During Missoula rally, Trump attacks Tester, praises Gianforte for assaulting reporter

President Donald Trump told a campaign-style rally that his third trip to Montana in four months was to punish Sen. Jon Tester for opposing Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Trump also used the rally at a hangar at Missoula International Airport to praise U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte for body slamming a reporter. Gianforte, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault, is “my kind of guy,” the president said.

A spokesperson for Gianforte released a statement late Thursday responding to the president’s remarks.

“Greg will tell you he regrets what happened, he’s not perfect, he’s taken personal responsibility, this has been widely covered, he’s moved on, and that since Montanans elected him, he’s been delivering results for Montana — a booming economy, safer communities, and a more secure America,” the spokesman said.

Tester, a Democrat, is in a heated re-election battle against Republican state Auditor Matt Rosendale. Trump has made an unprecedented number of trips to the state to campaign for Rosendale and has also sent the vice president and Donald Trump Jr. to stump in Montana.

Trump said he has “a lot of respect” for Rosendale.

“But I’m also here because I can never forget what Jon Tester did to a man that’s of the highest quality,” the president said of Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, whom Trump had nominated to lead the VA. “That’s really why I’m here.

“What (Tester) did was unfair, what he did was vicious, what he did was … almost, almost, if this is believable, worse” than Democratic criticisms of Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Trump said. But the president acknowledged minutes later that Jackson “might not have been qualified” to lead the sprawling department.

Tester is the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and a longtime champion of veterans issues in Congress.

In April, Tester brought forward allegations of complaints against Jackson that included drinking on the job and improperly prescribing medication. Jackson eventually withdrew his nomination and is under investigation by the Pentagon.

Trump threatened in the spring to make Tester “pay” for releasing the allegations against Jackson and said in a tweet Wednesday he still holds the Democrat responsible for “vicious and totally false statements.”

Nearly $40 million has been spent on Montana’s Senate race because it’s one of 10 places where a Democrat is seeking re-election in a state Trump won in 2016, here by 20 points.

Trump previously held rallies in Great Falls in July and Billings in September. In those events, Trump talked up Rosendale but barely mentioned Gianforte, who also is on the ballot in November.

But Thursday night, Trump praised Gianforte for assaulting a reporter on the eve of Montana’s 2017 special election that sent the Republican businessman to Congress.

On May 24, 2017, Gianforte body-slammed a reporter for the Guardian who was asking him about his stance on health care at a campaign event in Bozeman. Gianforte pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and was fined $385, sentenced to anger management and community service. Gianforte also donated $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists and sent a letter of apology to Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs.

The crowd at the hangar laughed loudly as Trump joked about the assault, calling Gianforte “my kind of guy.”

“And by the way, never wrestle with him,” Trump said.

Guardian U.S. editor John Mulholland said Thursday night he was disturbed by the president’s message.

“The President of the United States tonight applauded the assault on an American journalist who works for the Guardian. 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,” Mulholland said. “In the aftermath of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, it runs the risk of inviting other assaults on journalists both here and across the world where they often face far greater threats. We hope decent people will denounce these comments and that the President will see fit to apologize for them.”

Gianforte is running against Democrat Kathleen Williams. Before the rally Thursday, Williams released an ad saying Gianforte’s assault and lies are not Montana values.

“Gianforte has a history of attacking people, whether physically or by undermining their livelihoods. Gianforte does not represent Montana’s values,” the campaign said in a release.

Gianforte appeared briefly on the stage but did not address Trump’s comments. Rosendale told the crowd at the rally that Trump needs Republicans in Washington to support his agenda.

“President Trump and all his policies are on the line, so let’s make history and retire Jon Tester and send President Trump the help he needs,” Rosendale said.

Trump called Tester “super liberal,” which is not supported by the facts.

Tester has voted with Trump more than most Democrats and supported 62 percent of the president’s nominees. He has also bucked his party by supporting the Keystone Pipeline, carrying a bill to unroll some of the banking regulations put in place after the 2008 financial collapse and voting against Obama-era Wall Street and auto bailouts, the only Democratic senator to do so.

While Tester did not support Trump’s tax cut, he said it was because it added $2 trillion to the federal debt. He also opposed the appointments of Associate Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh because of concerns they would allow dark money to dominate politics and weaken privacy rights for Montanans

Trump said he needs Rosendale in Washington to help advance Trump’s agenda of appointing more conservative justices, protecting gun rights and building a wall at the southern U.S. border.

“The Democratic Party has gone so far to the left nobody knows what to do. It has become the radical resistance,” Trump said.

At an event with veterans in Butte earlier in the day, Tester told reporters he wanted the president to spend time in Montana learning about issues that affect the state.

“I’m always glad to welcome the President of the United States to the great state of Montana. You know there’s a veterans’ clinic in Missoula that’s critically understaffed. It would be great if he could go take a peek at that. It’s literally within a stone’s throw of the airport.

“For that matter, he could come here to Butte. It’s not that far from Missoula.”

Republicans nationally have pivoted in recent weeks to painting Democrats as an angry mob, a line Trump continued Thursday in his attack on Tester.

“The Democratic Party has become too extreme to be trusted with power,” Trump said. “If you want to drain the swamp you must defeat the Democrats and you must defeat Sen. Jon Tester … How the hell did you ever elect that guy?”

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