Journalists and others are calling for US President Donald Trump to apologise after he praised a Republican congressman for body-slamming a reporter last year.
“To celebrate an attack on a journalist who was simply doing his job is an attack on the first amendment by someone who has taken an oath to defend it,” said John Mulholland, editor of the Guardian US, whose political correspondent Ben Jacobs was assaulted in May 2017 as he tried to ask Congressman Greg Gianforte a question about healthcare.
During a Montana campaign rally on Thursday, Trump praised Gianforte, saying: “Any guy that can do a body slam – he’s my kind of guy.”
The crowd laughed and cheered as Trump went on, saying “he’s a great guy, tough cookie”.
After the 2017 encounter, Gianforte initially misled investigators about what had happened, falsely claiming that Jacobs had grabbed him by the wrist and pulled both of them to the floor, according to documents released under a court order following requests from news agencies.
The president said he was in Rome with other world leaders when he heard about what had happened.
“And I said, oh, this is terrible. He’s going to lose the election,” Trump recalled. “And then I said, well, wait a minute. I know Montana pretty well. I think it might help him. And it did.”
Last night, President Trump praised a GOP Congress member for body slamming a reporter in May 2017.
Greg Gianforte pleaded guilty for the assault. pic.twitter.com/actvGHvO5x
— AJ+ (@ajplus) October 19, 2018
Gianforte, who is up for re-election in November, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanour assault charge in June 2017 and said in an apology letter that he alone was responsible for the attack. He paid a $385 fine and completed 40 hours of community service and 20 hours of anger management counselling. He also donated $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Trump referenced Gianforte again later during Thursday’s rally when discussing former Vice President Joe Biden, who once said he would “beat the hell out of” Trump if they were in high school.
On Biden challenging him to a fight, Trump said, “He’d be down, faster than Greg would take him down.”
Trump’s comments come amid an international furore over the apparent assassination of Saudi writer and critic Jamal Khashoggi who disappeared at the beginning of October after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents for his upcoming marriage. He has not been seen since.
Earlier on Thursday, Trump said it “certainly” looked as though Khashoggi is dead, adding that if reports are true that the Saudis killed him, the consequences “will have to be very severe”.
Trump has also denied covering for Saudi Arabia over the suspected murder. “I am not giving cover at all,” he said on Wednesday.
The Guardian’s Mulholland said: “In the aftermath of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, [Trump’s remarks at the campaign rally] run the risk of inviting other assaults on journalists both here and across the world where they often face far greater threats.”
He added: “We hope decent people will denounce these comments and that the president will see fit to apologise for them.”
Other journalists, editors and rights groups also rebuked Trump for praising Gianforte on Thursday night.
“This shocking and chilling, especially in light of the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” tweeted Guardian Editor-in-Chief Katharine Viner.
This is shocking and chilling, especially in light of the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi: Trump has praised Congressman Greg Gianforte for his violent assault on a Guardian reporter: https://t.co/k6KcqTW11d
— Katharine Viner (@KathViner) October 19, 2018
“If you think the press is the enemy of the American people, why wouldn’t you praise people who beat up journalists,” tweeted Guardian writer Jason Wilson. “Don’t expect him to say anything useful if journalists start getting beaten up in at street protests etc,” he added.
PEN America, a literary and rights organisation, launched a lawsuit against the president on Tuesday, accusing him of violating the First Amendment and his oath to uphold the Constitution through “official acts”.
Responding to Trump’s remarks on Thursday night, PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement the president’s comment “marks a startling new low in terms of the White House’s open hostility toward the press”.
Nossel added: “During a week when the world is riveted in horror at the brutal murder of a journalist by the Saudi government, Trump’s remarks are a chilling reminder that US global leadership on press freedom has collapsed utterly under the president’s watch.”
We have filed suit challenging the President’s threats and retaliatory actions toward the press to affirm the role of First Amendment and demand that our government treat journalists with the protections they deserve, and that our democracy depends upon. https://t.co/q5nJXdd8vu
— PEN America (@PENamerica) October 19, 2018
Olivier Knox, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, said in a statement that “all Americans should recoil from the president’s praise for a violent assault on a reporter doing his Constitutionally protected job”.
Knox added: “We should never shrug at the president cheerleading for a violent act targeting a free and independent news media.”