President Trump touched on a number of topics during his wide-ranging speech in Missoula last week. But it was his praise for an unprovoked act of violence — and the cheering and laughter those remarks got from the crowd in attendance — that made national and international news.
"Any guy that can do a body slam — he's my kind of guy," Trump said of Republican Greg Gianforte, who is running for re-election as Montana’s sole representative in the U.S. House.
This cannot go unanswered. Any endorsement of violence, especially from a person in a position of as much power as the president of the United States, is absolutely unacceptable, and Montanans should not stand by and allow it — let alone allow the world to think that most of us would actually cheer it.
Gianforte represented Montana about as poorly as any one individual can when he physically attacked a reporter from the Guardian, Ben Jacobs, about a year and a half ago, on the eve of the special election. Montanans did nothing to help heal that black eye when we elected Gianforte to Congress anyway.
According to audio recordings and witnesses, including journalists from Fox News, the attack occurred as Jacobs was trying to ask Gianforte about his reaction to the just-released Congressional Budget Office update on the Republican healthcare plan. Gianforte told him to “get the hell out of here” as he put his hands around the reporter’s neck and “body slammed” him to the ground, breaking Jacobs’ glasses in the process.
“[We] watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter,” the Fox News crew stated.
Jacobs called the police, and Gianforte subsequently gave a statement to the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office blaming Jacobs for provoking the attack. Gianforte’s campaign repeated this version of events in a statement released to the public, calling it “unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene.”
But then Gianforte reversed course, saying that he accepted full responsibility for the incident and eventually pleading guilty to misdemeanor assault. He was ordered to pay a $385 fine, attend 20 hours of anger management and perform 40 hours of community service. He also gave $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
But when the Missoulian editorial board asked him last week why he initially lied about the incident, Gianforte stood by his original version:
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“The statement I gave was my recollection of what occurred and I also am bound by my settlement agreement with Ben Jacobs to not talk about the incident,” he said. “We both agreed that I was going to take full responsibility. I regret what happened… And I did take full responsibility.”
Continuing to blame the victim for an assault he pleaded guilty to is not “taking responsibility.” It is poor moral leadership. And if he truly regrets what happened and sincerely wants to “move on,” Gianforte ought to convey that sentiment to President Trump, who seemed happy to bring it up again during his stop in Missoula last week:
“We endorsed Greg very early,” the president recalled. “But I heard that he body-slammed a reporter. This was the day of the election or just before, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is terrible! He’s going to lose the election.’ And then I said, ‘Wait a minute, I know Montana pretty well, I think it might help him.’ And it did.”
Let's hope Trump is wrong about Montana. It’s chilling to note that the president did not say he thought the incident was “terrible” because a human being had been hurt, but only because negative publicity could have hurt Gianforte’s chances in the election.
After the rally, Gianforte’s spokesman released this statement following the president’s remarks:
"Greg will tell you he regrets what happened, he's not perfect, he's taken personal responsibility, this has been widely covered, he's moved on, and that since Montanans elected him, he's been delivering results for Montana — a booming economy, safer communities, and a more secure America.”
In contrast, condemnation came swiftly from across the United States and overseas in reaction to the unprecedented praise, from a sitting president, of an act of violence against a journalist. Trump’s remarks are especially tone-deaf given their timing, as serious questions remain surrounding the apparent death and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. So far, Trump has sided with the Saudi royal family’s version of events despite growing evidence that they were involved in the alleged murder.
It seems Donald Trump thinks it’s appropriate, on the one hand, to characterize opponents as part of an “angry mob” while at the same time encouraging actual violence by political supporters. That ought to concern every American, no matter their political party of preference.