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When President Donald J. Trump visited Billings on Thursday night, he was here for GOP Senate hopeful Matt Rosendale. And yet, one noteworthy thing Trump said had nothing to do with Rosendale.

It was what Trump said about Montana's lone Congressman Greg Gianforte.

"This man has fought in more ways than one," Trump said.

A small chorus of laughter rippled through the audience.   

"He is a fighter and winner," Trump said. 

Gianforte is a fighter.

So much so that he has pleaded guilty to assault after he bodyslammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs the night before an election in May 2017. 

It's impossible to believe that Trump didn't know exactly what he was saying. And quite frankly, it was not funny. It's troubling.

Joking about assault doesn't just represent a coarsening of our civil discourse, it sends a powerfully dangerous message when it comes from Trump. When it comes from the commander in chief, it amounts to approval. Coupled with the amped up rhetoric about the press being the enemy of the people, we're moving away from verbal attacks on the press and closer to endorsing real violence.

For anyone who loves America and cherishes the Constitution, it's hard to see how you can love the First Amendment and cheer the press as the enemy of the people.

That little joke was probably not surprising coming from a man who bragged about grabbing women by the genitals. It's not remarkable for a man who has made a name for saying outlandish things to stoke a bloated ego. Yet the silence from anyone close to the situation is disheartening.

After Gianforte's assault conviction, he issued an apology, insisting to everyone that he was contrite and has learned a valuable lesson. 

I am sorry: Count me as a disbeliever.

If Gianforte were really sorry, why didn't he speak out? Why not thank the president for an endorsement, but clarify there was nothing funny about the assault?

That's the problem, though. Gianforte has said repeatedly that he takes full responsibility for what happened with Jacobs on the night before his election. However, his actions since then tell a different story. He's never fully explained how his campaign put out a press statement that it knew was a lie. He has said he was sorry but won't talk about the incident today, or even days after the election. He said he's taken responsibility, but is content to let the jokes about an assault get some laughs, especially when it's done in the name of re-election. If that's not the swamp, I don't know what is.

In a June 16, 2017 story by the Associated Press, Gianforte himself called for civility: "(He) said there is an obligation for members of Congress to ratchet down the vitriol in politics, especially after this week's shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise."

What about that obligation, Rep. Gianforte?

Gianforte's silence is not surprising, though.

Several weeks ago when he was in front of The Gazette's editorial board, when the only non-newspaper member asked twice if he would condemn Trump's remarks about the press being the enemy of the people, Gianforte demurred. 

At first, he tried to make a distinction between the national press and local journalists.

Then, Gianforte refused, saying only that Trump has a communication style unlike any other president we've seen.

And Trump is nothing if not hyperbole and bluster. I also believe he is smart enough to know exactly what he's doing when he whips up followers. And I believe that Gianforte knows slamming people to the ground is not OK, despite the ogre some make him out to be.

But we can't be certain that everyone in the audience -- anyone who listens -- isn't in on the little charade. 

Instead, our job, whether we're the "enemy" or not, is to hold politicians accountable for their words and their actions.

I don't reject President Trump's off-handed remarks because the victim in the "fight" with Gianforte was a reporter. I reject it because it is an endorsement of assault.

Assault is still no laughing matter. 

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