Greg Gianforte was elected to office last week by the people of Montana after a violent altercation with a Guardian reporter for which charges were filed. In the scandal-a-minute world of Trump’s Washington, the story might seem to end there, but it has laid a ticking ethical bombshell in Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s lap.
Ryan, faced with a Republican candidate who was charged with a crime on the eve of his election, called for the candidate to apologize.
Gianforte did apologize, the day after he won the election, to Ben Jacobs, the Guardian reporter whom Gianforte allegedly body-slammed when Jacobs pressed the Republican candidate for his position on the American Health Care Act, after the bill had been unfavorably scored by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) for, among other things, uninsuring 24m Americans.
Jacobs’ recording of the incident was corroborated by a Fox News crew on scene. The incident led to the charge of misdemeanor assault filed by the Gallatin County Sheriff’s office. Gianforte will appear in court on the matter before June 7, according to County Sheriff Brian Gootkin. Gootkin contributed $250 to Gianforte’s campaign.
While there were calls to ban Gianforte’s admission to the House, Ryan can’t do that. The minimal constitutional qualifications for admission to the House, and the Powell v. McCormack case of the 1960’s don’t give the Speaker that ability.
A coalition of press freedom organizations, including PEN America, the Free Press Action Fund, Reporters Without Borders and the Society of Professional Journalists, wrote a letter to Donald Trump indicating that they were asking the House to investigate Gianforte:
“This week, we filed a formal complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics (“OCE”) asking it to investigate newly-elected Montana Rep. Gregory Gianforte’s physical assault against The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs. 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 being translated into aggressive action by public officials against journalists.”
Both Speaker Ryan and his office have been mum on the Montana mishap, but Ryan’s days of silence may be limited. The current House Ethics Rules require that Gianforte face hearings and an investigation within thirty (30) days of the incident:
[”W]henever a Member of the House of Representatives, including a Delegate or Resident Commission to the Congress, is indicted or otherwise informally charged with criminal conduct in a court of the United States or any State, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct shall, not later than 30 days after the date of such indictment or charge— (1) empanel an investigative subcommittee to review the allegations; or (2) if the Committee does not empanel an investigative subcommittee to review the allegations, submit a report to the House describing its reasons for not empanelling such an investigative subcommittee, together with the actions, if any, the Committee has taken in response to the allegations.”
Even though Gianforte was charged with a misdemeanor, the House must still act:
“The resolution mandates some action by the Committee (either a report to the House or the empanelment of an investigative subcommittee) whenever a Member is charged with criminal conduct, and does not distinguish between felony and misdemeanor criminal charges.”
Physical attacks and arrests of journalists by security forces have been on the rise. Dan Heyman, a Public News Service reporter, was arrested on May 9th trying to ask questions about the ACHA of Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price and Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president. A CQ Roll Call reporter was pinned to a public hallway’s wall by security at the FCC and then forcefully ejected from the building after attempting to ask a commissioner a question.
A congressman was charged with assault of a reporter at the beginning of the Civil War, well before current ethics rules were put in place by the House. The only similar incident in modern times was Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-NC) wrist grabbing incident of a student journalist asking him if he fully supported the Obama agenda.
That incident could be construed as battery, as Etheridge never threatened harm to the student in the video. No charges were ever filed, therefore not triggering the ethics rules on criminal or misdemeanor charges.
The only “out” that the Committee might have would be that the assault happened prior to Gianforte’s election. The charge, however, will be pending as he’s admitted to the body, so it would be a stretch for the House Ethics Committee to fail to discharge its duties here.
According to the Ethics Committees’ rules, the committee must file a report either on the hearing, or on why it did not hold one, to Speaker Ryan by June 28th.
For a Republican party that fashions itself as a patriotic, moral and ethical standard-bearer, what becomes of newly elected GOP Representative Greg Gianforte will define whether Ryan and the House Republicans put party and power, or country and constitution, first.