MISSOULA, Mont. — President Donald Trump praised Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., Thursday for physically assaulting a reporter during a House race last year.
"Never wrestle him," Trump said of Gianforte at a campaign rally here. "Any guy that can do a body slam, he's my guy."
Gianforte pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault last year after Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian, said the then-candidate "body-slammed" him. Gianforte was sentenced to 40 hours of community service, 20 hours of anger-management counseling and payment of a $385 fine. As part of a civil settlement, he apologized for responding with physical violence to a question Jacobs asked about health care policy.
Cheered on by the crowd at a rally set against the colorful backdrop of a Big Sky sunset, Trump added that he didn't think at the time that the episode would hurt Gianforte with Montana voters — "I think it might help him," Trump recalled thinking. "And it did."
The remarks come amid calls for Trump to hold Saudi Arabia responsible for the disappearance and apparent killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who wrote for The Washington Post. Khashoggi, a critic of Saudi Arabia's government, was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago.
The Guardian's U.S. editor, John Mulholland,said "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" in a statement provided to the paper.
"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," he said. "We hope decent people will denounce these comments and that the president will see fit to apologize for them."
Trump went back to the theme later in his remarks, as he mused that he could beat up former Vice President Joe Biden — who he referred to as "Sleepy Joe."
Earlier this year, Biden, who is considering a 2020 presidential bid, said he would have "beat the hell" out of Trump when they were younger.
Trump said he could take Biden — and in quicker fashion than Gianforte assaulted Jacobs.
"He’d be down faster than Greg would take him down," Trump said of the former vice president.
Trump's comments also came against the backdrop of his argument that the political left is fomenting mobs.
"Democrats produce mobs, Republicans produce jobs," he said at one point.
Trump was here, in one of the state's few liberal bastions, to campaign for Republican Senate nominee Matt Rosendale, who is trying to unseat Democratic Sen. Jon Tester. As he has in two previous visits to the state this year, Trump slammed Tester for opposing parts of his agenda and for helping sink the nomination of Trump's doctor, Ronny Jackson, to be Veterans Affairs secretary.
That race is one of the most tightly contested as Republicans try to hold onto their majority — and possibly expand it — in the Senate, and Trump is in the midst of a whirlwind tour of competitive House and Senate races across the country.
Trump said the final phases of the campaign would be determined in part by a caravan of Honduran migrants trying to make it through Mexico to the United States.
He praised the Mexican government for taking steps to try to stop the caravan but said he would deploy force if he has to.
"I’m willing to send the military to defend our southern border if necessary," he said, adding that Democrats are wrong if they think immigration is an issue that will help them in the mid-terms. "That's our issue," he said.
"Kavanaugh, the caravan, law and order, and common sense ... it's going to be an election of those things," he said, referring to just-confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Trump touched on some familiar campaign themes at the rally here, which was held at an open airplane hangar, but broke out of what had become a rote stump speech to address several hot political topics in memorable language.
For example, he mocked Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., another potential 2020 rival, over her release of a DNA test showing that a small fraction of her ancestry is likely Native American. Trump has been calling her "Pocahontas" to remind voters that she marked herself down as Native American when she was a college professor.
Trump said that, because she has such little Native American heritage, he "can't call her Pocahontas anymore." Then he said he would continue to do so anyway, calling Warren a "phony."
The visit to Missoula was the first stop on a three-day western swing that will also take Trump to Mesa, Ariz., and Elko, Nev., both of which feature highly competitive Senate races.