Shortly after he was publicly accused of assaulting a reporter Wednesday night, House candidate Greg Gianforte (R-MT) put out a statement that portrayed himself as the victim of the altercation.
Shane Scanlon, Gianforte’s spokesperson, made a number of specific factual assertions. One was that the Guardian’s Ben Jacobs was had “aggressively shoved” a tape recorder in Gianforte’s face. Another was that Jacobs had asked “badgering questions,” and that Jacobs (a “liberal journalist”) made first contact in the incident by grabbing Gianforte’s wrist. After grabbing Gianforte’s wrist, the statement continued, Jacobs “spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground.” This “aggressive behavior,” the statement said, “created this scene at our campaign volunteer BBQ.”
It’s worth deconstructing not just how much this clashes with several other eye-witness accounts, but also what such brazen elision of the truth says about the candidate running for Congress.
Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault by Montana law enforcement and is scheduled to appear in court before June 7. On Thursday, voters will head to pick between him and Democrat Rob Quist. A loss would be Gianforte’s second in a short few months; in November 2016, he lost a governor’s race against Democrat Steve Bullock.
Gianforte’s statement implies that Jacobs bears responsibility for setting off the physical altercation. Audio of the incident posted by the Guardian leaves no doubt that Gianforte lost his composure in the moments preceding it. It also makes clear that Jacobs was asking his questions politely.
“I’m sick and tired of you guys!” Gianforte can be heard as saying before the sound of a loud crash. “The last time you came here you did the same thing. Get the hell out of here. Get the hell out of here.”
More importantly, several Fox News reporters who had been in the room during the time of the assault later released their full account of the incident. This excerpt from Fox News's Alicia Acuna is worth reading (emphasis added):
…[Jacobs] walked into the room with a voice recorder, put it up to Gianforte's face and began asking if he had a response to the newly released Congressional Budget Office report on the American Health Care Act. Gianforte told him he would get to him later. Jacobs persisted with his question. Gianforte told him to talk to his press guy, Shane Scanlon.
At that point, Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him. Faith, Keith and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter. As Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs, he began yelling something to the effect of, "I'm sick and tired of this!" ...
To be clear, at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte, who left the area after giving statements to local sheriff's deputies.
It’s worth pausing to highlight the massive disparities between the Fox News account and Gianforte’s.
Gianforte’s timeline pegs the incident as escalating when Jacobs grabbed his wrist. Three neutral third-party observers agreed that the incident was, in fact, set off when Gianforte “grabbed Jacobs by the neck.”
Gianforte blamed the incident on Jacobs’s overly aggressive questioning. The Fox reporters state without equivocation that “at no point did any of us … see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression” toward Gianforte.
Gianforte did not admit to engaging in any violence. Three reporters — not to mention Jacobs himself — say that Gianforte “moved on top of Jacobs” and “began punching the reporter.”
Presumably, either Gianforte or someone on his staff had a good chance of knowing that there had been other people in the room who had witnessed what had occurred.
If they didn’t, then that suggests they gambled on dissembling the truth in the hope that nobody besides Jacobs could contradict them. If they did know there were other observers in the room, then Gianforte likely concluded that having wildly contradictory accounts of the assault was a risk worth running — perhaps with the hope that his supporters would believe him, rather than the story of him pummeling a reporter for no apparent reason, in the final day of Montana’s nationally watched special election.
“Nothing in the campaign statement is accurate except my name and my employer,” Jacobs said in a text message to a Washington Post reporter.
This isn’t a case of the Rashomon effect. This is the case of a candidate, fighting for political survival and looking to stave off his second humiliating defeat in under a year, trying to reinvent reality. Gianforte has run a race closely hugging President Donald Trump, and it’s not hard to see why.