WASHINGTON — Republican House leaders refused to walk away from their candidate who body-slammed a reporter for asking questions on Thursday, criticizing his actions but declining to disavow his campaign.
“From what I know of Greg Gianforte, this was totally out of character, but we all make mistakes,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) said in a statement about the Montana candidate, who faces the voters on Thursday. “Today’s special election is bigger than any one person; it’s about the views of all Montanans. They deserve to have their voices heard in Washington.”
Stivers ran away from a Daily News reporter when asked about the statement, saying it “speaks for itself” and refusing to answer any questions as he exited the Capitol.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was a bit more critical of Gianforte’s actions, calling on him to apologize — but refused to say whether he would allow him to serve as a member of the House Republican conference if he wins in Thursday’s election, a real possibility given Montana’s conservative lean and the heavy levels of early voting that have already taken place in the state.
“That is wrong and it should not have happened. Should the gentleman apologize? Yeah, I think he should apologize,” Ryan said. “If he wins he has been chosen by the people of Montana… I do not think this is acceptable behavior, but the choice will be made by the people of Montana.”
But other big-name backers were notably silent. Vice President Mike Pence went to Montana to campaign for Gianforte, but his office said it wouldn’t comment on his actions. President Trump recorded a robocall for the Republican, but the White House didn’t have anything to say about him.
Other Republicans disavowed Gianforte’s actions, though none un-endorsed their party’s nominee.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who’d sent a letter endorsing Gianforte, called the behavior “inexcusable” — but lost his temper when asked if that meant he’d rescind his endorsement.
“Come on, come on. I endorse lots of Republican candidates. I said that behavior is inexcusable and I don’t have anything more to say,” he snapped when the Daily News began a follow-up question. “I don’t have anything more to say. I don’t have anything more to say. Please respect that, okay? Please respect that I don’t have anything more to say about that, okay? I’m asking you to respect my response. Sometimes you wonder why some of us get irritated. I get irritated because I have said everything that I have had to say on it, that’s all.”
But his quick temper had calmed a minute later, and he joked back when this reporter thanked him for not body-slamming him.
“I understand you have a job to do, okay? I do understand that. Even if you’re a big jerk,” he said with a laugh.
Other Republicans took a harsher tone.
“A big part of a public servant’s job is teaching civics. If the First Amendment means anything, it means you can’t body-slam a journalist,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) tweeted Thursday morning.
“It’s indefensible, as are the death threats against my colleagues and a lot of the other things,” Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), a vulnerable member from a swing district, told The News.
Gianforte couldn’t even get a show of support from his old business partner, who like Ryan and Stivers sidestepped whether he still supported the candidate.
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who worked with Gianforte for years and has been a strong backer of his campaigns, issued a tepid statement ducking whether or not he still supported his friend.
“I have confidence in local law enforcement. I do know Greg Gianforte has been charged with misdemeanor assault and will leave the questions and answers to local law enforcement. I do not condone violence in any way,” he said in a tweeted statement.
“Greg Gianforte needs to apologize,” Daines tweeted a bit later.
Daines’ last tweet before those came just a day ago — before the assault. “Congratulations, Greg. Good luck tomorrow!” he’d said.
And Democrats pounced, comparing Gianforte’s physical attack on Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs to the verbal assaults President Trump has leveled at the press.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called him a “wannabe Trump.
“I viewed that as a mom and a grandmother. We try to have some level of dignity as to how we treat people and who we are,” she said. “Donald Trump’s his model and we’ve really got to say behave, behave. That was outrageous.”