President Trump continued to draw sharp criticism Friday over his praise at a Montana political rally for a Republican congressman who pleaded guilty last year to assaulting a reporter.
At the rally in Missoula on Thursday night, where Trump continued to brand Democrats as “an angry mob” in the run-up to November's midterm election, he told supporters of the congressman, Greg Gianforte, “Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my candidate. He’s my guy.”
The president’s comments were especially criticized for coming amid the global outcry over the alleged slaying and dismemberment of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by officials with ties to Saudi Arabia's royal family — a furor the president has been reluctant to join in the more than two weeks since Khashoggi’s disappearance.
"All Americans should recoil from the president's praise for a violent assault on a reporter," said Olivier Knox, the president of the White House Correspondents Assn., in a rare public statement Friday.
"This amounts to the celebration of a crime by someone sworn to uphold our laws and an attack on the First Amendment by someone who has solemnly pledged to defend it.”
Trump did not apologize Friday during an exchange with reporters, and drew a contrast between Gianforte’s act and Khashoggi’s apparent murder. "That was a different league and a different world," he said.
Before leaving Washington on Thursday for a three-day Western campaign swing, Trump acknowledged for the first time since Khashoggi’s Oct. 2 disappearance that the journalist is likely dead.
At the rally that night in Montana, in more than an hour onstage delivering familiar lines of self-praise and partisan attacks, Trump's seemingly ad-libbed remarks about Gianforte stood out — even for a president who has consistently maligned the media as “fake news” and the “enemy of the people.”
Gianforte pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge after his May 2017 attack on Ben Jacobs, a reporter for the Guardian. Jacobs had asked then-candidate Gianforte about the Republican Party’s plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, a subject the candidate had taken care to avoid on the campaign trail.
After winning the special election for Montana’s lone House seat the following day, Gianforte was sentenced to perform community service, pay a fine and take anger-management classes. The congressman also apologized in a letter to Jacobs and donated $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
"My physical response to your legitimate question was unprofessional, unacceptable, and unlawful,” Gianforte wrote in the letter to Jacobs weeks after the incident. "I made a mistake and humbly ask for your forgiveness," he added.
Despite that history, Trump, who has at times seemed to condone violence against protesters at his rallies and the media, celebrated the incident at the Missoula rally as supporters applauded and laughed.
“I had heard that he body slammed a reporter,” Trump said, recalling that he learned of the incident while on a presidential visit to Rome. “I said — this is like the day of the election — I said, ‘Oh, this is terrible, he's gonna lose the election.’...Then I said, ‘Wait a minute. I know Montana pretty well; I think it might help him.’ And it did.”
Kathleen Williams, the Democrat challenging Gianforte, saw political advantage in Trump’s reviving the incident: Her campaign quickly bought time starting Friday on statewide TV for a new ad using an audio recording of Gianforte’s attack against Jacobs.
The Guardian’s U.S. editor, John Mulholland, responded to Trump’s comments quickly in a statement Thursday night: “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.”
Mulholland added, “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.”
Republicans, many of whom have echoed Trump’s rallying cries about a Democratic “mob,” were mostly silent about the president’s remarks. Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, a House Republican leader, defended the president, tweeting that Trump was “clearly ribbing” Gianforte.
The president’s son Eric Trump similarly scoffed at the criticism during an appearance on the Fox News Channel, and said of his father, “He can have fun.” The episode was a reminder of “why my father won,” he added: People were tired of “the perfectly scripted politician” and liked his father “because he’s un-P.C.”
Some Democrats, however, took the comments quite seriously, especially after Khashoggi’s possible slaying. Critics have said autocrats such as the Saudi rulers likely feel they have more license to act against journalists, given that Trump’s frequent media attacks suggest they have little to fear from the United States.
“Rhetoric like this, which has become commonplace for this president, is even more appalling on the heels of Jamal Khashoggi's murder,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) in a tweet. “Violence is never acceptable, and applauding an assault on a reporter is beyond wrong and detrimental to our democracy.”