Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate in Montana's special congressional election, has been charged with misdemeanor assault after he allegedly body slammed a reporter and broke his glasses on Wednesday night.
The altercation took place at Gianforte's campaign headquarters in Bozeman, Montana, the night before the state's special election. It sent political shock waves rippling through the race, with two local newspapers rescinding their support for the GOP candidate.
Ben Jacobs, a political reporter for the Guardian, said he had been asking Gianforte about the Republican healthcare plan when the candidate "body slammed" him and began shouting, "Get the hell out of here."
"He took me to the ground," Jacobs told his paper. "This is the strangest thing that has ever happened to me in reporting on politics."
The audio file provided by Jacobs backs up his account of the incident and so did accounts by other journalists who witnessed the incident.
Gianforte received a citation on Wednesday night and is scheduled to appear in Gallatin County Justice Court between now and June 7, according to County Sheriff Brian Gootkin.
The nature of Jacobs' injuries didn't meet the statutory requirements for a felony assault charge, Gootkin said in a statement.
Before the charge was announced, Gianforte's campaign blamed the altercation on Jacobs' "aggressive behavior," and offered a version of events at odds with the audio recording and witnesses.
"Tonight, as Greg was giving a separate interview in a private office, The Guardian's Ben Jacobs entered the office without permission, aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg's face, and began asking badgering questions," the campaign said. "Jacobs was asked to leave. After asking Jacobs to lower the recorder, Jacobs declined. Greg then attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face. Jacobs grabbed Greg's wrist, and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground. It's unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene at our campaign volunteer BBQ."
Fox News: Reporter didn't show physical aggression
Late Wednesday, Fox News correspondent Alicia Acuna reported that she and her crew witnessed the incident and saw Gianforte grab Jacobs "by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him."
"To be clear, at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte," Acuna wrote.
Jacobs was transferred to the Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital where he underwent x-rays on his elbow, according to his account of the story.
Sheriff Gootkin said four witnesses are being interviewed, in addition to Jacobs, in relation to the incident. He said authorities are not releasing the identities of the other witnesses at this time.
A filing from the Federal Election Commission indicates Gootkin donated $250 to Gianforte's campaign in March. Gootkin confirmed the donation, but said it had no bearing on the investigation into Wednesday night's altercation.
Newspapers rescind endorsements
Gianforte suffered fallout from the incident when two local newspapers -- the Missoulian and the Billings Gazette -- rescinded their endorsements of the GOP candidate.
"The Republican candidate for Congress not only lost the endorsement of this newspaper Wednesday night when, according to witnesses, he put his hands around the throat of a reporter asking him about his health care stance, threw him to the ground and punched him — he should lose the confidence of all Montanans," the Missoulian said in an editorial.
The paper went on to say Gianforte "lacks the experience, brains and abilities to effectively represent Montana in any elected office."
The Billings Gazette said it was "at a loss for words."
"If what was heard on tape and described by eye-witnesses is accurate, the incident in Bozeman is nothing short of assault," the newspaper wrote. "We wouldn't condone it if it happened on the street. We wouldn't condone it if it happened in a home or even a late-night bar fight. And we couldn't accept it from a man who is running to become Montana's lone Congressional representative."
Will it affect the election?
Supporters of Democratic candidate Rob Quist outside an event at a brewery in Missoula were in disagreement about how much effect the Gianforte incident would have on the race.
"It's close, I think, and this could definitely make a difference," said Charley Carpenter, a Missoula resident. "It should make a difference."
Todd Mowbrey, 67, interjected that it wouldn't make any difference for diehard Republican voters.
In Montana, any resident can vote absentee leading to questions about how much of an impact the late incident will have on the results. Both Republicans and Democrats expect that 7 in 10 voters will have already voted before the polls open tomorrow.
Quist himself said it was not his place to comment, and that he was just focused on the issues that are facing the people of Montana.
Kate Gadbow, who supports Quist, said that she was alarmed by the alleged events, noting that it is "an indication of how he would act under pressure."
She said "the last thing we need is one more guy who flies off the handle."
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said in a statement following the incident that Gianforte should "immediately withdraw his candidacy after his alleged violent assault of an innocent journalist." It also called for House Speaker Paul Ryan to National Republican Campaign Committee to denounce the candidate and apologize.
Gianforte, an engineer and businessman, is running against Quist for the state's lone congressional seat, which was vacated by Republican Ryan Zinke upon his appointment to United States Secretary of the Interior.
Late last month, Jacobs reported that Gianforte had nearly $250,000 in shares in two index funds that had investments in Russian companies which were under U.S. sanctions. The Guardian reported that a Gianforte spokesman said the candidate did not oversee his portfolio daily, but looked at its "overall performance."
- Lauren Fox, Keith Allen and David Chalian contributed to this report