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Montana House GOP candidate cited after reporter says he ‘body-slammed me’

In a statement, Greg Gianforte’s spokesperson said the incident was a result of the reporter being “aggressive.” | Getty

The local sheriff issues a citation for ‘misdemeanor assault.’

Updated

HELENA, Mont. — Montana Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte was issued a citation late Wednesday after he allegedly “body-slammed” a reporter at a campaign event on the eve of a hotly contested special election.

Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian tweeted that Gianforte “body-slammed me and broke my glasses” at a campaign event in Bozeman, Montana — minutes before what was to be the last campaign rally of the campaign. Jacobs said he had asked Gianforte about a new budget analysis of House Republicans’ effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

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Late Wednesday, Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin issued a statement saying the Republican congressional candidate had been cited for “misdemeanor assault” and that Gianforte would have to appear in court by June 7 to resolve the matter. “The nature of the injuries did not meet the statutory elements of felony assault,” the sheriff said in his statement.

The incident rocked a closely watched contest, just hours before voters cast their ballots in Thursday’s special House election in Montana to replace Ryan Zinke, who is now the Trump administration’s secretary of the interior. Gianforte, a technology executive, is running against Democrat Rob Quist, a folk singer and first-time candidate. The race in the traditional Republican stronghold is turning out to be closer than many thought it would be.

The encounter on election eve immediately captured statewide and even national attention. At least one local station interrupted prime-time programming for a breaking news report and reports bannered all of Montana’s biggest newspapers.

The Billings Gazette, The Helena Independent Record and The Missoulian subsequently rescinded their endorsements of the Republican candidate.

Gianforte’s campaign acknowledged an incident but offered a starkly different version of events — one contradicted by witnesses and by audio posted by The Guardian. Gianforte spokesman Shane Scanlon blamed Jacobs for being “aggressive” as he asked questions and for creating a scene.

“Tonight, as Greg was giving a separate interview in a private office, The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs entered the office without permission, aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg’s face, and began asking badgering questions. Jacobs was asked to leave,” Scanlon said.

“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.”

Audio of the incident posted by The Guardian seemed to directly contradict the Gianforte campaign’s version, as did a number of witnesses — including a Fox News crew that was in the room during Wednesday’s incident.

Alicia Acuna wrote on Fox News’ website that she and a crew were preparing for an interview with Gianforte when Jacobs walked into the room, produced a voice recorder and asked Gianforte a question. After Gianforte rebuffed Jacobs, and Jacobs asked a follow-up question, Gianforte grabbed him by the neck, Acuna wrote.

“Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him,” she wrote. “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!'”

In audio of the incident, Gianforte can clearly be heard getting upset. In it, Jacobs asks Gianforte about the Republican health care bill. Gianforte tells him, “Let me talk to you about that later” as Jacobs continues trying to ask a question. “Speak with Shane,” Gianforte says, referring to his spokesman.

“The last guy did the same damn thing,” Gianforte says.

“You just body-slammed me and broke my glasses,” Jacobs says.

“Get the hell out of here,” Gianforte yells.

Gootkin, the sheriff, initially declined to file charges, saying that he had not yet listened to full audio of the incident. He subsequently issued a citation.

In March, Gootkin donated $ 250 to Gianforte’s campaign, according to an FEC filing.

“After the press conference it was brought to my attention that people were commenting on a contribution that I made to the Gianforte campaign. I did contribute $ 250.00 on March 23, 2017. This contribution has nothing to do with our investigation which is now complete,” the sheriff stated.

The sheriff said charges followed multiple interviews and an investigation by the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office. He said it was a misdemeanor based on “the nature of Jacobs’ injuries.”

Other reporters on the scene confirmed via Twitter that they witnessed some sort of altercation between the two.

“I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like this before,” BuzzFeed reporter Alexis Levinson, who was on the scene, tweeted in a long thread. “This happened behind a half-closed door, so I didn’t see it all, but here’s what it looked like from the outside. Ben walked into a room where a local TV crew was set up for an interview with Gianforte. All of a sudden, I heard a giant crash and saw Ben’s feet fly in the air as he hit the floor.”

“Ben walked out holding his broken glasses in his hand and said: ‘He just body-slammed me,’” Levinson continued.

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Whitney Bermes, a reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, tweeted that the police were called to the scene. The Daily Chronicle also reported that Jacobs was treated by an ambulance on the scene, and Bermes later tweeted that one person was transferred to the hospital.

“Gianforte sitting in a Jeep. Sheriff’s deputies were talking to him earlier. Now a medic is at the window talking with him,” Bermes also tweeted.

Gianforte then left the event before he was scheduled to speak, according to reporter tweets.

In an interview, Jacobs told MSNBC he approached Gianforte and asked him about the Congressional Budget Office’s score of the House bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

“It was the strangest moment in my entire life reporting,” Jacobs said.

He said after calling his editor and police, he went to the hospital to have X-rays because he fell on his elbow.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 18: U.S. Sen Dick Durbin (D-IL) speaks to the media after the closed briefing May 18, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Rosenstein participated in a closed briefing for senators to discuss the removal of former FBI Director James Comey. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

The Guardian, in a statement released late Wednesday, said it stood by its reporter.

“The Guardian is deeply appalled by how our reporter, Ben Jacobs, was treated in the course of doing his job as a journalist while reporting on the Montana special election,” U.S. editor Lee Glendinning said. “We are committed to holding power to account, and we stand by Ben and our team of reporters for the questions they ask and the reporting that is produced.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee called on Gianforte to drop out of the race “after his alleged violent assault of an innocent journalist,” spokesman Tyler Law said.

Quist declined to comment on the news after his first Missoula event of the evening, then also didn’t address it at his second, a quick rally to thank his supporters at a brewery.

The candidate instead walked on stage, joined his opening act for a song, and repeated much of his stump speech for roughly seven minutes. He then walked off the stage and again declined to answer questions about Gianforte.

Elena Schneider and Cristiano Lima contributed to this report.

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