Twice in two months, President Trump has gone to Montana and praised that state’s congressman for assaulting a reporter.
On Thursday, Trump outright celebrated the incident, which led to Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.) eventually pleading guilty to a misdemeanor. A judge called Gianforte’s behavior “totally unacceptable.”
Gianforte won a special election last year shortly after grabbing Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, throwing him to the ground and punching him.
“Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of — he’s my guy,” Trump said Thursday, imitating a body slam in thin air, as the crowd laughed.
Later in the night, while mocking former vice president Joe Biden, a potential 2020 challenger, Trump went back to describing what Gianforte did in positive terms.
The president celebrating physical violence against a journalist would be notable enough in a vacuum. But it comes during a week in which there is international outrage against the probable killing of another journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.
Trump said in a “60 Minutes” interview that aired last Sunday that there would be “something really terrible and disgusting about” the slaying of a reporter. But otherwise, he has been going out of his way to give Saudi Arabia’s leaders the benefit of the doubt about Khashoggi’s disappearance — even parroting Saudi Arabia’s defense before it was publicly aired. The scenario is raising questions not only about Trump’s deference for strongmen and potential business ties with Saudi Arabia but his antipathy and even antagonism toward journalists.
Hours before the rally, Trump acknowledged what Turkish officials have been alleging, that he does think Khashoggi is dead, and he said Saudi Arabia could face “very severe” repercussions pending the results of investigations into Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Meanwhile, Trump’s allies in the House and conservative media are trying to smear Khashoggi as having ties to terrorists in an apparent effort to insulate the president from criticism that he’s not standing up more firmly to the Saudis.
Trump seems aware of the impact his divisive words against journalists carry — and he uses them anyway. He frequently calls the press “the enemy of the people.” His White House press secretary refused to condemn Trump supporters' profanity directed at CNN’s Jim Acosta at a recent rally.
At a rally in September in Montana, Trump hinted that he was proud of Gianforte for the attack against Guardian reporter Jacobs. That drew headlines too, though his words were less blunt than his comments Thursday.
“And I’ll tell you what, this man has fought — in more ways than one — for your state,” Trump said then.
On Thursday, Trump tacked on at the very end an acknowledgment about how it might get him in trouble: “I shouldn’t say this.”
In that “60 Minutes” interview about Khashoggi, Trump acknowledged that he wasn’t the likeliest candidate to stand up for a reporter’s disappearance:
“There’s a lot at stake. And maybe especially so because this man was a reporter. There’s something — you’ll be surprised to hear me say that. There’s something really terrible and disgusting about that, if that were the case.”
It’s generally not surprising to hear a president condemn violence against a journalist. It is surprising to hear him condone it.