‘Hate in their heart’: Lawmakers fear more violence after Capitol attacks
After freshman GOP Rep. Nancy Mace announced she would be opposing President Donald Trump’s bid to overturn the election, the single mother of two feared so much for her life that she applied for a concealed carry permit and sent her kids hundreds of miles from D.C.
Democratic Rep. Al Green received police assistance at two airports on his trip home last week, after pro-Trump travelers harassed him at his gates in Nashville and Houston.
Another GOP House member flew home expecting to be greeted by concerned constituents after he endured the attack last week. Instead, what he and GOP colleagues heard chilled them to the core: “Do you think that Congress got the message?”
Lawmakers of both parties have fielded a barrage of personal threats that only seem to be intensifying in the days since a Trump-incited siege in Washington left five people dead and dozens injured. Some of those incidents have taken place away from the now-heavily fortified Capitol grounds, forcing members to take cover in impromptu locations like airport bathrooms.
And rank-and-file members of both parties privately worry that the security concerns that plagued the Capitol last week could pose additional threats to lawmakers targeted by aggrieved Trump supporters. Members of House and Senate leadership have a security detail.
Capitol security officials are ramping up protections for members in key ways, such as stationing officers at a trio of regional airports as members come and go from Washington. The building itself has been tightly secured, with enormous fences around the perimeter and police officers from a half-dozen different units on patrol as Washington remains on high alert for more violence ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20.
Officials are also taking other security measures to protect members that are not being disclosed.
But privately, lawmakers are questioning the safety of their families, their staff and themselves, after witnessing so many critical lapses in campus-wide security last Wednesday. And they worry impeachment and inauguration could become new flashpoints for violence.
“Leading up to this, I was monitoring the language, things being said, and Sunday night, I said, ‘I don’t feel good about this.’ … I was worried about violence,” Mace (R-S.C.) recalled in an interview. “And unfortunately, my biggest fears came true.”
House Democrats, dozens of whom were locked inside the chamber as mobs descended, held a security call Monday evening with the acting chief of Capitol Police and the acting House Sergeant-at-Arms to discuss ways to further improve safety measures. The call, which detailed more potential threats, further raised alarms in the caucus, according to people listening.
Green (D-Texas) said one of the passengers believed to be a Trump supporter on his Southwest flight from D.C. to Nashville immediately recognized him and identified him to the cabin, labeling him “Mr. Impeachment.” (Green has been a longtime supporter of Trump’s impeachment and removal.)
He said for the rest of the flight he could overhear muttering from some of the other pro-Trump travelers — at one point they called him a “traitor” — and was concerned they were planning a confrontation for his arrival in Nashville. At the gate, a Southwest employee helped ward off that confrontation until a police officer arrived to help him board his connecting flight.
Upon his arrival in Houston, Green said other travelers appeared prepared to confront him and were getting “rowdy” before police — who had been summoned to the gate by his staff — helped guide him to safety.
“These were some very angry people,” Green said. “I’m a son of the segregated South. I can remember the expressions of hate when people were saying ugly things, calling me ugly words that I don’t repeat. I remember the look. And I saw that on the faces of some of these people. I saw that also here at the Capitol when these people were marching. If you’ve ever been accosted by a person who has hate in their heart and wants to hurt, you never forget that look.”
“I tried to appear to be as calm as I could because I didn’t want it to escalate into something more,” Green said.
Green said he has proposed measures that would provide additional penalties for people who cause security concerns at airports and on flights, and he’s pushing for lawmakers to have additional funds to support their personal security.
One GOP lawmaker who bucked Trump on the floor last week, Rep. Peter Meijer of Michigan, even suggested that fears for their personal safety had influenced some of his colleagues to support Trump’s challenges to the results of the election.
“They knew in their heart of hearts that they should’ve voted to certify, but some had legitimate concerns about the safety of their families. They felt that that vote would put their families in danger,” Meijer said recently, noting the death threats that some Republicans have received after standing behind the Electoral College results.
There is particular fear among Republicans in Trump-heavy districts who voted against the GOP’s doomed bid to overturn the election results. Many came home last week to find constituents — preachers, school superintendents, churchgoing men and women — cheering on the effort rather than condemning it, according to multiple GOP lawmakers.
“Both parties have extremists,” said the GOP lawmaker. “There’s a difference in our crazy people and their crazy people. Our crazy people have an excessive amount of arms. They have gun safes. They have grenades. They believe in the Second Amendment. They come here and Trump’s made them think this is the Alamo.”
Several lawmakers said there are heightened fears as the House returns Tuesday for one of the most high-profile votes of their careers — impeaching Trump for a second time.
To address members’ lingering safety concerns about returning to the Capitol, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy gave Republicans his blessing to use the Democrats’ proxy voting system that allows members to cast votes without being physically present. The GOP is challenging the proxy system in court, so McCarthy encouraged any Republicans who wish to use the voting mechanism to remove themselves from the lawsuit if they are a co-sponsor.
Compounding lawmakers’ concern: the leadership of the Capitol’s security offices are in upheaval, facing a full overhaul, while federal and city agencies are still squabbling about who’s to blame for Wednesday’s failure to protect the Capitol.
“We have to begin to re-establish trust with the United States Capitol Police because of what happened. So many members of Congress and society writ large here feel very betrayed — let down — by what happened,” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who oversees the funding for Capitol operations, including the police force, told reporters Monday.
“I was personally given assurances the day before, as was [House Administration Committee Chair Zoe] Lofgren — about being adequately prepared, no problems, we have enough backup and all the rest,” Ryan said.
The trust may be difficult to regain. In the wake of the attacks, two Capitol Police officer were suspended — including one who took a selfie with a rioter and another who wore a “Make America Great Again” hat while “directing“ members of the mob, Ryan said.
The security concerns are also raising big-picture questions for a Capitol building that welcomes millions of visitors each year, but will be barricaded by a reinforced fence for the near future. Tours were already closed because of coronavirus threats. But it’s unclear how the general public will be able to walk through some of the same hallways as members.
“I’ve never had any danger at all. Everybody has my cell phone, and in Northern Virginia, many, many people know where I live. It’s never really crossed my mind that that would be a danger,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said in an interview.
“If we look down the road, four weeks, six months, two years, what do we do to protect members of Congress and the staff and the police from this insurgency?”
Caitlin Emma and Heather Caygle contributed.