HELENA, Mont. (AP) – A reporter said the Republican candidate for Montana’s sole congressional seat body-slammed him Wednesday, the day before the polls close in the nationally watched special election.
Greg Gianforte was in a private office giving an interview when Guardian newspaper reporter Ben Jacobs came in without permission, campaign spokesman Shane Scanlon said.
In an audio recording posted by the Guardian, the reporter asks the congressional candidate about the GOP’s health care bill, which was just evaluated hours earlier by the Congressional Budget Office.
“We’ll talk to you about that later,” Gianforte says on the recording, referring Jacobs to a spokesman.
When Jacobs says that there won’t be time, Gianforte says “Just–” and there is a crashing sound. Gianforte yells, “The last guy who came here did the same thing,” and a shaken-sounded Jacobs tells the candidate he just body-slammed him.
“Get the hell out of here,” Gianforte says.
The Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office said it’s investigating allegations of an assault involving the wealthy Bozeman businessman. At a news conference, Sheriff Brian Gootkin said authorities were interviewing witnesses and Jacobs and plan to talk with Gianforte but that he has right to decline. He says the office hasn’t seen any video of the incident.
It is a last-minute curveball in Thursday’s race, which was partly seen as a referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency. The majority of voters were expected to have already cast ballots through early voting, and it was unclear how much of an effect it may have.
Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist, who declined to comment, are seeking to fill the state’s seat in the U.S. House left vacant when Ryan Zinke resigned to join Trump’s Cabinet as secretary of the Interior Department.
The Gianforte campaign released a statement blaming the incident on Jacobs. It contends he “aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg’s face and began asking badgering questions” before being asked to leave.
Gianforte asked Jacobs to lower a phone that was being used as an audio recorder, then tried to grab it, the campaign said in a statement. Jacobs then grabbed Gianforte’s wrist and both fell to the ground, Scanlon said.
The 45-second recording does not contain a request from Gianforte that Jacobs lower his phone.
Alexis Levinson, a reporter for Buzzfeed who was outside the office where the incident occurred, tweeted that she heard angry yelling and saw Jacobs’ “feet fly in the air as he hit the floor.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee says Gianforte must quit the race and the Republican Party should publicly denounce him.
Requests for comment went unanswered Wednesday night from House Speaker Paul Ryan and the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Gianforte had been scheduled to attend a meet-and-greet with campaign volunteers at his headquarters in Bozeman, but he left early.
As a candidate, he has already had to apologize for his treatment of the press, including after an incident last month at a meeting of a Christian group where a man complained about reporters and said he wanted to “wring their necks.”
Gianforte pointed out a reporter covering the meeting and said, “It seems like there is more of us than there is of him,” according to the Helena Independent Record newspaper.