MISSOULA, Mont. — President Donald Trump on Thursday openly praised Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.) for assaulting a reporter in his bid for Congress last year, as the United States faced an unfolding crisis over missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who is believed to have been killed by Saudi Arabian agents.
The remarks from Trump at a campaign rally — staged at an airport hangar here with a mountainous backdrop — drew boisterous cheers from the conservative crowd, who applauded as Trump noted of Gianforte: “By the way, never wrestle him.”
“Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of — he’s my guy,” Trump said.
Gianforte pleaded guilty to assaulting Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, an altercation that occurred in the final days of Gianforte’s special election race in May 2017 when Jacobs tried to interview him about the GOP health-care plan. The then-candidate grabbed Jacobs, threw him to the ground and punched him. Gianforte subsequently won the special election, and later pleaded guilty, receiving a six-month deferred sentence.
Trump had referenced the assault during a campaign swing in Billings, Mont., in September, noting in almost a winking manner to the crowd that Gianforte “has fought — in more ways than one — for your state.”
But in Missoula on Thursday — a liberal enclave in the state surrounded by conservative territory — Trump went much further in his praise.
Trump recalled that as he was traveling in Rome last May, he heard that Gianforte had body-slammed a journalist shortly before voters went to the polls in his closely contested election race — and initially thought the altercation would damage Gianforte’s prospects.
“Then I said, ‘well wait a minute, I know Montana pretty well. I think it might help him,’” Trump told the crowd in Missoula. “And it did.”
In a statement, the Guardian’s U.S. editor denounced Trump’s remarks as “an attack on the First Amendment by someone who has taken an oath to defend it.”
“The President of the United States tonight applauded the assault on an American journalist who works for the Guardian,” editor John Mulholland said, adding that in the wake of Khashoggi’s death, Trump’s statement “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,” he said.
The White House Correspondents’ Association also weighed in on Friday.
“All Americans should recoil from the president’s praise for a violent assault on a reporter doing his Constitutionally protected job,” the group’s president, Olivier Knox, said in a statement. “This amounts to 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.”
Gianforte is running against Democrat Kathleen Williams for reelection in Montana’s sole House district. The Gianforte praise came as Trump continued to decry the “angry mob” of Democrats, singling out Sen. Jon Tester, the Democratic senator running for reelection in this state, which favored Trump by more than 20 points in 2016. Trump called Tester “disgraceful.”
“The choice could not be more clear,” Trump said. “Democrats produce mobs. Republicans produce jobs.”
Trump also revived his attacks on Tester over Trump’s failed nomination of White House physician Ronny L. Jackson to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs earlier this year. Jackson withdrew his nomination less than 24 hours after Tester had authorized the release of allegations that he had drunk on the job, improperly prescribed medications and contributed to a toxic work environment.
“I announced that he was going to be my choice,” Trump said of Jackson. “And he was attacked so viciously, so violently, by Jon Tester, like I’ve never seen before. All lies, all made-up stuff.”
Allies of Trump and Tester’s Republican challenger, Matt Rosendale, say Tester’s role in the Jackson controversy could tarnish the Democrats’ reputation in a state that has one of the highest per capita rate of veterans in the United States. But Tester and Democrats have argued that the fracas wouldn’t hurt the senator politically because he was standing up against a nominee who on paper did not have the qualifications to lead a sprawling agency like VA.
Veterans “were upset with the remarks made about Ronny Jackson. They sensed that wasn’t fair, it wasn’t accurate,” Montana’s other senator, Sen. Steve Daines (R), said in an interview here before the rally. Still, he added: “It remains to be seen whether that will affect the outcome.”
Trump also took aim at Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a potential 2020 White House contender, who earlier this week released the results of a DNA test showing that she has links to a distant Native American ancestor. Warren’s release of the test came after Trump repeatedly mocked her as “Pocahontas” on the campaign trail. But Warren’s move appeared to backfire as Trump and his supporters seized on the results to argue that Warren could be as little as 1/1024th Native American.
“The one good thing about her test was that there was so little, she had less than the average American,” Trump said Thursday night. “I used to say, ‘I have more Indian blood in me than she does, and I have none.’ … And I was right.”
He added that he was going to continue using his favorite nickname for the Massachusetts Democrat because “it’ll show everybody what a phony she is.”
Felicia Sonmez reported from Washington.