How Threats Against Politicians Are Growing
WASHINGTON — Early one morning in November 2019, Rep. Rodney Davis, Republican of Illinois, received a profanity-laden voicemail at his office in which the caller identified himself as a trained sniper and stated that he wanted to blow the Congressman’s head off.
Two years earlier, Rep. Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, received a similar voicemail from an irate man who falsely accused her of threatening the life of President Donald J. Trump. “If you do it again, you’re dead,” he said, punctuating the statement with profanity and a racial epithet against Ms Waters, who is black.
Across the country, the office of Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, received a profane call from a man saying someone should “put a bullet in his head,” before leaving his name and phone number. phone.
The cases were part of a New York Times review of more than 75 indictments of people accused of threatening lawmakers since 2016. The flurry of cases highlighted a chilling trend: In recent years, and in particular Since the start of Mr. Trump’s presidency, a growing number of Americans have taken ideological grievances and political outrage to a new level, laying down concrete threats of violence against members of Congress.
The threats came in almost every combination imaginable: Republicans threatening Democrats, Democrats threatening Republicans, Republicans threatening Republicans. Many of them, the review showed, were fueled by forces that have long dominated politics, including deep partisan divisions and a media landscape that stokes resentment.
But they increased during Mr. Trump’s tenure and afterwards, as the former president’s violent language fueled an integration of threatening political speech and lawmakers used loaded words and imagery to describe the issues of the day. Politics. Far-right members of Congress have hinted that their supporters should be prepared to Take up arms and fight to save the country, and in one instance even posted a video depicting explicitly violent acts against Democrats.
A plurality of the cases reviewed by the Times, more than a third, involved Republicans or pro-Trumpers threatening Democrats or Republicans they deemed insufficiently loyal to the former president, with spikes around the first impeachment of Mr. Trump and, later, January 1st. 6 attack on the Capitol last year. In some cases ahead of the official congressional vote count on Jan. 6, callers left messages for lawmakers from both parties warning them to keep Mr. Trump in office or face violence.
Nearly a quarter of the cases were Democrats threatening Republicans. Many of those threats were prompted by anger over lawmakers’ support for Mr. Trump and his policies, including Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, as well as a drive to uphold one of its Supreme Court nominee, Brett M. Kavanaugh.
In 2018, for example, a Florida man called the office of Rep. Brian Mast, Republican of Florida, nearly 500 times and threatened to kill his children because of the congressman’s support for the family separation policy. Mr. Trump at the southern border.
Other cases had no discernible partisan leanings or were driven by delusions or wild conspiracy theories, such as QAnon’s espoused belief that Democrats are part of a Satanic cult.
Overall, threats against members of Congress hit a record 9,600 last year, according to data provided by Capitol Police, double the previous year’s total. In the first three months of 2021 alone, Capitol Police sent more than 4,100 threats against lawmakers in the House and Senate, straining law enforcement investigating them.
“We’re barely keeping our heads above water on these investigations,” Capitol Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said last month. “We’re going to have to almost double the number of officers working on these threat cases.”
Threats against members of Congress more than quadrupled after Mr. Trump took office. In 2016, Capitol Police investigated 902 threats; the following year, that number reached 3,939.
The threats range from phone calls with gruesome and specific descriptions of the violence that led to jail terms for the callers to broad threats posted on social media that juries have dismissed outright.
Every threat is reviewed and “thoroughly investigated,” a Capitol Police spokesperson said. Reviews include assessments of potential for targeted violence and immediate risk to the victim. In some cases, the Capitol Police works in tandem with the FBI to investigate.
Two days after the Electoral College confirmed Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s 2020 victory, Ryder Winegar, a former Navy cryptologist living in New Hampshire, called out six members of Congress — Democrats and Republicans — while heavily intoxicated and threatened to hang them if they did not support Mr. Trump.
In one of the appeals, he warned that if a lawmaker did not support Mr. Trump, he would hang him, according to court records. He also said he would refuse to vote for any “RINO candidate like you,” using the acronym Republican in name only.
On another call, Mr. Winegar said a member of Congress might be worried about either being “outed as a racist” or being “stringed” by people like him.
In Illinois, Randall E. Tarr was drinking coffee and watching television early one morning — either the History Channel or National Geographic, he recalled in an interview — when he saw an advertisement accusing Mr. Davis of shutting down the eyes on Russian interference in the 2016 election and encouraging viewers to call his office. Mr. Tarr, an Army veteran who at one point identified as a Republican, was furious.
“I’m like, man, I gotta do this,” Mr Tarr said. “It has already been proven by our intelligence agencies, the CIA and the FBI, and the Russians are guilty of it. I did not stop there. I just continued, which was stupid. Something I shouldn’t have said, I know.
In the voicemail, according to court records, Mr. Tarr informed Mr. Davis of his training – “I’m a sniper,” he said – and threatened to assassinate the congressman.
A GOP resolution. The Republican National Committee officially declared the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol “legitimate political speech,” while censuring Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for participating in the investigation of the episode. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, later spoke out against the resolution.
“It was a dumb part of my call,” Mr. Tarr said in the interview. “I don’t even own a gun. I just got mad and I regret it.
Patrick W. Carlineo Jr., who gorged himself on right-wing talk radio before making the call to threaten Ms Omar, also expressed regret when he appeared before a judge in 2019.
“I was listening to the Glenn Beck show, and then I was listening to Rush Limbaugh, and they were talking about her on both shows, and I get a little carried away with the morning coffee,” Mr. Carlineo said. “I just got fired up. »
Anthony Lloyd, who threatened Ms Waters in 2017, told FBI agents sent to investigate her call that he also followed the news ‘religiously’ and became upset after hearing on the radio that the California Congresswoman had threatened the life of Mr. Trump. , a misrepresentation.
“I’m not a planner, I’m not a terrorist,” Mr Lloyd told officers. “I am very patriotic and I love my country.”
Most calls did not lead to actual violence. But they can terrorize offices, sending lawmakers rushing to cancel events and find safety, and traumatizing aides or even interns who are unfortunate enough to answer them.
In another instance, an assistant in Ms Waters’ district office testified that she answered the phone one morning and received a broadside from a caller who hurled racial epithets and said he would attend all events member and that he would kill her and “every last one of you who works for her. The call was so frightening that the assistant physically shook upon hearing it, she testified.
Many of the threats, especially those directed at lawmakers of color, contained racial slurs or threats against certain races. Others have used white supremacy language, such as the caller who threatened Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina, and Representative Katherine M. Clark, Democrat of Massachusetts, both white, and declared that he would start shooting at blacks.
In several cases, defense lawyers have taken to arguing that their client should not be punished for comments consistent with what elected officials and political experts have said. Several rioters who stormed the Capitol on January 6 used similar “Trump made me do it” defenses.
When the judge handling Mr Carlineo’s case raised concerns during a hearing that the defendant had referred to Ms Omar in his phone call as a “radical Muslim” and said that people like her had no have no place in government, her attorney cited comments Mr. Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence had made about her.
In a second case involving a threat against Ms Waters, the defendant’s lawyer argued that the judge should allow him to explain to the jury that his client’s appeal came after Mr Trump publicly argued with Ms Waters, and that the threat had even quoted some of Mr Trump’s insults at the congresswoman.
In most cases, the judges were clearly unsympathetic.
“Just because the current leader in Washington allows this type of speech,” a judge fumed in 2017, when Mr. Trump was president, “doesn’t mean it should be tolerated. Some of these things are just vile and threatening .
Kitty Bennett contributed to the research.