The perils of asking press questions in Trumplandia

     Republican Greg Gianforte (right) welcomes Donald Trump Jr., the president's son, onto the stage at a rally in East Helena, Mont., on May 11. Gianforte, a businessman, is embracing his party's president in his race for the state's open congressional seat.(Bobby Caina Calvan/AP)

    Republican Greg Gianforte (right) welcomes Donald Trump Jr., the president's son, onto the stage at a rally in East Helena, Mont., on May 11. Gianforte, a businessman, is embracing his party's president in his race for the state's open congressional seat.(Bobby Caina Calvan/AP)

    What happened last night in Montana was an apt metaphor for life in Trumplandia, a thuggish place where the Leader tags factual stories as Fake News and assails reporters as “enemies of the people.”

    On the eve of Montana’s special congressional election, a closer-than-expected race that has Republicans very unnverved, a reporter had the temerity to ask the Trump-loving candidate for his reaction to the Republican health care bill; in response, the candidate physically pounded the reporter — which prompted the cops to charge the candidate with misdemeanor assault.

    What a hoot it would be if Greg Gianforte wins today’s race, gets convicted in court, and is compelled to start his congressional stint from a jail cell. We’d love to hear Paul Ryan spin that one. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Suffice it to say that, last night, he and the Republican campaign groups stayed silent about Gianforte’s refusal to be held accountable by the free and independent press. Mike Pence, who recently robocalled for Gianforte, stayed mum today.

    Normally we wouldn’t expect any news from a special election in Montana. Trump won the state by 20 points last November, he tapped its sole congressman to be the Interior secretary, and multimillionaire Gianforte should be a shoo-in to fill the seat — especially since his Democratic opponent, Rob Quist, is a banjo-plucking musician. But Trump’s serial failures have resonated even in Montana, and Republican groups have been spending big bucks to shore up Gianforte’s single-digit lead.

    Which brings us to last night. Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian, asked Gianforte to assess the Congressional Budget Office’s new report on the House Republican health care bill. Gianforte has praised that bill, but the CBO said yesterday that, if enacted, 14 million more people would be uninsured in 2018 than under Obamacare. What did Gianforte think of the bill? It was the kind of question that members of the U.S. House have to answer every day.

    Jacobs never got an answer. Here’s what happened next, as described by three eyewitnesses — a local crew from Fox News. I repeat, this is a crew from Fox News:

    “Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him. [We] watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter. As Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs, he began yelling something to the effect of, ‘I’m sick and tired of this!’ Jacobs scrambled to his knees and said something about his glasses being broken …

    “To be clear, at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte.”

    An audio recording of the assault provides more texture. Jacobs is politely asking his question, Gianforte tries to brush him off, Jacobs politely persists, and within seconds, amidst the crashing and scuffling, Gianforte’s rage goes from zero to 60: “I’m sick and tired of you guys! … Get the hell out of here! Get the hell out of here! Get the hell out of here!”

    Hence, the charge of misdemeanor assault — filed by the country sheriff who gave $250 to Gianforte’s campaign. Perhaps the next question for Gianforte is whether he thinks the GOP health care bill covers anger management classes.

    The big question is whether his behavior will hurt his electoral prospects. I wouldn’t bet on that.

    For starters, roughly 70 percent of the likely Montana electorate has already voted by mail. And among those who will vote today, there are lots of Trumpkins who embrace their Leader’s hatred of the press. At a Gianforte town hall last month, a voter gestured to a reporter in the room, called him “our greatest enemy,” and mimed wringing the reporter’s neck. Did Gianforte stand up for the First Amendment? Nope. Instead, he smiled, pointed to the reporter and said: “We have someone right here. It seems like there is more of us than there is of him.”

    Branding the press as the enemy and baldfaced lying are two Trumplandian staples. And last night, sure enough, Gianforte’s flacks lied about his encounter with Jacobs, claiming in a statement that “Jacobs grabbed Greg’s wrist and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground. It’s unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene.”

    Fortunately, that lie didn’t wash with the sheriff’s office — but the calculated agitprop (“aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist”) may well work to gin up the remaining voter base.

    And hey, why not. In a world where Donald Trump was able to win 53 percent of white women after boasting about grabbing women’s genitalia, Greg Gianforte can certainly win a congressional race in Montana after assaulting a representative of the First Amendment.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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