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Ben Jacobs should reject Greg Gianforte’s apology

Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT), sharing “something from my heart” at his victory party last night.
Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT), sharing “something from my heart” at his victory party last night.
Photo by Janie Osborne/Getty Images

Midway through his victory speech late Thursday night, newly-elected House member Greg Gianforte (R-MT) choked up as he began to address allegations that he assaulted a reporter the day before. “I should not have responded in the way I did, and for that I’m sorry,” he said.

Gianforte was charged with a misdemeanor after he reportedly body-slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs at a campaign barbecue Wednesday night. But fresh off defeating Democrat Rob Quist in Montana’s special election, Gianforte turned somber and hushed the crowd of cheering supporters in front of him:

Last night, I learned a lesson. I need to share something from my heart here, and I ask you to bear with me. When you make a mistake, you have to own up to it. That’s the Montana way.

Last night, I took an action I can’t take back, and I’m not proud of what happened. I should not have responded in the way I did, and for that I’m sorry. I should not have treated that reporter that way, and for that, I’m sorry Mr. Ben Jacobs. I also want to apologize for the Fox News team that was there. I’m sorry to each one of you.

It was a classic politician’s apology. Gianforte appeared contrite, said he was sharing “something from my heart,” and acknowledged that he was “not proud of what happened.”

His apology also sidestepped many of the most egregious parts of the story. It’s worth boring in on what exactly Gianforte is admitting to doing wrong — and what, more importantly, he is not.

Gianforte apologized for taking unspecified action against both Jacobs and a crew of Fox News reporters who were in the room when the attack occurred. Gianforte does not admit that he body-slammed Jacobs. He does not acknowledge raining punches down on Jacobs while on top of him, or sending him to the hospital, or breaking the reporter’s glasses. All Gianforte admits is that he “took an action that I can’t take back” and that he “should not have treated that reporter that way.”

What way? Only the day before, Gianforte portrayed himself as a helpless victim of an assault he alleged was initiated by Jacobs. "Jacobs grabbed Greg's wrist, and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground," Gianforte spokesperson Shane Scanlon said in a statement in the final hours of the campaign. "It's unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created a scene.”

Many of Gianforte’s voters believed this version of the story and told reporters that they didn’t believe Jacobs. But the apology raises troubling new questions. Did Gianforte lie when he accused Jacobs of being the aggressor? If Gianforte’s apology is sincere, then did he falsely charge another person with an assault that he himself committed? The tech billionaire has done nothing to correct the record or retract his earlier statement.

It’s worth highlighting that Gianforte is only gingerly walking back his story after Fox News reporters published eye-witness accounts supporting Jacobs’s version of the fight. He’s also only apologizing after Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), the state’s Republican senator, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan called on him to do so.

But imagine the position Jacobs would have found himself in had the Fox News account not emerged. When Gianforte first accused Jacobs of attacking him, only the Republican candidate and the reporter had explained what had occurred. Gianforte’s statement would have made Jacobs’s claims look invented or hysterical. (Some are accusing Jacobs of inventing the story anyway.) The entire conservative media would almost certainly be faster on his heels than they already are. Jacobs would have only had his word against that of a newly elected Congress member. Helpless to respond, he would have been castigated as a sensationalist and attention-seeking member of the reviled DC media establishment.

As Vox’s Tara Golshan notes, Gianforte will face many more tough and aggressive questions from reporters once he gets to Capitol Hill. The relationship is often a two-way street. Politicians often lament that journalists mischaracterize their actions. But can journalists trust Gianforte not to twist theirs? Can other lawmakers? Can voters?

Gianforte’s apology is a step in the right direction. It’s not nearly close enough. And until Gianforte owns up to dangerously gas-lighting a member of the press, Jacobs should reject this token, meager, woefully incomplete peace offering.