“Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of guy,” Trump said at the event as supporters cheered him on. “I had heard that he body-slammed a reporter ... and he was way up, and I said, ‘Oh, this is terrible, he’s going to lose the election.’ Then I said, ‘I know Montana pretty well,’ and I said I think it might help him. And it did.”
Trump, who has held a series of campaign rallies for candidates ahead of next month’s midterm elections, brought Gianforte on stage during the event but warned his supporters that they should “never wrestle” the lawmaker. Gianforte was caught on audio “body-slamming” Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs a day before the state held a special election to fill a congressional seat.
Jacobs had been attempting to ask Gianforte a question about Republican health care legislation at an election eve event.
Gianforte won the election but later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault. He was fined $300, given a six-month deferred sentence and ordered to perform community service, among other penalties. He also donated $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists and apologized to Jacobs.
John Mulholland, the editor of Guardian US, condemned Trump’s statements later Thursday, saying they amounted to “an attack on the First Amendment by someone who has taken an oath to defend it.”
“In the aftermath of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, it runs the risk of inviting other assaults on journalists both here and across the world where they often face far greater threats,” Mulholland wrote in a statement, referencing the Washington Post journalist who has been missing since he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said Gianforte’s behavior in 2017 was “not a joking matter.”
“An alarming number of journalists have faced serious physical assault,” Alexandra Ellerbeck, the North America program coordinator at CPJ, told HuffPost in a statement. “We also know that around the world and even in the United States this year, journalists have been killed for their work. It’s one of the most dangerous times to be a journalist. President Trump should use his platform to condemn press freedom abuses at home and abroad, not cheer on physical assaults of reporters.”
The president on Thursday, however, said the lawmaker had “nothing to be embarrassed about” and praised him as a man he admired.
“He’s a great guy, a tough cookie,” the president said. “Everybody has to go out and vote for Greg.”
Later in the event, Trump once again reference the assault, saying he could take “down” former Vice President Joe Biden in a fight “faster than Greg would take him down.” Biden said in March that he would have “beat the hell out of” Trump if they went to school together.
The president has long lambasted the press and encouraged his supporters to heckle journalists who cover his rallies. This week, Trump has been dealing with the fallout from the disappearance of Khashoggi.
The president on Thursday said he now believes the journalist is dead.