Greg Gianforte should not get a free pass
(CNN)—We shouldn’t forget about Rep. Greg Gianforte. The newest congressman’s guilty plea this month in a Montana court on charges of misdemeanor assault — resulting in sentence of no jail time — and his $50,000 donation to a press freedom organization (Gianforte is worth north of $300 million) may satisfy the courts and even the reporter he victimized, but congressional representatives and the American people should not let him off so easily.
Following Gianforte’s swearing-in as a member of the House of Representatives, we must insist that he — like all our legislators — be held to a high ethical standard, one that cannot include “body-slamming” a journalist for asking a question — and then lying about it.
Gianforte received a deferred sentence, which means the conviction will be dismissed and his record sealed in six months if he abides by terms set by the court. Reasonable minds can differ on the propriety of Gianforte’s sentence (though one can’t help but wonder what would have happened were the roles reversed, or were the defendant a person of color). What is, however, abundantly clear is that threats and violence in American politics cannot stand.
Our national commitment to free speech rests on a thin reed: that we can speak without fear of retaliation. It is the responsibility of our elected representatives to uphold the basic tenets of democracy regardless of party or political climate. Meeting speech with punches is fundamentally un-American.
Let’s be very clear about what happened. The night before the election, reporter Ben Jacobs entered Gianforte’s office and asked a question about health care legislation. Gianforte deflected the question. Jacobs (politely) asked again. Gianforte then grabbed him by the neck, slammed him to the ground and punched him. The entire exchange was caught on an audio recording, and an eyewitness report by a Fox News crew confirmed that account.
Gianforte’s office compounded the offense by issuing a false statement about what happened. The statement said that Gianforte asked Jacobs to lower the recorder. He did not. The statement said that Gianforte asked Jacobs to leave. He did not. The statement said that Jacobs grabbed Gianforte’s wrist after Gianforte tried to grab the recorder. That’s not close to what happened. The statement concluded by blaming “aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist” for the incident.
The House Ethics Manual mandates that members of the House must behave “at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House,” and contains House Resolution 541, which requires the House Ethics Committee to either empanel an investigative subcommittee or explain why it has not within 30 days of a member being charged with any crime.
It seems clear that Gianforte’s conduct, and especially the release of a false statement following the incident blaming the victim, violated congressional ethics rules by, among other things, not reflecting “creditably” on the House of Representatives. “Notwithstanding anyone’s statements to the contrary, you did not initiate physical contact with me,” Gianforte wrote in his letter of apology, failing to acknowledge that the patently false statements to the contrary were made by his own office.
Crucially, the Gianforte incident did not happen in a vacuum. As Jacobs alluded to in a stirring and strongly worded statement to the court, it’s part of a clear escalation in incidents of blatant infringements on press freedom and physical altercations involving the media. On May 9, police arrested a reporter who asked Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price a question in a West Virginia state capitol hallway. Later that month, security officers manhandled and ejected a CQ Roll Call reporter at a Federal Communications Commission open hearing. Reporter Aaron Cantú now faces a possible 75 years in prison after being indicted on felony riot charges last week after covering counter-inauguration protests in the capital that turned violent.
Currently before the House of Representatives is a formal complaint against Gianforte from PEN America, the Free Press Action Fund, Reporters Without Borders, and the Society of Professional Journalists. It notes that representatives must behave at all times in a manner that reflects “creditably” on the House of Representatives. Though there has not been a physical assault by a sitting member of Congress since Reconstruction, historical precedent suggests that “body-slamming” a reporter is a violation of House ethics rules, and lying about it further compounds the offense.
In the last instance, congressional violence — an 1866 assault on Iowa Congressman Josiah Grinnell by Kentucky Rep. Lovell Rousseau in retaliation for an insult to Rousseau’s military record and the Bluegrass State — a special committee actually recommended expulsion, which was denied by the House. Rousseau was ultimately formally censured in front of his peers by the Speaker of the House. In the horrific 1856 caning of anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner by South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks, the special committee again urged expulsion but the resolution failed on the House floor. Brooks resigned after the vote, as did his two accomplices, both of whom were formally censured. All three were ultimately reelected.
The House would be remiss if it does not at least investigate Gianforte’s assault and his false statement. And, were the House to formally censure Gianforte, it would send an imperative message that such activity is never appropriate. It should do so. The First Amendment means nothing if lawmakers or law enforcement feel free to respond to questions or criticism with fisticuffs or handcuffs. The House needs to make that abundantly clear by disciplining Gianforte.
-Gabe Rottman, PEN America Washington Director