Lawmakers coming under increased threats — sometimes from one another

·5 min read
Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

A little over a year after the violent attack on the Capitol, threats targeting lawmakers have only increased alongside a surge of violent speech shared online and even inside the building.

Threats against lawmakers have reached an all-time high of 9,600, according to U.S. Capitol Police (USCP) data shared in a hearing last week, outpacing 2020 figures.

The risk was brought to the forefront just Thursday, when USCP officers arrested a Michigan woman who they said showed up outside the department's headquarters with multiple guns seeking to talk about the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the Capitol.

On the anniversary of that attack, a memo from the Department of Homeland Security obtained by The Hill warned that calls for violent action against lawmakers were picking up steam online. That includes a video calling for lawmakers to be hung in front of the White House that has now been viewed more than 60,000 times.

Some of the violent rhetoric is coming from within Congress's own walls.

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) was censured and removed from committees after posting an animated video of him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) last week suggested using Second Amendment rights to defend against Democrats.

The Second Amendment "gives us the ability to defend ourselves from a tyrannical government," she said. "And I hate to use this language, but Democrats, they're doing exactly what our founders talked about when they gave us the precious rights that we have."

Tim Roemer, a former Democratic lawmaker and 9/11 commissioner, said comments like that have put some lawmakers on edge.

"Too often, and much too sadly, Members of Congress appear to be going through a nasty and vengeful divorce with each other. There's little trust and no respect, which are the foundations for making laws," he told The Hill, calling for bipartisan efforts to repair the legislative branch.

"People feel like their own safety is not assured. Some members feel like other members want to attack them - it's not just threats coming from a constituency, it's coming directly from inside Congress," he continued.

Roemer said personal bodyguards for members have become prolific while COVID has left members off put by those refusing to wear masks.

"Add all these together and you get an atmosphere of severe dysfunction with high potential for further volatility."

The House has now spent a year with metal detectors lining the entranceways to the floor, with members required to be screened before proceeding to vote.

While many lawmakers grumbled at the process, and several have faced fines for walking past and flouting the security measure, most have adjusted, even as they call for fixes to expedite votes.

Still, Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) said the House may need to invest in better equipment to speed the process so it doesn't look like "a TSA operation."

"I'm really looking forward to an update on how we're going to restore a little bit of decorum to just the act of walking into the chambers and making sure that nobody's carrying," he told the Capitol Police Board on Tuesday.

Democratic lawmakers are growing increasingly frustrated with leadership on the other side of the aisle for not doing more to condemn alarming speech from its members.

"We're past the point of concern. Stoking anger as a means to campaign cash and political stardom presents a clear and present danger to colleagues and their families - and not just Democrats," Rep. Dean Phillips (D-M.N.) told The Hill.

"In the absence of self-regulation, I believe the Ethics Committee must begin to play a meaningful, non-partisan role in holding members accountable for their behavior. Otherwise partisan punishment will only create a vicious cycle as the pendulum of power swings back and forth."

Other lawmakers suggested Capitol Police could play a role.

"I am concerned about the mental health of my colleague from Georgia and would like ⁦@CapitolPolice⁩ to address her dangerous threats in my workplace," Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.) tweeted about Greene.

"Just as we would in any school or job site, we cannot let calls for gun violence go unchecked."

Rita Katz, executive director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors the online activity of white supremacist groups and other extremists, said comments like Greene's reverberate online.

"Some lawmakers are indeed a source of threats. Comments from figures like Marjorie Taylor Greene are regularly shared and converted into rallying cries for some segments of the far-right," she said in an email to The Hill.

Attorney General Merrick Garland reviewed some of the intensifying threats in a speech to mark the anniversary of the attack on the Capitol.

"A member of Congress was threatened in a gruesome voicemail that asked if she had ever seen what a 50 caliber shell does to a human head. Another member of Congress, an Iraq war veteran and Purple Heart recipient received threats that left her terrified for her family," he said.

"These acts and threats of violence are not associated with any one set of partisan or ideological views. But they are permeating so many parts of our national life that they risk becoming normalized and routine if we do not stop them. That is dangerous for people's safety. And it is deeply dangerous for our democracy."

House Sergeant-at-Arms William Walker told members of the House Appropriations Committee last week that he thinks there should be more resources allocated for lawmaker security.

Walker said that "in a best-case scenario," each House district would have two law enforcement coordinators to help mitigate threats to lawmakers and their families. He also said Congress "should pour money into securing residences" with equipment like motion sensors and video doorbells to detect intruders.

When a threat arises, Capitol Police must consider "means, and capability, and motive to act," Walker said, before they can pursue prosecution, but he said such threats don't typically get the same attention as those targeting the president or a member of the Cabinet, which are covered under a special statute and carry enhanced penalties.

"If members of Congress could somehow be elevated to have that kind of status, I believe that would go a long way in stopping these individuals from making these reckless threats," he said.

Scott Wong and Cristina Marcos contributed.