Montana Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte was nowhere to be found this week, as his state was devastated by historic flooding.
The flooding, triggered by torrential rain and rapid snowmelt, devastated communities across southwest Montana. Swollen rivers washed away bridges, buildings and entire roads in and around Yellowstone National Park, stranded tourists and polluted drinking water in many communities. The National Park Service shuttered all of Yellowstone, and northern areas of the park are expected to remain closed for months — dealing what is likely to be a devastating blow to the economies of gateway communities like Gardiner, which were hard-hit during the early part of the pandemic when tourism ground to a halt.
But for days, Gianforte’s office refused to disclose the governor’s whereabouts, citing “security reasons.” It acknowledged in statements to local reporters that he’d left the country last week, before the floods, on a “long-scheduled personal trip with the first lady,” and said he was returning home “early and as quickly as possible.”
Around the state capitol in Helena, rumors swirled that the governor was in Africa, likely on safari, according to a Twitter post from Max Croes, a longtime Democratic campaign manager and staffer based in Helena.
Maritsa Georgiou, a correspondent for Newsy based in Missoula, ultimately discovered that the governor and his wife were vacationing in Tuscany, the ritzy region of central Italy. Newsy obtained a photo from an anonymous source that showed the couple dining at a restaurant in the village Casole d’Elsa. The picture was reportedly taken 12 minutes after Gianforte’s office sent out its statement about the governor returning to Montana “as quickly as possible.”
The incident quickly earned Gianforte comparisons to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who famously fled to Cancun, Mexico, last year as his state was reeling from winter storms and widespread power outages.
Gianforte’s office did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment Friday morning. But in a statement to local press, it finally confirmed his whereabouts.
“With the governor back in the state and security concerns no longer an issue, we are providing information as promised,” Brooke Stroyke, a spokeswoman for the governor, wrote. “The governor departed early Saturday morning to Italy with his wife for a long-planned personal, private trip.” His office has never detailed what “security concerns” were at play, or why it took several days for him to return.
Stroyke noted Gianforte had delegated his authority to Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras, who signed a statewide emergency declaration in the governor’s absence. She said the two “worked closely over the last four days to take swift, decisive action.”
Gianforte is scheduled to visit Gardiner, located at the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park, on Friday to survey damage, according to his office.
While Gianforte was in Italy, Montana National Guard soldiers were rescuing dozens of his constituents from floodwaters. A team from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, including FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, was on the ground assessing flood damage. And President Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration for the state.
When Cruz escaped winter storm-ravaged Texas for sunny Mexico last year, conservatives flocked to his defense with absurd justifications, including that he would have had nothing to offer Texans and was “not using up valuable resources of energy, food and water.”
Montana Republicans have similarly come to Gianforte’s defense.
“Regardless of where he was, he was communicating with the people on the ground to make sure that the issues were being addressed,” Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) told Fox News.