Thursday's nationally-watched election for Montana's sole congressional seat got a last-minute twist when the Republican candidate, Greg Gianforte, was charged with misdemeanor assault for allegedly grabbing a reporter by the neck and throwing him to the ground.
Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin made the announcement shortly before midnight Wednesday in a written statement, about six hours after the attack on reporter Ben Jacobs of The Guardian. Gianforte would face a maximum $500 fine or six months in jail if convicted. The statement added that Jacobs' injuries did not meet the legal definition of felony assault.
Gianforte was in a private office preparing for an interview with Fox News when Jacobs came in without permission, campaign spokesman Shane Scanlon said.
The Fox News crew watched in astonishment as, after Jacobs pressed him on the GOP healthcare bill, "Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him," Fox News reporter Alicia Acuna wrote in an article. She added that Gianforte then began to punch Jacobs.
In an audio recording posted by The Guardian, the reporter asks the congressional candidate about the GOP's healthcare bill, which was just evaluated hours earlier by the Congressional Budget Office.
"We'll talk to you about that later," Gianforte says on the recording, referring Jacobs to a spokesman.
When Jacobs says there won't be time, Gianforte says "Just--" and there is a crashing sound. Gianforte yells, "The last guy who came here did the same thing," and a shaken-sounding Jacobs tells the candidate he just body-slammed him.
"Get the hell out of here," Gianforte says.
The incident is a last-minute curveball in Thursday's race, which was partly seen as a referendum on Donald Trump's presidency. The majority of voters were expected to have already cast ballots through early voting, and it was unclear how much of an effect the assault charge would have on the election results.
Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist, who declined to comment, are seeking to fill the state's seat in the U.S. House left vacant when Ryan Zinke resigned to join Trump's Cabinet as secretary of the Interior Department.
Gianforte, a wealthy businessman, lost a race against Montana's Democratic governor in November while Trump won the state by 20 points. In the congressional race, Gianforte has tried to tie himself to the president and been boosted by visits from Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump, Jr.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced that it would launch as many Facebook ads as possible about the assault, targeting Montana Democrats who might not otherwise vote Thursday. The Committee called for Gianforte to quit the race and for the Republican Party to denounce him publicly.
Requests for comment went unanswered Wednesday night from House Speaker Paul Ryan and the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The Gianforte campaign Wednesday night released a statement blaming the incident on Jacobs. It contends he "aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg's face and began asking badgering questions" before being asked to leave.
The campaign said in a statement that Gianforte asked Jacobs to lower a phone that was being used as an audio recorder, then tried to grab it. It also said Jacobs then grabbed Gianforte's wrist and both fell to the ground.
However, the 45-second recording does not contain a request from Gianforte that Jacobs lower his phone. Acuna, the Fox News reporter, wrote that "at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte."
The sheriff's office said Gianforte has until June 7 to appear in court on the charge.