President Donald Trump regaled a laughing, cheering audience in Missoula Thursday night with a rousing endorsement of Rep. Greg Gianforte’s assault of a journalist in 2017, saying it may have helped him win Montana’s sole seat in the U.S. House.
It certainly earned him the president’s endorsement and admiration, Trump told a crowd estimated at 8,000 at the Minuteman Aviation hangar west of Missoula.
“Never wrestle him. Never,” Trump said of Gianforte. “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.
“We endorsed Greg really early,” Trump told the crowd. “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 assault occurred the night before a special election called to fill the vacancy created when Trump appointed Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke as secretary of the Interior.
Gianforte pled guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge in Gallatin County and was sentenced to 180 days, all deferred, as well as 40 hours of community service, 20 hours of anger management counseling and $385 in fines and court fees.
In that race, he beat Democratic candidate Rob Quist by 6 points.
This November, Gianforte is up for re-election to a full two-year term. He faces Kathleen Williams, the Democratic nominee and a veteran state legislator.
On Thursday night in Missoula, the president doubled-down on his references to Gianforte’s assault while discussing the possibility of a Democratic presidential bid by former vice president Joe Biden.
Said the president: “He’d be down faster than if Greg took him down.”
Trump’s remarks about the attack on a reporter in Montana came amid a worldwide outcry over the apparent murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia. The president has been reluctant to criticize the Saudi regime, and in fact has said he wouldn’t want to jeopardize that country’s arms deals with U.S. corporations by means of retribution for Khashoggi’s death.
In a statement after the Missoula rally, the Guardian’s U.S. editor, John Mulholland, said: “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.”