Donald Trump has been urged to apologise for praising a Republican congressman who body-slammed a journalist, with critics claiming it risks encouraging further media attacks.
The US president called Greg Gianforte a “tough cookie” and said he thinks the incident helped the party win election in Montana.
The congressman pleaded guilty to misdemeanour assault after body-slamming Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs the evening before winning a 2017 special election to serve the remaining 18 months in the House term vacated by now-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
“Any guy that can do a body-slam - he’s my kind of guy,” Mr Trump told a laughing and cheering crowd at a campaign rally in Missoula, Montana, on Thursday.
“He’s a great guy, tough cookie.”
The newspaper’s US editor and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have called for the president to apologise and retract his remarks, with the former calling it “an attack on the First Amendment”.
The Guardian’s US editor, John Mulholland, said 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.
“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 apologise for them.”
And the Guardian’s editor Kath Viner tweeted: “This is shocking and chilling, especially in light of the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”
Witnesses to the incident in May last year, including a Fox News crew, said Mr Gianforte became enraged over coverage he perceived as biased before body-slamming Mr Jacobs, throwing him to the ground and punching him.
Mr Gianforte initially falsely claimed the reporter had grabbed him by the wrist and pulled both of them to the ground, according to documents released under a court order following media requests.
President Trump recalled his initial dismay upon finding out what happened while he was in Rome.
“And I said ‘Oh, this is terrible. He’s going to lose the election’,” he said.
“And then I said ‘Well, wait a minute. I know Montana pretty well. I think it might help him. And it did.”
Mr Gianforte admitted a misdemeanour assault charge in June 2017 and said in an apology letter that he alone was responsible for the attack.
He paid a 385 US dollar fine, completed 40 hours of community service and 20 hours of anger management counselling, and donated 50,000 US dollars to the CPJ.
Courtney Radsch, advocacy director for the CPJ, said Mr Trump should apologise for “all his comments denigrating and vilifying journalists”.
She said: “We are disturbed once again to see President Trump standing up for those who would attack the press and contributing to an environment in which journalists are feeling less safe and in which attacks against journalists appear to have become acceptable.
“It’s also disappointing to see President Trump highlighting an attack on a journalist as somehow something to be commended.”