On the eve of Montana's special election, Greg Gianforte, the millionaire Republican running for the state's open congressional seat, was charged with misdemeanor assault after attacking a reporter for The Guardian on Wednesday.
Guardian political reporter Ben Jacobs said Gianforte "body slammed me and broke my glasses" after he asked a question about the Republican health care legislation.
In an audio recording posted by The Guardian, Jacobs can be heard asking Gianforte about the recently released Congressional Budget Office report on the Republican health care replacement bill. Then there's a loud crash.
"I'm sick and tired of you guys," Gianforte says. "The last time you came here you did the same thing. Get the hell out of here!"
"Jesus Christ," Jacobs said. "You just body slammed me and broke my glasses."
"Get the hell out of here," Gianforte says again.
"If you'd like me to get the hell out of here, I'd also like to call the police," Jacobs says.
A Fox News crew was in the room at Gianforte's campaign headquarters in Bozeman when Jacobs walked in.
"Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him," reporter Alicia Acuna wrote on the Fox News website. She said the three-member team "watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the man, as he moved on top the reporter and began yelling something to the effect of "I'm sick and tired of this!"
Acuna added: "To be clear, at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte." She said the Fox crew had given statements to investigators.
Gianforte was cited for misdemeanor assault and ordered to appear in Gallatin County Justice Court. He faces a maximum of six months in a jail and a $500 fine.
Sheriff Brian Gootkin said the incident "did not meet the Montana statutory elements for felony assault." Gootkin also addressed a donation made to Gianforte's campaign in the amount of $250 in March, saying the contribution "had nothing to do with our investigation, which is now complete."
MoveOn.org, a liberal public advocacy group, said late Wednesday it would run a "five-figure," last-minute campaign ad about the incident through the polling on Thursday. The minute-long video includes dramatic audio recorded during the altercation, then flashes the message: "Greg Gianforte. Unfit to serve."
Gianforte had previously tweeted that it was an "incredible honor" to be endorsed by three of the state's biggest newspapers.
Alexis Levinson, a BuzzFeed reporter, saw part of the clash.
"This happened behind a half closed door, so I didn't see it all, but here's what it looked like from the outside," Levinson wrote on Twitter. "Ben walked into a room where a local tv crew was set up for an interview with Gianforte ... All of a sudden I heard a giant crash and saw Ben's feet fly in the air as he hit the floor."
Jacobs reported the attack to local police. The Gallatin County Sheriff's Office confirmed in a statement late Wednesday that it was investigating an alleged assault involving Gianforte. It said the investigation is "ongoing" and it would provide additional details "when appropriate."
Gianforte's office blamed "liberal journalist" Jacobs for the confrontation. Spokesman Shane Scanlon said in a statement that Jacobs barged into an interview in a private office and "aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg's face and began asking badgering questions."
After Jacobs refused to leave, Scanlon said, Gianforte "attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face. 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."
In an interview with MSNBC from the hospital, Jacobs called it "the strangest moment" of his reporting career.
"I don't mind being blown off by politicians, and I also am always terribly uncomfortable being part of a story," he told host Chris Hayes. "And now it seems like I became the story."
Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin, speaking to reporters at a press conference later on Wednesday night, pleaded with the community to stop calling his office's dispatch center, and said he wouldn't provide much information until the investigation is finished. Asked why charges were not filed at the scene, Gootkin said: "Because we did not have all the information at that time."
The high-profile incident on the eve of Election Day throws a contentious race into turmoil. Gianforte is locked in a tight race with Rob Quist, a banjo-playing folk musician who has never sought public office before.
Quist, asked to comment outside a campaign event, told reporters, "I think that's more a matter for law enforcement." He brushed aside further questions.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee called on Gianforte to drop out of the race. The GOP "should not waste another minute before publicly denouncing their candidate and apologizing for the millions of dollars they spent on his behalf," DCCC spokesman Tyler Law said in a statement.
Although Gianforte has led Quist in public polling, his lead has shrunk in recent weeks as Quist has tied him to the unpopular Republican health care bill passed by the House of Representatives earlier this month. Even as Gianforte reserved judgment on the bill in public, The New York Times obtained a recording of a call with Republican-leaning lobbyists in which Gianforte said he was "thankful for" the bill's passage. He later tried to walk back the comments, but Quist pilloried him for it in advertisements and on the campaign trail.
Last month, Gianforte issued an apology to the Billings Gazette's editorial board after making comments during a campaign stop that included hand motions directed at a reporter "as if he would like to wring his neck."
Gianforte said the statement was meant as a "joke" and that he fully supports the First Amendment, but his remarks did little to assuage the fears of local journalists.
"It was sickening to hear this contempt for journalists echoed in our own back yard," The Missoulian wrote in an editorial.
News of Wednesday's violence could be a blow that dooms Gianforte's campaign, ensuring a Quist victory and a major win for Democrats nationally.
Progressive activists across the country have poured money into Quist's race, seeing it as an opportunity to signal dissatisfaction with President Donald Trump in a state he won by 20 percentage points.
In the moments before the confrontation between Jacobs and Gianforte turned violent, the reporter can be heard asking the candidate to clarify his views on the GOP health care bill. A new Congressional Budget Office analysis of the legislation came out earlier in the day, presumably giving Gianforte information he needed to decide whether he supports it.
"You were waiting to make your decision about health care until you saw the bill and it just came out," Jacobs began.
"We'll talk to you about that later," Gianforte replied.
"Yeah but there's not gonna be time," Jacobs shot back. "I'm just curious about it right now."
"Speak with Shane, please," Gianforte said, referring to his spokesman.
Then the sound of scuffling is heard.