That incitement is at the heart of the push to impeach President Trump for a second time, a push that will probably succeed at some point Wednesday afternoon. The Wednesday to which Ocasio-Cortez is referring, of course, is Jan. 6, the day a pro-Trump mob stormed into the Capitol to block the counting of presidential electoral votes submitted by states.
The assertion that members of Congress “assisted” Trump’s incitement depends, in the abstract, on tying the elevation of Trump’s false claims about electoral fraud to the events of last week. It’s undeniable that the crowd that surrounded and then overran the Capitol was only in Washington because Trump and his allies had promoted the idea that the presidential election was somehow stolen, claims for which no credible evidence has ever emerged. The mob was in place because Trump and others had encouraged them to be there and, by not only failing to object to Trump’s claims about election fraud but even encouraging them, members of his party had similarly fostered a sense that anti-democratic action was necessary to right a wrong.
But Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t simply speaking in the abstract. Instead, she leveled a specific charge against her peers.
“I myself did not even feel safe going to that extraction point,” she said of the point at which the representatives were evacuated, “because there were QAnon and white supremacist sympathizers — and frankly, white supremacist members of Congress in that extraction point, who I know and who I had felt would disclose my location and allow me to — who would create opportunities to allow me to be hurt, kidnapped, etc.
“And so I didn’t even feel safe around other members of Congress,” she continued, “and to be kind of fending for yourself in that way is traumatizing.”
At another point, Ocasio-Cortez said she had been subject to “a pretty traumatizing event” that day, which she couldn’t describe in detail.
“But I can tell you,” she said, “that I had a very close encounter where I thought I was going to die.”
As she points out, events like those that occurred last week have a strong psychological impact. It’s worth keeping that in mind as comments from those involved are considered. But her pointed mention of the perceived threat posed by other members of Congress is important to evaluate.
There is, by now, evidence that members of Congress were at least receptive to the planned protest outside the Capitol, if not encouraging of it. One of the organizers of the “Stop the Steal” effort (as it was dubbed) identified three members of the House with whom he said he’d been in conversation: Reps. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) and Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.). All have been fervent supporters of Trump’s claims about the election, though Biggs has denied involvement in planning the rally and Brooks disavowed responsibility for the riot.
More worrisome were allegations made by Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) in a separate live stream Tuesday.
“We can’t have a democracy if members of Congress are actively helping the president overturn the elections results,” Sherrill said. “And so not only do I intend to see that the president is removed and never runs for office again and doesn’t have access to classified material, I also intend to see that those members of Congress who abetted him — those members of Congress who had groups coming through the Capitol that I saw Jan. 5, a reconnaissance for the next day, those members of Congress that incited this violent crowd, those members of Congress that attempted to help our president undermine our democracy — I’m going to see they are held accountable, and if necessary, ensure that they don’t serve in Congress.”
It’s not uncommon for members of Congress to give tours of the Capitol, and it’s not clear whether people in town for the protests Jan. 6 participated in tours on the previous day. Sherrill’s framing, though, is more sobering: Members of Congress were somehow involved in facilitating “reconnaissance.”
In a speech from the House floor Wednesday, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), who has been critical of Trump’s role in the violence, also suggested that members of the House might bear direct culpability.
“I also believe we need to hold accountable every single person, even members of Congress, if they contributed to the violence that transpired here,” she said.
Sherrill’s assertion differs from Ocasio-Cortez’s in that it suggests a threat fostered by members of Congress, not one stemming from those members.
There are several new members of Congress who might fall into the categories identified by Ocasio-Cortez — though none have been accused of wrongdoing. Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) were both identified as sympathetic to or supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory before being elected. Several members of Congress have been the subject of questions about their links to or sympathies with potential white nationalist ideas or actors. Among them is Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), who was criticized for comments about Nazi Germany and whose campaign website at one point accused Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) of wanting to “ruin white males running for office.”
The three have also been explicit about their embrace of firearms, including on Capitol Hill. Boebert released a video this month in which she trumpeted her willingness to carry a handgun into Congress. A campaign photo released by Greene last year showed her holding a rifle and promising to “go on the offense against these socialists who want to rip our country apart.” Photoshopped into the background were several high-profile Democratic representatives, including Ocasio-Cortez. On Tuesday, Greene appeared on the floor of the House wearing a face mask bearing the words “molon labe” — a slogan appropriated by gun rights advocates roughly meaning “come and take them.”
In an interview with a local news outlet the day after the Capitol was overrun, Cawthorn indicated that he was armed as the violence unfolded. Cawthorn was partially paralyzed in a car accident several years ago and so was not able to evacuate with other members of Congress.
“Because I had to take another route, we didn’t have our Capitol police escort,” he explained, “so there were multiple times we needed to change the route we were taking just to be safe. Fortunately, I was armed, so we would have been able to protect ourselves.”
Concerns about members of Congress potentially carrying firearms onto the floor of the House appear to have contributed to the introduction of metal detectors outside the House chambers Tuesday. The move was immediately met with backlash from Republicans, including Boebert, who initially refused to allow Capitol Police to search her bags.
She later tweeted about the incident.
A week after Trump supporters overran the Capitol, details of how those events unfolded are still being revealed. Emotions are still high, as are concerns. Efforts to hold accountable any responsible individuals are still evolving.
What we know, at a minimum, is that members of Congress view each other with remarkable distrust and skepticism. What we know, further, is that there are concerns that some members of Congress may have played more direct roles in making that violence occur than would have been assumed. And we know that partisan fights over things such as gun ownership are manifesting in a particularly volatile way at a dangerous moment.
The tension that exists within the House of Representatives at the moment isn’t simply the Democratic and Republican poles sniping at one another. It’s something deeper and more visceral, and which will demand a full exploration of the events of Jan. 6 to resolve.