BOZEMAN, MT (CBSMiami/AP) — The polls in Montana closed at 10 p.m. – and the early tally shows good numbers for the congressman who body slammed a reporter this week.
But at least two-thirds of the expected votes were cast by absentee ballots before the incident between Greg Gianforte and The Guardian reporter, Ben Jacobs.
A Fox News crew that witnessed the incident said that reporter Jacobs was trying to ask a simple question when candidate Gianforte grabbed him by the neck, body slammed him to the ground and punched him repeatedly.
Gianforte, who has tried to align himself with Trump, denied there was any assault.
Montana voters will go to the polls Thursday in a special election to fill the House seat and the assault charge is a last-minute curveball. However, a majority of voters were expected to have already cast ballots through early voting, so it’s unclear how much of an effect the assault charge would have on the election results.
Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin announced the charge against Gianforte shortly before midnight Wednesday in a written statement, about six hours after the alleged attack. Gianforte would face a maximum $500 fine or 6 months in jail if convicted. The statement added that Jacobs’ injuries did not meet the legal definition of felony assault.
Gianforte was in a private office preparing for an interview with Fox News when Jacobs came in without permission, campaign spokesman Shane Scanlon said.
The Fox News crew watched in astonishment as, after Jacobs pressed him on the GOP health care bill, “Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him,” Fox News reporter Alicia Acuna wrote in an article. She added that Gianforte then began to punch Jacobs.
In an audio recording posted by The Guardian, the reporter asks the congressional candidate about the GOP’s health care bill, which was just evaluated hours earlier by the Congressional Budget Office.
“We’ll talk to you about that later,” Gianforte says on the recording, referring Jacobs to a spokesman.
When Jacobs says that there won’t be time, Gianforte says “Just–” and there is a crashing sound. Gianforte yells, “The last guy who came here did the same thing,” and a shaken-sounded Jacobs tells the candidate he just body-slammed him.
“Get the hell out of here,” Gianforte says.
The Gianforte campaign Wednesday night released a statement blaming the incident on Jacobs. It contends he “aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg’s face and began asking badgering questions” before being asked to leave.
Gianforte asked Jacobs to lower a phone that was being used as an audio recorder, then tried to grab it, the campaign said in a statement. Jacobs then grabbed Gianforte’s wrist and both fell to the ground, Scanlon said.
The 45-second recording does not contain a request from Gianforte that Jacobs lower his phone. Acuna, the Fox News reporter, wrote that “at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte.”
The sheriff’s office said Gianforte has until June 7 to appear in court on the charge.
Gianforte, a wealthy businessman, lost a race against Montana’s Democratic governor in November while Trump won the state by 20 points. In the congressional race, Gianforte has been boosted by visits from Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump, Jr.
Hours before Wednesday’s assault, the Gianforte campaign sent out a last-minute fundraising appeal to its supporters, saying the outcome “will determine whether we pass Donald Trump’s America First agenda or if the fake news media and the national Democrats will win, keeping Obama’s reckless policies in place.”
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)