President Donald Trump praised Montana Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte for assaulting a reporter during his campaign last May, saying "any guy who can do a body slam ... he's my guy" and made a gesture mimicking a body slam.
At a Montana rally Thursday night, Trump admitted, "I shouldn't say this," but continued and said, "there's nothing to be embarrassed about."
The comment comes at the same time as the administration responds to the disappearance and apparent murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi was last seen entering the Saudi consulate on October 2 and Turkish media reports that an audio recording suggests Khashoggi was tortured and killed soon after entering the building before being dismembered.
Trump said Thursday "it certainly looks" like Khashoggi is dead. But, Trump said he is "waiting for the results" of investigations being conducted by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, after which he pledged to make "a very strong statement."
Gianforte pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault in June 2017 after he was convicted of "body slamming" Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian. A judge sentenced him to a 180-day deferred sentence, 40 hours of community service, 20 hours of anger management and a $300 fine along with a $85 court fee.
Trump said he found out about Gianforte assaulting a reporter when he was traveling in Rome, and initially was concerned it would hurt the Republican in the election.
"Then I said, well wait a minute, I know Montana pretty well, I think it might help him. And it did," Trump said. The President's comments were met with laughter and applause from the crowd in Montana.
Gianforte won the election the next day and apologized to Jacobs during his acceptance speech.
"When you make a mistake, you have to own up to it," Gianforte told his supporters at his Election Night rally in Bozeman. "That's the Montana way."
Saying he was "not proud" of his behavior, he added, "I should not have responded the way I did, for that I'm sorry. I should not have treated that reporter that way, and for that I'm sorry, Mr. Ben Jacobs."
At the rally, Trump called Gianforte, "One of the most respected people in Congress," and a "tough cookie."
"By the way, never wrestle him," he said.
Guardian US editor John Mulholland condemned Trump's joke in a statement.
"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."
The joke about Gianforte assaulting Jacobs came just after Trump framed the 2018 midterms elections as a choice between Republican law and order and Democratic "mobs."
Trump said the November 6 vote will be "an election of Kavanaugh, the caravan, law and order, and common sense. That's what it's going to be".
In a new line for the campaign, he said "Democrats create mobs. Republicans create jobs."
Trump later recalled the back-and-forth with former Vice President Joe Biden over a fight, and again invoked Gianforte's body slam of Jacobs.
"How about sleepy Joe Biden? Sleepy Joe. Remember he challenged me to a fight and that was fine. And when I said he wouldn't last long -- he'd be down faster than Greg would take him down, he'd be down so fast, remember? Faster than Greg -- I'd have to go very fast, I'd have to immediately connect," Trump told the crowd.
Trump recalled the challenge from Biden, to which he said the "fake news" said was "cute." When Trump responded that he'd go down fast, he characterized the media's response in a mocking voice: "They said, what a vicious statement."