence and to reopen the state’s only resettlement office. All the families settled in Missoula have been from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, most of whom have said they are from a region where Christians are the target of deadly attacks by a rebel faction identified by the United Nations as an Islamist terror group.
Several recent attacks by ISIS-radicalized Muslims, including those in Minnesota and New Jersey, have further stoked fears in Montana, spreading on social media and in stump speeches.
"This is the hot-button issue in so many communities. They are scared," Gianforte said, sometimes cutting off follow-up questions as he continued. “I get scared when I hear about knifings and bombings.”
Last week, the nation’s top immigration official told a congressional security committee reviewing the resettlement program that he is proud of the work they do to vet refugees.
“The fact is that since Sept. 11, not a single act of actual terrorist violence has been committed by a refugee who has undergone our screening procedures. There have been individuals who came to the U.S. as children,” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Leon Rodriguez said, according to a video and transcript of the hearing. “There are individuals who came a long time ago before our modern procedures, but since Sept. 11, all we have had is conspiracies – not only by refugees, but in fact by U.S.-born persons, other kinds of immigrants. It’s really an equal-opportunity world.”
Rodriguez did not downplay the risk, noting that the number of Syrian refugee applicants who were ultimately denied entry for security or credibility reasons was twice as large as those who had been initially flagged as questionable. He pointed to that figure and the arrests of terrorist plotters in recent years as proof that the country has improved its ability to identify threats and prevent attacks before they happen.
Gianforte, like many Republicans, disagrees that the current vetting process is strong enough to guarantee the safety of Americans. He said he is fine with resettlement in Montana so long as refugees can be “fully vetted,” something he called impossible with Syrians because “there are no databases.”
He has repeatedly demanded that Bullock join 31 other governors who have pledged to stop settlement of Syrians in their states even though immigration is solely a federal power.
Gianforte also said resettlement from other terrorist nations should be halted. He did not answer repeated questions asking him which countries should be on that list, suggesting a reporter was trying to "put words in his mouth" and he "did not appreciate it."
Gianforte did say in his answer that “national security is primarily a national issue.” A campaign mailer sent earlier this fall said he would "ban refugees from countries known to harbor terrorists like Iran and Syria."
Bullock has largely avoided detailed responses to questions about why he did not join other governors in trying to halt resettlement. Speaking mostly through spokesmen, he has instead said that the state has no power to intervene in a federal matter, but that his “Number One priority is the safety of Montanans.”
A Thursday request for comment from Bullock was forwarded to Montana Democratic Party Spokesman Jason Pitt, who sent an emailed statement but did not answer why the governor did not join those opposing resettlement.
“As he's pointed out, there are 40 states that are home to Syrian refugees, but Montana is not one of them,” Pitt said. “He will never support letting unvetted refugees in Montana. Montanans have already called out New Jersey millionaire Greg Gianforte for misleading voters on this issue.”
Missoula's resettlement plan includes refugees from Syria, Iran and Iraq, though none have yet arrived.
Editor's note: We have substituted a transcript of Gianforte's discussion of his position on refugees for the audio clip posted earlier. While the interview was on the record, the Missoulian had told the campaign the recording was for internal use only.