On the eve of Montana’s special congressional election, a reporter accused Republican candidate Greg Gianforte of assaulting him and breaking his glasses in Bozeman Wednesday, while the reporter tried to question Gianforte.
The reporter, Ben Jacobs of the Guardian of London, said he was “body-slammed” to the floor while attempting to interview Gianforte at campaign headquarters on Bozeman, about developments on the health-care bill passed by House Republicans this month.
On an audio recording of the incident, posted by the Guardian Wednesday evening, Gianforte can be heard yelling “get the hell out of here” to Jacobs, after sounds of a scuffle.
The Gianforte campaign issued a statement about an hour after the altercation, saying the two men both fell to the floor while Gianforte attempted to grab Jacobs’ phone that had been “pushed in his face” during an interview with someone else.
“It’s unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene at our campaign volunteer BBQ,” said Shane Scanlon, spokesman for the Gianforte campaign.
But a reporter with a Fox News television crew preparing to interview Gianforte said that Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck, slammed him to the ground and then began punching him.
“To be clear, at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte, who left the area after giving statements to local sheriff’s deputies,” wrote reporter Alicia Acuna, in a story posted online Wednesday evening.
The Gallatin County sheriff’s office said Wednesday it’s investigating the assault allegation and will provide more information “when appropriate.”
Gianforte, 56, the co-founder of a successful software firm in Bozeman, is competing for Montana’s sole U.S. House seat against Democrat Rob Quist and Libertarian Mark Wicks.
The race for the seat, which became vacant when Republican Ryan Zinke resigned March 1 after becoming U.S. Interior secretary, has drawn national attention and nearly $18 million of campaign spending, by the campaigns and nearly two dozen outside groups. The election is Thursday.
The altercation between Gianforte and Jacobs also quickly became the lead story on national cable networks Wednesday night, including CNN, Fox and MSNBC, as well as web versions of national print publications.
Quist, who was in Missoula for rallies with supporters on the day before the election, declined to talk about the incident.
Gianforte, who ran unsuccessfully for Montana governor last year, has been considered the likely favorite in the race, although some polls and political observers have suggested the race has been tightening in recent days.
Still, almost 260,000 Montanans had already voted by mail as of Wednesday evening – potentially as much as 70 percent, or more, of the total votes that may be cast, after voting on Thursday.
Jeremy Johnson, an associate professor of political science at Carroll College, told MTN News Wednesday night that while a majority of the votes have been cast, the incident is a “focusing event” that could have an impact on the race because of its broad coverage.
“Some people who were on the fence about voting, they might come out (now),” he said. “Someone who is not as strongly attached to a candidate, they might swing.”
But Johnson also acknowledged that not much precedence exists for something like this type of incident happening at the last minute in a campaign, making it hard to predict what effect it could have.
Rob Saldin, professor of political science at University of Montana, also said it's hard to say whether the incident will be negative for Gianforte, who is courting Trump supporters, who mistrust the media.
“His whole campaign seems to be about going after Trump voters, who I think we have a fair bit of evidence now to conclude that they don’t like elites, and part of that includes the news media in general, but probably especially media figures who are from far away," he said Wednesday night.
In the audio recording posted by the Guardian, Jacobs is heard asking Gianforte about the health-care bill and Gianforte tells him to speak with campaign spokesman Scanlon, before a crunch of noise is followed by Gianforte shouting at someone.
“I’m sick and tired of you guys,” Gianforte is heard yelling. “The last guy that came in here, you did the same thing. Get the hell out of here. Get the hell out of here.”
“You just broke my glasses,” Jacobs is heard saying.
The statement from the Gianforte campaign said he’d been giving an interview to someone else in “a private office” when Jacobs entered without permission and “aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg’s face.”
After Jacobs declined to lower the recorder, Gianforte attempted to grab the phone, Jacobs grabbed Gianforte’s wrist and spun away from him, pushing them both to the ground, the statement said.
But the Fox News reporter told a different story, saying she and two others had been preparing for a pre-arranged interview with Gianforte when Jacobs came into the room and began questioning Gianforte.
When Jacobs persisted, Gianforte “grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him,” reporter Acuna wrote.
After Jacobs got up and said he wanted the police called, and prepared to leave, Gianforte “looked at the three of us and repeatedly apologized.”
She said Gianforte then left – and that she and her crew are “cooperating with local authorities.”
Gianforte is scheduled to have an election-night party in Bozeman on Thursday.
(UPDATE, 10:35 p.m.) Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin released the following information:
Earlier this evening I conducted a press conference about an incident that occurred at Greg Gianforte’s campaign headquarters. 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.
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 (MCA 45-5-201). 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.
Gootkin noted that a person convicted of assault can be fined up to $500, jailed for up to six months, or both.