Greg Gianforte celebrates his win over Rob Quist for Montana’s open congressional seat. (Rachel Leathe / Associated Press)
There are no hard feelings, apparently, between Montana’s newest member of Congress and the reporter he allegedly body-slammed.
Greg Gianforte, the Republican who flew into a rage when asked a question about the GOP healthcare plan, apologized to journalist Ben Jacobs of Britain’s Guardian newspaper and agreed to enter a no-contest plea when he goes to court in the misdemeanor assault case on Monday.
Still, it may be premature to say that everyone is fine with the incident, which took place one day before the special election to fill a House vacancy left by the appointment of Ryan Zinke as Interior secretary. It has led to questions about whether Gianforte, a wealthy businessman, has the temperament or professionalism necessary to succeed on Capitol Hill. And despite Jacobs’ willingness to forgive, it still could lead to jail time.
On Wednesday, Gianforte, who unsuccessfully ran for governor in November, issued a formal apology in which he took full responsibility for “body slamming” Jacobs after he asked him a question about the Republican healthcare policy.
In his letter, Gianforte described his physical response toward Jacobs as “unprofessional, unacceptable and unlawful.”
“As both a candidate for office and a public official, I should be held to a high standard in my interactions with the press and the public. My treatment of you did not meet that standard,” Gianforte’s letter said. “I had no right to respond the way I did to your legitimate question about healthcare policy. You were doing your job.”
Gianforte’s apology stands in sharp contrast to the statement his campaign spokesman, Shane Scanlon, released the night of the encounter, which said it was Jacob’s “aggressive behavior” that “created this scene.”
Jacobs accepted Gianforte’s apology and said in a statement he hopes the incident encourages people to have more civil forms of discussion. “I have accepted Mr. Gianforte’s apology and his willingness to take responsibility for his actions and statement,” Jacobs said. “I hope the constructive resolution of this incident reinforces for all the importance of respecting the freedom of the press and the 1st Amendment and encourages more civil and thoughtful discourse in our country.”
As part of a settlement, Jacobs agreed not to sue the 56-year-old Republican and will not object to Gianforte’s no-contest plea to the misdemeanor charged stemming from the May 24 incident. Gianforte said he would donate $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
If convicted, Gianforte could face a fine of $500 and up to six months in jail. His first court appearance is Monday in Gallatin County, where he is expected to enter his plea.
But some people question whether Gianforte has the professionalism to be in the House of Representatives. In early June, a coalition of news media groups filed a formal complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics asking it to investigate and take disciplinary action against Gianforte. The coalition, which includes PEN America, Free Press Action Fund, Reporters Without Borders and the Society of Professional Journalists, issued a letter to President Trump asking him to denounce violence against reporters, particularly when it is committed by government officials.
Gianforte is expected to be sworn in this month.
Christopher Muste, a political science professor at the University of Montana, said it’s too early to see how Gianforte’s criminal charge will affect his political future.
“People in Montana aren’t that impressed,” Muste said in reference to Gianforte’s assault charge. “But voters were willing to give him some slack. I think if he’s able to win loyalty from people in Montana and persuade people he is good, then he might be able to win the election in 2018.”
Muste said that if the altercation had happened one or two weeks before the election, then it might have altered the results. But more than 250,00 absentee ballots had been cast by the time the incident occurred, which means it was too late for some residents to change their minds.
“If there was a groundswell of pressure from political leaders in both parties and voters in Montana, then I think Gianforte would have to seriously reconsider,” Muste said. “But what will happen if people ask him tough questions and he gets frustrated? How will he be able to handle that going forward?”
After the incident, two newspapers, the Missoulian and the Billings Gazette, rescinded their endorsement of the GOP candidate.
The attack instantly thrust front-runner Gianforte’s campaign into the spotlight.
The incident occurred at Gianforte’s headquarters in Bozeman, where a Fox News crew was preparing a story to air on television.
Jacobs was in the room with the crew when he approached Gianforte with a voice recorder to ask him a question about the Republican healthcare plan.
In an audio recording, Jacobs persistently asks Gianforte about the Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act. Gianforte says he will get back to him later.
And then things took a dark turn.
“Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him,” Fox News reporter Alicia Acuna, who was in the room, recalled.
Gianforte can be heard on the recording shouting at Jacobs: “I’m sick and tired of you guys. The last time you came in here you did the same thing! Get the hell out of here!”
Jacobs said his glasses were broken during the encounter, and he was taken to a hospital.
That night, Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault. Speculation as to whether the incident would jeopardize Gianforte’s win was put to rest when he secured a little over 50% of the vote.
“When you make a mistake, you have to own up to it,” Gianforte said the next day during his victory speech. “I should not have responded in the way that I did, and for that I am sorry.”