With voters in Montana going to the polls Thursday in a special election for the state's empty seat in the U.S. Congress, Republican candidate Greg Gianforte was charged with assault overnight for a violent encounter in which he allegedly grabbed a journalist "by the neck with both hands and then slammed him into the ground" after being asked about his support for Trumpcare.
In a tight race with Gianforte facing off against Democratic challenger Rob Quist—a political novice and folk singer who has received the enthusiastic backing of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—the violent incident on the eve of the election could have dramatic consequences for Gianforte, a millionaire businessman aligned with President Donald Trump.
The victim of the alleged assault, a Guardian newspaper journalist named Ben Jacobs, was the first to report on the incident, saying on his Twitter account that Gianforte "just body slammed me and broke my glasses."
The Guardian subsequently posted the audio clip from Jacobs' recording device which captured the encounter that turned violent:
As the recording reveals, Jacobs was trying to get Gianforte to respond to findings of the Congressional Budget Office's assessment of the American Health Care Act (AHCA), better known as Trumpcare, which had been released publicly Wednesday afternoon.
A statement from Gianforte's campaign painted Jacobs as the aggressor and condemned the behavior of a "liberal journalist" trying to ask questions.
But other journalists who witnessed the attack offered a different version of events; all were subsequently interviewed by local law enforcement. A team from a local FOX News affiliate, who was in the room, said "Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him" and then "watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter." According to their account, Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs and began yelling something like, "I'm sick and tired of this!" And, they added, "To be clear, at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte."
Following its investigation, the Gallatin County sheriff's office said late Wednesday night that Gianforte had been charged with misdemeanor assault and issued a summons.
"Following multiple interviews and an investigation by the Gallatin county sheriff's office it was determined there was probable cause to issue a citation to Greg Gianforte for misdemeanor assault," Sheriff Brian Gootkin said in a statement. "The nature of the injuries did not meet the statutory elements of felony assault. Greg Gianforte received a citation on Wednesday night and is scheduled to appear in Gallatin county justice court between now and June 7, 2017."
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Though Quist has not put out a public statement, on either his social media or campaign pages, about the charges against Gianforte, he did respond to the CBO score and lambasted his opponent on Wednesday for backing the Republican-led effort in Congress to strip healthcare coverage from millions of people while making coverage less comprehensive and more expensive for millions more.
"It seems like everyone in Montana knows that the D.C. healthcare bill would be a disaster for our state, except for Greg Gianforte who said he was ‘thankful’ for it," said Quist in the statement. "This un-American bill would raise premiums on Montanans, end coverage for at least 70,000 people and eliminate protections for preexisting conditions—all to pay for huge tax breaks for multi-millionaires like Gianforte himself."
He added, "I know what it’s like to lose your health insurance and fall into debt. I paid off my debt, but I'm asking for your vote tomorrow because no one should ever face bankruptcy just because they get sick. In Congress I'll stand up for our health care and represent all Montanans, not just the millionaires."
Meanwhile, at least three major Montana newspapers that had previously supported Gianforte had withdrawn their endorsements as of Thursday. In an editorial, The Missoulian explained why it no longer thinks the Republican candidate should represent Montana in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Helena Independent Record and the Billings Gazette did the same.
Condemning the assault, The Missoulian noted that Gianforte had pledged to "uphold Montana values" and put aside his own ideological preferences in order to serve the good of the state's people.
But on Wednesday night, the editorial states, "Gianforte committed an act of terrible judgment that, if it doesn't land him in jail, also shouldn't land him in the U.S. House of Representatives."
Citing both the alleged assault and his elusive position on Trumpcare, the newspaper argued Ginaforte "lacks the experience, brains and abilities to effectively represent Montana in any elected office. We hope our fellow Montanans who haven't already cast their ballots will say loud and clear at the polls Thursday that Greg Gianforte is not the man we want representing us in Washington. He does not represent Montana values and he should not represent us in Congress."
And concluded: "We're putting our trust in your good sense."