Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault on May 24, on the eve of a special election, after he allegedly grabbed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs by the throat and slammed him to the ground.
A Fox News reporter witnessed the incident and corroborated Jacobs's account, and Gianforte never really disputed the assault claim. His campaign initially blamed Jacobs for asking “badgering questions,” and Gianforte later apologized — after winning the election — saying he “shouldn't have treated that reporter that way.”
A criminal court could punish Gianforte with a fine of up to $500 and a prison sentence of up to six months, but the journalism groups will ask Congress to consider discipline of its own.
The Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent, bipartisan body, has no disciplinary authority but can make recommendations to the Congressional Ethics Committee, which is comprised of members of Congress.
In a draft of their letter to the committee, shared in advance with The Fix, the journalism groups write that “it is hard to imagine a crime that would reflect greater discredit on the House of Representatives than an unprovoked physical assault on a journalist who was simply doing his job, posing a question about a policy matter of pressing significance to the American people.”
Jacobs asked for Gianforte's reaction to a Congressional Budget Office score of a Republican health-care bill.
“Inaction by the ethics committee would send a devastating signal that such conduct is acceptable,” the draft letter continues, “a message that would reverberate in every level of government here in the United States as well as around the world, and particularly in places that previously regarded the United States as a global standard-bearer for press freedom.”
House ethics rules state that within 30 days of a criminal charge against a member of Congress, “the committee shall either initiate an inquiry upon a majority vote of the members of the committee or submit a report to the House describing its reasons for not initiating an inquiry and describing the actions, if any, that the committee has taken in response to the allegations.”
One potential snag: Gianforte was not a member of Congress at the time he was charged. A spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Gianforte “will be sworn in when the House receives the election certificate from the state of Montana,” a formality that is likely a couple weeks away.
Robert L. Walker, a former staff director of the House and Senate ethics committees, told ABC News that he believes the House committee is not required to launch an investigation, in this case, though it could choose to do so.
The committee might feel some pressure from the media organizations. Or not. After all, Gianforte won his election despite the assault charge; some supporters even applauded him for it. Trump's tirades against the media consistently drew cheers during his campaign, too.
There doesn't seem to be any penalty for attacking the press — or much incentive for lawmakers to stand up for journalists.
In a draft of their letter to Trump, the journalism groups write: “We fear that the rhetoric employed during your campaign and by the White House — such as referring to the press as the 'enemy of the people' and the 'opposition party' — is increasingly translated into aggressive action by public officials against journalists.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday that the Trump administration will “take a stance against violence against any individual,” but the president has not specifically condemned Gianforte's alleged attack.
The media organizations write in their draft letter to Trump that “a formal statement by the president denouncing political violence of any sort, including against members of the press, and an affirmation of our shared values would, we believe, significantly dampen any license public officials may currently harbor to strike a reporter merely for asking a question.”