President’s comments at Montana rally in praise of violence against US journalist come amid international outcry over Khashoggi
Donald Trump has praised Greg Gianforte, the Congress member from Montana, for violently attacking a Guardian reporter, saying that someone who performs a body slam is “my guy”.
Trump described in glowing terms the physical assault that occurred on 24 May 2017 when Ben Jacobs, the Guardian’s political correspondent, was asking Gianforte a question about health care policy in the course of a special congressional election in Bozeman, Montana. The US president incited cheers and chants from a crowd of about 8,000 supporters on Thursday night when he said: “Greg is smart. And by the way, never wrestle him. You understand. Never.”
As the cheers rang out across an aircraft hangar in Missoula, Trump went on to say: “Any guy that can do a body slam … he’s my guy.” After praising Gianforte, Trump acted out the motion of throwing a person violently to the ground.
Trump’s comments mark the first time the president has openly and directly praised a violent act against a journalist on American soil. It comes as the White House is under intense domestic and international pressure over Trump’s refusal to condemn Saudi Arabia despite growing evidence that its leader, the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, ordered the decapitation and dismemberment of the journalist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi.
Hours before the “Make America great again” rally in Missoula, Trump said that he believed that Khashoggi was probably dead but held back from an outright condemnation of the Saudi regime.
Giving his first detailed account of the Gianforte attack on Jacobs, Trump went on to tell the Missoula crowd that he had learned of the incident while he was in Rome in a gathering of world leaders. He expressed his immediate dismay.
“We endorsed Greg very early. But I heard that he body-slammed a reporter. This was the day of the election or just before, and I thought ‘Oh, this is terrible! He’s going to lose the election.’”
Trump continued: “And then I said, ‘Wait a minute, I know Montana pretty well, I think it might help him.’ And it did.”
The line prompted another massive cheer from the Montana crowd.
The US president finished his account of the physical assault by saying of Gianforte: “He’s a great guy. Tough cookie.”
The campaign for Kathleen Williams, Gianforte’s Democratic opponent in the November congressional election, released a new advert in response to Trump’s comments.
In an statement, the campaign said “Gianforte’s assault and lies are not who we are as Montanans”.
Trump’s relationship with the US and international media has become increasingly belligerent since his presidential victory in 2016. As he does at all his rallies, he pointed at the assembled media on Thursday night in Missoula and lambasted them as purveyors of “fake news”.
But he has never before gone so far as to laud and condone physical violence against an American reporter working within the country. And his comments fall uneasily at a time when he has begun to shift his position over the apparent murder of Khashoggi, a US resident who was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October.
Video and audio recordings have implicated a team of Saudi nationals, several of whom have close ties to the Saudi crown prince.
A crew of Fox News reporters witnessed the attack on the Guardian’s correspondent in Bozeman. According to their first-hand account, the then congressional candidate grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands as the reporter was posing questions to him.
“He then slammed [Jacobs] into the ground behind him. [We] watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter.”
Jacobs was taken by ambulance to a hospital and treated for an elbow injury.
Gianforte pled guilty to a charge of assault and was sentenced to four days in jail as a misdemeanor. The sentence was later changed to 40 hours of community service, a fine and a compulsory anger-management course.
In a statement, the Guardian US editor, John Mulholland, said: “The president of the United States tonight applauded the assault on an American journalist who works for the Guardian. To celebrate an attack on a journalist who was simply doing his job is 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. We hope decent people will denounce these comments and that the president will see fit to apologize for them.”