Republican congressman Greg Gianforte continues to refuse an interview with the reporter he assaulted last May. While the Guardian’s Ben Jacobs recently put the thumbscrews to Gianforte, taking to Twitter and interviews with other national publications, the issue remains a stalemate.
At a hotel conference room in Bozeman, Gianforte is giving a keynote address to the Montana Association of Counties. He speaks about draining the swamp, making Montana great again, and then he tells a joke about the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
“So, do you know what a Grizzly bear, Canadian lynx, sage grouse and pallid sturgeon all have in common? They all taste like spotted owl,” he says.
Gianforte has spent the past two months meeting with groups like this, touring Montana, and trying to move beyond his assault of Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs.
On the eve of a special election in May, witnesses say the congressman body-slammed Jacobs to the ground and broke his glasses.
Gianforte later plead guilty to the assault, made a $50,000 dollar donation to the Committee to Protect Journalists, paid for Jacob’s hospital bills and then apologized to the reporter, saying “if and when you’re ready, I look forward to sitting down with you in D.C.”
Jacobs presumes a sit-down between a reporter and a public figure means "on-the-record." In other words, a recorded interview that would later be published by the Guardian. But despite multiple requests for that on the record interview, it hasn’t happened. So, at the conference room in Bozeman, I ask Gianforte why:
Nate Hegyi: “Ben Jacobs has asked for an on-the-record interview. Um, what’s the status with that? Why hasn’t that happened?”
Greg Gianforte: “I’ve offered him many dates, he hasn’t accepted. So I continue to be available.”
NH: “And those are on the record, we’re talking on-the-record interviews, not the off-the-record interviews?”
GG: “I committed that I would sit down with him, and I’m still happy to do that.”
NH: “Ok. But off the record or on the record?”
GG: “I’m happy to sit down with Ben if he wants to. We need to get to know each other.”
Later, Gianforte’s spokesperson Travis Hall conceded they want the sit-down off-the-record, writing in an email it was “a natural, necessary first step if more will follow.”
“I have no idea what that means,” Jacobs says. “There’s a level of linguistic games being played and I’ve requested an interview with them starting the day after he got to Congress. And there wasn’t any mention of, ‘wait, this is going to be a time for us to be pals.’”
Jacobs says he doesn’t want an off-the-record meeting with the congressman first, because there is no guarantee that an on-the-record interview will follow.
“My intention with this interview was to actually sit-down and ask policy questions and talk about that this is a freshman congressman new to politics in one of the strangest times in American history," he says. "This wasn’t an attempt to dwell on the incident. Also, I couldn’t not ask about the incident because it would be like writing about Moby-Dick without mentioning a whale.”
An interview with Jacobs could make international headlines and reflect poorly on Gianforte's office, says Christopher Muste, an associate professor of political science at the University of Montana.
“So I think they just want to avoid reminding people in general of the incident itself and of Gianforte’s response and having to appear in court," he says. "All of the images, all of the events associated with that.”
But if Gianforte doesn’t agree to an interview:
“It’s going to continue to dog him," he says. "So at some point I think they’ll have to do something. But I think their hope is that it’s just going to go away, and people will say, ‘oh yeah, that’s past history, let’s move on with it.’”
Though Muste says that’s unlikely, especially with an election looming in 2018:
“Any groups that are opposed to Gianforte will make hay of this. Not just the incident itself but the fact that he hasn’t sat down with a reporter as he said in an open court. That he looked forward to sitting down with him and I think, given the context, most everybody expected that that meant an on-the-record interview.”
In a previous interview with YPR, Gianforte says he wants to move beyond the assault.
A Montana Republican strategist who spoke with YPR on condition that his name not be revealed speculates Gianforte may want to sit down with Jacobs off-the-record so he can apologize, bury the hatchet and mend fences.
According to the congressman’s spokesperson, Gianforte’s office has offered multiple dates in which the two could sit-down, informally, off-the-record and over some Montana beers. But Jacobs isn’t having it.
“Assault victims don’t tend to have buddy-buddy beers with people who assaulted them,” he says.
Jacobs says he tried to turn the assault into something positive:
“Something’s that good for civil discourse and for press freedom. But sometimes the person who assaulted you for no reason turns out to be a kind of a bad guy,” he says.
In an email statement, Gianforte’s spokesperson says their offer for an off-the-record meeting remains on the table. But as of now, they’re at a stalemate.