A Republican candidate in Montana's special election, Greg Gianforte, allegedly 'body-slams' Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, prompting a police investigation into the incident. (Courtesy of The Guardian)

A Fox News reporter provided a vivid eyewitness account late Wednesday of an attack on a reporter by Montana Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte that led to him being cited for assault by the county sheriff and to lose his endorsements from two Montana newspapers ahead of the special election set for Thursday.

Both papers, the Missoulian and the Billings Gazette, issued scathing denunciations of Gianforte.

The alleged assault took place at Gianforte’s headquarters in Bozeman, where Fox’s Alicia Acuna and her crew were preparing a story to air on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”

As the crew was setting up, Gianforte was approached by the Guardian’s Ben Jacobs, who put a voice recorder “to Gianforte’s face and began asking if he had a response to the newly released Congressional Budget Office report on the American Health Care Act,” the Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act, she wrote.

“Gianforte,” Acuna wrote, “told him he would get back to him later. Jacobs persisted with his question. Gianforte told him to talk to his press guy, Shane Scanlon.”

“At that point,” she wrote, “Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him.”

Gianforte was later cited for misdemeanor assault. The sheriff’s department said the incident did not meet the state’s statutory definition of felony assault.

Acuna and her crew “watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter. As Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs, he began yelling something to the effect of, ‘I’m sick and tired of this!’”

Acuna said that Jacobs “scrambled to his knees and said something about his glasses being broken.” He asked the Fox reporter and crew for their names but “in shock, we did not answer.”

“To be clear,” she wrote, “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.”

Her account contradicts a statement issued by Gianforte’s campaign that said that Jacobs, the Guardian reporter, “grabbed Greg’s wrist” as the candidate tried to grab a phone “pushed in his face.” Jacobs then “spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground.”

“It’s unfortunate,” said the statement, “that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene at our campaign volunteer BBQ.”

The entire incident can be heard on an audio recording published by the Guardian. The recording does not support the campaign’s claim that Jacobs had been asked to leave but rather reflects some broader grievance with reporters. “I’m sick and tired of you guys,” Gianforte is heard saying. “The last guy who came here did the same thing. Get the hell out of here. Get the hell out of here.”

It’s unclear whether it was the subject matter that provoked Gianforte or simply Jacobs’s presence and persistence in questioning him. The Congressional Budget Office estimates released Wednesday on the impact of the Republican health care proposal were not helpful to Republicans supporting the measure (23 million more Americans would be left uninsured by 2026, the CBO projected.) But while CBO numbers are often the source of much political heat and wonky debate, there’s no history of violence associated with them.

Later, the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office, in a statement, said that after “multiple interviews and an investigation … it was determined there was probable cause to issue a citation to Greg Gianforte for misdemeanor assault.”

The sheriff, Brian Gootkin, noted in response to questions that he had made a $250 contribution to Gianforte’s campaign. “This contribution has nothing to do with our investigation, which is now complete,” he said.

Brian Gootkinof, sheriff of Gallatin County, Mont., discusses the misdemeanor assault charge against Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate in Montana's special election, who threw a Guardian reporter to the ground on May 24. (NBC Montana)

Following the extraordinary incident, Montana’s largest newspapers withdrew their endorsements of the Republican in what has become a surprisingly close race against Democrat Rob Quist to fill the seat vacated by Ryan Zinke when he became President Trump’s secretary of the interior.

In a late-night editorial, the Missoulian wrote:

“The Republican candidate for Congress not only lost the endorsement of this newspaper Wednesday night when, according to witnesses, he put his hands around the throat of a reporter asking him about his health care stance, threw him to the ground and punched him — he should lose the confidence of all Montanans.”

“We’re pulling our endorsement of Greg Gianforte” said the headline in the Billings Gazette.

“We’re at a loss for words,” the paper wrote in an editorial. “And as people who wrangle words on a minute-by-minute basis, that doesn’t happen often.

“What happens even less — hopefully never again — is a Montana candidate assaulting a reporter. While there are still questions left unanswered about GOP House hopeful Greg Gianforte’s altercation with Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, eyewitness accounts, law enforcement investigations and records are all shocking, disturbing and without precedent.

” … We will not stand by that kind of violence, period.”

The Gazette referenced an incident at a campaign event in which a Gianforte took questions from the audience, including a man who said:

“Our biggest enemy is the news media. How can we rein in the news media?”

The man then looked at the Ravalli Republic reporter sitting next to him and raised his hands as if he would like to wring his neck.

Gianforte smiled and pointed at the reporter.

“We have someone right here,” the candidate said. “It seems like there is more of us than there is of him.”

That and “other questionable interactions Gianforte had with reporters … must now be seen through a much more sinister lens,” the Gazette said. “What he passed off as a joke at the time now becomes much more serious.”

The Gianforte campaign, it added, “should be appalled” by its statement “that would seem to justify the fight when it said the Bozeman Republican had tussled with a ‘liberal journalist.’ How would the campaign have known the reporter’s political beliefs? And, is it suggesting that it’s acceptable to put your hands on a reporter if you believe their political views are different from yours?”

The Society of Professional Journalists denounced the alleged assault, saying “it is never acceptable to physically harm or arrest a journalist who is simply trying to do his or her job.”

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