As Republicans bash Democrats by saying they use “mob” tactics ahead of the November midterms, President Donald Trump offered praise for GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte’s assault on a reporter in 2017.
“Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of — he’s my guy,” Trump said, pantomiming a wrestling move while a packed crowd cheered and applauded during a campaign rally Thursday night in Montana.
Trump doubled down on his praise for Gianforte at a memo signing event Friday when reporters asked about his remarks during the rally.
“Greg is a tremendous person and he’s a tough cookie, and I’ll stay with that. You’re talking about a different world,” Trump said after signing a bill meant to promote water supply and delivery in western states.
Trump’s rhetoric on Gianforte’s attack also appeared to break sharply from his administration’s recent tone on press freedom in the wake of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance and alleged murder.
GOP lawmakers, including every Republican senator, did not provide answers to CNBC’s inquiries about the president’s remarks. The White House did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.
“All Americans should recoil from the president’s praise for a violent assault on a reporter doing his Constitutionally protected job,” White House Correspondents Association President Olivier Knox said in a statement.
“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. We should never shrug at the president cheerleading for a violent act targeting a free and independent news media,” Knox said.
Gianforte assaulted Ben Jacobs, an American reporter for The Guardian newspaper, during an interview on the eve of his election in May 2017. Gianforte’s campaign initially blamed Jacobs for the altercation, saying in a statement that the reporter “entered the office without permission, aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg’s face, and began asking badgering questions.”
Kathleen William, Gianforte’s Democratic challenger in the upcoming election, said in a statement that “Gianforte’s assault and lies are not who we are as Montanans,” The Guardian reported.
Gianforte, who was charged with misdemeanor assault, won the special election and subsequently apologized. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced in June to 40 hours of community service and 20 hours of anger management classes.
At the time of the incident, some Republicans had condemned Gianforte’s behavior. “There is no time a physical altercation should occur with the press or just between human beings,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said, adding that Gianforte “should apologize.”
A spokeswoman for Ryan did not immediately respond to CNBC’s requests for comment on Trump’s remarks at the rally.
Trump’s son, Eric Trump, balked at the Correspondents’ Association’s condemnation. “Oh, stop,” Trump’s son said on Fox News Channel. “He can have fun.”
“This is actually exactly why my father won,” Eric Trump added, explaining that people are sick of politicians with no “charisma” or “personality.”
In a “60 Minutes” interview a week earlier, Trump had used a much more protective tone toward journalists while discussing Khashoggi.
“There’s a lot at stake. And maybe especially so because this man was a reporter,” Trump said in that interview. “There’s something — you’ll be surprised to hear me say that. There’s something really terrible and disgusting about that, if that were the case.”
Turkish officials told news outlets that the missing Saudi journalist, who had been a critic of the kingdom’s royal family, was tortured, murdered and dismembered by the Saudi government after he entered its consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
Saudi Arabia denies that Khashoggi was killed and has said he left the consulate shortly after he arrived.
On Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence noted the importance of a protected free press while promising “consequences” if Khashoggi was indeed killed.
“If a journalist in particular lost their life at the hands of violence, that’s an affront to the free and independent press around the world, and there will be consequences,” Pence added.
Hours before Trump praised Gianforte for assaulting Jacobs, he told reporters that it “certainly looks” like Khashoggi had been murdered. He said he would consider “very severe consequences” for Saudi Arabia if that was the case.
But Trump has also pushed back on the deluge of criticism against the kingdom pouring in from media organizations and politicians of both major parties. In an Associated Press interview Tuesday Trump said that he did not like how the process was playing out as a case of “you’re guilty until proven innocent.”
Courtney Radsch, advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said “the rhetoric coming from the highest office in the land does not support the fundamental freedom that is integral to democracy.”
But “these attacks on journalists and the constant vilification of journalism is not new,” Radsch said of Trump, who frequently refers to reporters as “dishonest,” “fake” and “the enemy of the people.”
Republicans, including Trump himself, have recently accused Democrats of acting like “an unhinged mob” ahead of the midterms, in which Republicans could lose their majority in the House of Representatives and, possibly, in the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said earlier this month that “only one side was happy to play host to this toxic fringe behavior. Only one side’s leaders are now openly calling for more,” adding that Republicans “will not let mob behavior drown out all the Americans who want to legitimately participate in the policy-making process.”
In a tweet Monday morning, Trump echoed the “mob rule” line of attack against Democrats.
Republicans have highlighted recent comments from former Attorney General Eric Holder, who said that former first lady Michelle Obama’s oft-repeated slogan, “When they go low, we go high,” needs to be updated to “When they go low, we kick them.”
But Holder clarified in the same remarks that, “When I say we kick them, I don’t mean we do anything inappropriate, we don’t do anything illegal, but we have to be tough and we have to fight.”
He added in a later tweet that “I’m obviously not advocating violence … I’m saying Republicans are undermining our democracy.”
Eric Trump said Friday on Fox that the president applauding Gianforte’s assault was totally different from Holder’s comment.
“Eric Holder wasn’t laughing when he was saying that,” Eric Trump said. “The demeanor was very different.”
Trump’s remarks at the Montana rally are not the first time he’s appeared to condone violence in front of crowds of his supporters.
“If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously, OK? Just knock the hell,” Trump said in February 2016. “I promise you I will pay for the legal fees. I promise, I promise.”