President Donald Trump on Thursday praised Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte and called him “my guy” for body-slamming a journalist and breaking his glasses during an incident in 2017.
Gianforte was captured on an audio recording physically assaulting Ben Jacobs, a reporter for the Guardian newspaper, in May 2017.
“Greg Gianforte just body slammed me and broke my glasses,” Jacobs tweeted shortly after the incident.
It happened at Gianforte’s campaign headquarters in Bozeman, Montana, one day before residents headed to the polls for a special election in his district.
According to multiple witnesses at the time, Jacobs had asked Gianforte a question on a Congressional Budget Office report on the American Health Care Act before he was slammed to the ground.
Trump described Greg as “smart” and warned his audience not to antagonize the Republican lawmaker.
“And by the way, never wrestle him, you understand that? Never,” Trump joked. “Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my guy.”
“I shouldn’t say … there’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” Trump said to the cheering crowd.
Trump also recounted how he initially heard about the incident, and why he believed it to be good news for Gianforte’s campaign as voters headed to the polls.
“So I was in Rome with a lot of the leaders from other countries, talking about all sorts of things, when I heard about it,” Trump said. “And we endorsed Greg very early. But I had heard he body slammed a reporter.”
“And I said ‘Oh, this is terrible. he’s going to lose the election,'” Trump said before adding, “Then I said ‘Well, wait a minute. I know Montana pretty well, I think it might help him.’ And it did.”
Gianforte pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge and was sentenced to 40 hours of community service and 20 hours of anger-management, in addition to the $385 in court fees and fines. The judge called Gianforte’s actions “totally unacceptable” but gave him a six-month deferred sentence.
Despite the negative publicity, Gianforte went on to defeat Democrat Rob Quist by six percentage points in the Republican-leaning district.
Trump’s comments on Thursday night prompted some criticism, including from Jacobs’ publication.
“The President of the United States tonight applauded the assault on an American journalist who works for the Guardian,” John Mulholland, US editor of The Guardian, said in a statement. “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.”
Trump’s remarks on Gianforte’s assault come amid new evidence surrounding the disappearance of the US-based Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who is feared to have been brutally killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
Khashoggi is a Saudi native and legal US resident who lived in Virginia.
Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of Saudi Arabia and its leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, reportedly feared that his native county would retaliate against him. Saudi officials have denied his disappearance was a result of foul-play on their part.
“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 added. “We hope decent people will denounce these comments and that the President will see fit to apologize for them.”