Even before the shooting at a baseball field in Northern Virginia last month, Congress was rattled by the increasingly hostile political environment that has produced combative town hall meetings and violent encounters among political activists. This year, the rate of threats against members of Congress has surpassed last year’s, and a growing number of rank-and-file lawmakers are traveling the halls of the Capitol — and the streets of their home towns — with security details.
That unease was amplified significantly by the shooting that grievously wounded House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.). Scalise called in to the weekly Republican whip team meeting Monday evening and, according to several attendees, shared encouraging news: He has started the physical recovery process and could be transferred soon from MedStar Washington Hospital Center, where he has been hospitalized since the June 14 shooting, to a specialized rehabilitation facility. The wounds are healing for the other people shot by James T. Hodgkinson — who was killed in the attack — but the possibility of another attack worries many on Capitol Hill.
“If you shoot a police officer, you’re going to make the 5, 6 and 10 o’clock news. But if you shoot a congressperson you’re going to make the world news,” said Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), a longtime friend of Scalise’s. “We’re in a very vulnerable state because tensions are high in this country.”
All of it brings unsettling implications for democracy and discourse, and has prompted a debate about how much security is necessary — and affordable. Some lawmakers are carrying firearms or installing security systems at their homes and offices. Some have decided not to hold town hall meetings at all — restricting voters from meeting their elected leaders. Some are demanding that the government pay for a security detail for every member of Congress — a prospect that has enormous budgetary implications and that also might create even more chaos on already overcrowded Capitol Hill.
“Could you imagine 435 black SUVs with security details trying to pull up for votes?” asked Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.), who leads the House Appropriations subcommittee that sets budgets for congressional offices. He guessed the cost for Congress-wide protection would reach into the billions. “I just think the practicalities of it don’t really work.”
Yet Yoder acknowledged that rising threats and political acrimony have left lawmakers and their families on edge and wanting to do more to protect themselves.
In a sign of that reality, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was spotted last week and again on Monday walking around the Capitol with three U.S. Capitol Police officers wearing suits and ties. Aides confirmed that the senator’s security detail began last week but declined to say why. Capitol Police also declined to comment.
“There are a number of members who’ve had very specific threats that scare them or their spouses or their staffers,” said Yoder, who is a member of the GOP baseball team but wasn’t at practice on June 14, the day of the shooting. “I’ve heard of members with staff who are too scared to come to work. So, this is for the safety of the members, and their families and constituents that come to events.”
The attack on GOP lawmakers practicing for the annual Congressional Baseball Game last month had a unique Capitol Hill flavor: It directly affected the men and women who set national policy on guns, mental health and federal funding for police agencies.
Scalise and his teammates are still working through their physical and mental recovery; he is battling an infection after gunfire tore through his hip, shattered bone and damaged organs. There was no word on when Scalise might return to work. Chris Bond, a spokesman, said Scalise told the whips that “he is looking forward to working through the rehab process and returning to the Capitol once he is ready.”
Hodgkinson had a history of sharing hostile rhetoric on social media against President Trump. His rampage could have been much worse if Scalise hadn’t been there with his Capitol Police security detail.
Since the shooting, security officials have responded to a handful of specific threats against lawmakers.
Police responded this month to an incident at the Las Vegas office of Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) that reportedly included a note left on the door threatening the senator’s life if he voted for the Republican health-care plan. That incident followed an arrest over the July Fourth recess of a protester outside the Tucson office of Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). The protester told a Flake staff member, “You know how liberals are going to solve the Republican problem? They are going to get better aim,” according to local reports.
This month, an Omaha man was arrested after walking into an Iowa motorcycle shop and saying that he “could kill” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who was scheduled to visit the shop the next day.
After the baseball shooting, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) told Fox News Channel that somebody contacted him saying, “I wish you were on second base” — the location where Scalise was shot. And the day of the shooting, an Ohio man called the office of Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) and threatened the congressman, his wife and daughter. The man was arrested for making at least five threatening phone calls to Stivers, according to a federal court filing.
The Secret Service and the Capitol Police declined to release the number of threat cases they have investigated or generally talk about whether they are increasing or decreasing.
And the FBI said in a statement that it “has not seen a sustained trend in criminal threats to Members of Congress,” despite the recent shooting. It opens investigations only “when the threats are regarded as credible and meeting a certain threshold.”
Still, this year, more than 1,650 threats have been made against lawmakers, or the U.S. Capitol or Congress, said senior congressional aides familiar with the figures who were not authorized to share them publicly. That figure for about the first half of the year is just short of the number of threats in all of 2016, the aides said.
As of late June, House members had received about 950 “threatening communication messages,” easily surpassing the roughly 902 messages received in all of 2016, said House Sergeant at Arms Paul D. Irving. The number of specific threats against senators was unavailable.
“This is an urgent matter,” Irving said last month as he shared the statistics with the Federal Election Commission, telling regulators that every House member needs “a residential security system due to the threat environment.”
Irving’s warning prompted the FEC to rule this month that all lawmakers can now use money raised from campaign donors to pay for security cameras, door locks, motion sensors and other security upgrades at their homes.
The blanket authority is warranted, FEC commissioners said, because they now consider security costs the kind of “ordinary and necessary expenses” that lawmakers incur as part of the job.
Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.), who chairs the House Administration Committee, which doles out office space and deals with other congressional housekeeping concerns, said he knows of several colleagues with plans to take advantage of the FEC decision.
“When you’ve had threats to your home, involving your spouse, or your children have been mentioned, those things are really having the biggest impact on members,” he said.
More taxpayer money also will be spent on congressional security. Already, at least $5 million is earmarked for Irving’s team to pay for security upgrades at House district offices that face threats or are considered vulnerable. The Capitol Police budget will grow by $7.5 million to hire 39 more officers and personnel and buy equipment. And all 435 House members are receiving $25,000 in emergency funding to be used for the remainder of the year for any security purpose — to add bulletproof windows at district offices or hire private security guards for public events back home. The Senate, which has fewer district offices to protect, has not yet allotted such money.
Richmond, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, became so concerned about threats against colleagues earlier this year that he arranged to meet with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) a week before Scalise was shot. Richmond told Ryan that he wants even more taxpayer funding to protect lawmakers.
“If you look at our leadership, from even the Senate or the House, they have full-time protection detail. Everybody else is just really left out there on their own,” he said. “For the House sergeant at arms to absorb the costs of putting a camera system or alarm system on 435 houses — the 435 people who vote for this country to go to war, the 435 people that make tough decisions about anything from health care to entitlements to how we treat our veterans to all of those things — I think it’s not unreasonable.”
Yoder said that next year, “if there was another incident or people continue to feel at a heightened sense of being threatened, we would look at additional measures.”
On Capitol Hill in recent weeks, one of the few visible reminders of the shooting was the boot on Rep. Roger Williams (R-Tex.), who was injured as he dove away from the gunfire. Also injured were Williams’s aide Zach Barth, lobbyist Matt Mika, and U.S. Capitol Police officers Crystal Griner and David Bailey, who returned fire. All are poised to recover fully — but other, less visible signs of the shooting remain.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) will never forget the look on his 11-year-old son Jack’s face as he ran for cover that morning. “It was fear, surprise, wonderment,” Barton recalled.
As Barton and others affected by the shooting move on, they have been struck that the tone of discourse hasn’t much changed since. It’s the dual burden of facing a shooting in politics: trying to carry on at a personal level — and trying to make a difference in the public domain. It’s another reason to continue protecting themselves, several said.
“I definitely know where my firearm is at all times,” Richmond said.
Harper said that he or a traveling aide always carries a weapon when they make stops in his district. Barton, who doesn’t own a gun, said he’s considering getting the training to do so.
Just hours after the shooting, Rep. Charles J. “Chuck” Fleischmann (R-Tenn.), a member of the baseball team, walked onto the House floor still dressed in his dusty uniform, looking stunned. He’s coping well, he said more recently, but “some members have told me that they’re having some problems and that they’re not going to be able to play baseball again next year.”
“You just feel thankful that the carnage was not as great as it could have been,” he said.
Fleischmann and Yoder credited Rep. Tim Murphy (R) for providing support. An eight-term lawmaker from southwestern Pennsylvania, he’s a Navy psychologist who works at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., with wounded service members who have trauma issues. On the day of the shooting, Murphy stood up at a security briefing for all lawmakers to offer advice on how to deal with shock.
Fleischmann recalled Murphy telling him later, “Go watch a fireworks exhibit online, just so that when you go out there that — not that you would have problems — but just so you don’t.” Fleischmann was grateful for the advice. “I went to see many fireworks displays, didn’t have any issues, but I thought it was very kind of him.”
Murphy said that the tone still gets hot in committee rooms, where “people continue to say things that try and provoke each other.”
Said Yoder: “The uncivil tone in this town has gotten worse — it was already bad, it’s gotten worse. We all have an obligation, from the president, to us, to our constituents — we all have a role in that. I can’t stop my constituents from not being civil, what I can do is make sure I’m leading by example.”
Matt Zapotosky and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.