President Donald Trump on Friday doubled-down on his praise for Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte’s 2017 body slamming of a newspaper reporter, despite global condemnation of his remarks in Missoula Thursday night.
“Gianforte” was trending as a hashtag on Twitter, with more than 116,000 tweets about the incident – most of them expressing outrage for the president’s support of violence against journalists.
Binyamin Appelbaum, a White House correspondent for the New York Times, was blistering in his critique: “Greg Gianforte is a criminal. He pled guilty to assaulting Ben Jacobs. The president is congratulating a criminal on committing a crime.”
Jim Acosta, CNN’s chief White House correspondent, was in the press pool at the Make America Great Again rally at Missoula International Airport. He posted several tweets about Trump’s praise for the assault, including this:
“The disturbing part of Trump’s jokes about Gianforte was the effect on the crowd. I saw one young man in the crowd making body slam gestures. He looked at me and ran his thumb across his throat. I talked to him after the rally was over. He couldn’t stop laughing.”
And Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who has recently tested the waters for a potential 2020 presidential bid, released this statement:
“Politics in America should never devolve into violence. The President’s celebration of Congressman Gianforte’s body-slamming a journalist is unacceptable. Montanans and Americans on both sides of the aisle must remember our kids are watching us — we have to be better than this.”
But when asked during a news conference Friday in Scottsdale, Ariz., whether he regretted the remarks, Trump delivered an emphatic “no.”
“Do you regret bringing up, last night at your rally, the assault on a reporter by a congressman?” came the question.
“No, not at all,” the president said. “That was a different league and a different world.”
Trump added that he knows Gianforte “very well” and he’s “just a great guy.” He also called the Missoula rally a “great success.”
At Thursday’s rally, Trump thanked Gianforte for a rousing introduction.
“Never wrestle him. Never,” Trump said of the freshman Republican congressman. “Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of … he’s my guy.”
The president gestured to simulate a body slam like that which landed Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian newspaper, in a Bozeman emergency room after a confrontation with Gianforte on election eve in May 2017.
The crowd erupted in laughter and cheers.
“We endorsed Greg really early,” Trump continued. “But I heard that he had body slammed a reporter. And he was way up (in the polls) … and I said, ‘Oh, this is terrible, he’s going to lose the election.’ But then I said, ‘Well, wait a minute. I know Montana pretty well. I think it might help him.’ And it did. … He’s a great guy and a tough cookie.”
The expressions of shock, then anger, began within minutes on social media – with many drawing the connection between Trump’s endorsement of the attack on Jacobs and his lack of retribution for the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of the Saudi government.
PEN America, which works to “protect open expression in the U.S. and worldwide,” made the point directly:
“President Trump’s explicit praise for Rep. Greg Gianforte’s criminal assault on a reporter marks a startling new low in terms of the White House’s open hostility toward the press.
“During a week when the world is riveted in horror at the brutal murder of a journalist by the Saudi government, Trump’s remarks are a chilling reminder that U.S. global leadership on press freedom has collapsed utterly under the president’s watch. In its place is an attitude of contempt, excusing and now even applauding violence toward the press.”
The White House Correspondents’ Association put the remarks in a wider context in a statement by president Olivier Knox:
“All Americans should recoil from the president’s praise for a violent assault on a reporter doing his Constitutionally protected job. This amounts of the celebration of a crime by someone sworn to uphold our laws and an attack on the First Amendment by someone who has solemnly pledged to defend it. We should never shrug at the president cheerleading for a violent act targeting a free and independent news media.”
House Majority Leader Rep. Steve Scalise attempted to blame the media for the outcry, tweeting that the president was joking.
“President Trump was clearly ribbing Congressman Gianforte for last year’s incident, which he apologized for last year,” Scalise tweeted Friday. “It’s obvious he was not encouraging his supporters to engage in attacks, and not one person harassed the numerous media reporters who were present.”
The president himself rendered that explanation nonsensical, repeating his praise at the Scottsdale news conference and seemingly distancing the attack on Jacobs from Khashoggi’s murder.
Daniel Dale, the Toronto Star’s White House correspondent, tweeted this from the news conference:
“Annnd, as usual, we have arrived at the part of the cycle where Trump makes clear he wasn’t joking. ;He’s a tough cookie. And I’ll stay with that,’ he said just now of Gianforte.”
Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather joined the fray late Friday, with this statement via Twitter: “Pres. Trump’s celebration of a congressman who assaulted a journalist is disgusting. The rapturous cheers from the crowd are deeply disturbing. The silence from GOP officials is the sound of cowardice. This has not, must not, will not be my America.”
Following the May 2017 incident, Gianforte and his staff initially denied the attack but the congressman ultimately pled guilty to misdemeanor assault.
Jacobs asked Gianforte a question about the Republicans’ health care plan in the seconds before he was slammed to the floor.
Reporters for Fox News who witnessed the attack provided this account at the time:
“Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him. Faith, Keith and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter.”
The Guardian’s U.S. editor, John Mulholland, was one of the first to criticize the president for his remarks. He released this statement late Thursday:
“The president of the United States tonight applauded the assault on an American journalist who works for the Guardian. To celebrate an attack on a journalist who was simply doing his job is an attack on the First Amendment by someone who has taken an oath to defend it.
“In the aftermath of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, it runs the risk of inviting other assaults on journalists both here and across the world where they often face far greater threats. We hope decent people will denounce these comments and that the president will see fit to apologize for them.”
On CNN Friday night, the target of the congressman’s attack spoke out for the first time since the president’s remarks in Missoula, referencing Trump’s praise of Gianforte as a “tough cookie” and defending himself against suggestions that he was the provocateur.
“A tough cookie doesn’t attack somebody out of nowhere, without provocation, for asking a question about health care policy,” Jacobs told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
So far, Gianforte has not commented on the president’s remarks.
His opponent in the Nov. 6 election, Democrat Kathleen Williams, had just released an advertisement earlier Thursday reminding voters of the 2017 attack. “We can do better than a congressman who assaulted a reporter and lied to law enforcement to save his political skin,” she said.