As Republicans bash Democrats by saying they use "mob" tactics ahead of the November midterms, President Donald Trump offered praise for GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte's assault on a reporter in 2017.
"Any guy that can do a body slam, he's my kind of — he's my guy," Trump said, pantomiming a wrestling move while a packed crowd cheered and applauded during a campaign rally Thursday night in Montana.
Trump doubled down on his praise for Gianforte at a memo signing event Friday when reporters asked about his remarks during the rally.
"Greg is a tremendous person and he's a tough cookie, and I'll stay with that. You're talking about a different world," Trump said after signing a bill meant to promote water supply and delivery in western states.
Trump's rhetoric on Gianforte's attack also appeared to break sharply from his administration's recent tone on press freedom in the wake of journalist Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance and alleged murder.
GOP lawmakers, including every Republican senator, did not provide answers to CNBC's inquiries about the president's remarks. The White House did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.
"All Americans should recoil from the president's praise for a violent assault on a reporter doing his Constitutionally protected job," White House Correspondents Association President Olivier Knox said in a statement.
"This amounts to the celebration of a crime by someone sworn to uphold our laws and an attack on the First Amendment by someone who has solemnly pledged to defend it. We should never shrug at the president cheerleading for a violent act targeting a free and independent news media," Knox said.
Gianforte assaulted Ben Jacobs, an American reporter for The Guardian newspaper, during an interview on the eve of his election in May 2017. Gianforte's campaign initially blamed Jacobs for the altercation, saying in a statement that the reporter "entered the office without permission, aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg's face, and began asking badgering questions."
Kathleen William, Gianforte's Democratic challenger in the upcoming election, said in a statement that "Gianforte's assault and lies are not who we are as Montanans," The Guardian reported.
Gianforte, who was charged with misdemeanor assault, won the special election and subsequently apologized. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced in June to 40 hours of community service and 20 hours of anger management classes.
At the time of the incident, some Republicans had condemned Gianforte's behavior. "There is no time a physical altercation should occur with the press or just between human beings," House Speaker Paul Ryan said, adding that Gianforte "should apologize."
A spokeswoman for Ryan did not immediately respond to CNBC's requests for comment on Trump's remarks at the rally.
Trump's son, Eric Trump, balked at the Correspondents' Association's condemnation. "Oh, stop," Trump's son said on Fox News Channel. "He can have fun."
"This is actually exactly why my father won," Eric Trump added, explaining that people are sick of politicians with no "charisma" or "personality."