WASHINGTON ― Apparently, you can body-slam a reporter for asking a question and still have a place in the Republican Party.
Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate running for Montana’s open House seat in the state’s special election, was charged with misdemeanor assault late Wednesday after he attacked Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian who’d gone to Montana to cover the special election there.
The incident happened the day before the vote, and Gianforte hastily pulled out of previously scheduled interviews on Thursday. Back in Washington, D.C., House representatives leaving a final meeting before a weeklong recess avoided weighing in on the incident by insisting that Montana voters would decide who represents them in the Congress. Others tried to downplay the seriousness of the matter by making jokes about the media’s culpability.
Others provided rationalizations for the attack.
“The actual act of what he did, there’s just no way to justify that,” said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who then shifted blame onto liberals. “I understand the frustrations that people feel because we can’t hardly go to a town hall without it just being a total denial of free speech. The left has created enormous polarization in this country.”
The reaction from elected Republicans to the Gianforte incident reflects the odd, cynical tensions that have come to paralyze some in the Republican Party. Forced to contend with their base’s profound distrust of the press ― along with the fact that their party nominated and helped elect a president who encouraged violence against journalists ― they’ve chosen to soft-foot any shock they may have felt over an actual incident of a reporter being assaulted.
On Wednesday night, Jacobs was asking Gianfonte about reaction to the latest Congressional Budget Office score for the House-passed bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The Montana Republican “grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground” before punching the reporter, according to an account published by Fox News reporter Alicia Acuna, who was in the room.
HuffPost asked nearly a dozen lawmakers about the CBO score on Thursday. No one threw any punches.
And yet, when asked why Gianforte couldn’t show any such constraint, many of these lawmakers expressed disappointment with the reporters themselves.
“What’s your question, do I think body slamming reporters is a good thing?” Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said, laughing at reporters. “Ya’ll really are into this.”
Some even admitted ― jokingly, one presumes or hopes ― they’ve imagined assaulting a reporter themselves from time to time. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said there’s no excuse for Gianforte’s actions “as much as we’ve all thought about it.”
To a large degree, House GOP leadership has their hands tied when it comes to Gianforte. If he wins, they could deny him prime committee positions. But there is little practically that they can do ― should they want to ― to prevent him from being seated. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Gianforte “should apologize,” but didn’t go so far as to call on the candidate to withdraw from the race. Others declined to express discomfort with the possibility that their newest colleague will have been so recently charged with assault.
“We’ll see what the election shows,” Thornberry quipped, when pressed on whether he’s OK with serving alongside Gianforte.
Out of those who spoke with HuffPost, the harshest comments came from Reps. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.).
“The action is unacceptable, it’s incumbent upon all of us to call an ace and ace,” Sanford said. “Physical violence is not the hallmark of an open society and we can disagree with each other at a visceral and gut level, but you don’t take it to the point of physical contact. He crossed that line.”
Cole said there’s “no excuse” for what Gianforte did.
“I suspect it will have electoral consequences,” Cole said. “That’s not the way to get off on the right foot around here.”
Still, neither Cole nor Sanford said Gianforte should end his campaign. The election will wrap up later Thursday night in Montana.