Political conversations have grown increasingly nasty in recent years, and it may be spawning something even worse: a growing number of people taking their vitriol to another level by threatening members of Congress.
In the past couple of months, the Justice Department announced action in four cases involving people who threatened serious harm, or even death, to federal lawmakers.
Most of those threats were made online, reflecting just one way people can convey their most vulgar feelings toward those on other sides of public policy disputes.
Most of the targets have been Republican lawmakers, who are in the crosshairs of anti-Trump forces who relish their stance as a self-styled #Resistance.
Authorities said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has been the brunt of such venom. Christopher Michael McGowan, the man accused of threatening the life of the Virginia Republican, seems to have disliked Mr. Goodlatte’s attempts to question the direction of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 presidential campaign.
“I’m serious @BobGoodlatte6,” ran part of a tweet Mr. McGowan is accused of sending in April. “You keep [expletive] with our constitution and challenged Mueller and the last you will see by my patriot ass behind a gun.”
In an email sent quickly to local police, Mr. McGowan, 38, said he had been drinking and made a mistake. But prosecutors say Mr. McGowan returned to Twitter days later to brag about his threats to kill the congressman.
One of Mr. Goodlatte’s neighbors, Rep. Thomas A Garrett Jr., received threats via Facebook.
Prosecutors secured an indictment against Eun Soo Lee, 28, of Cypress, California, accusing him of threatening to “curb-stomp” the Virginia Republican and told him, “You’re dead if I ever meet you in real life, [expletive]. I’ll [expletive] kill you.”
It’s unclear whether Mr. Lee is the author because the message appears to be a copy-and-paste of a generic rant that has circulated through internet forums in recent years.
Indeed, the intent of the person ranting and the level of intent they represent are thorny issues for law enforcement, which must navigate between First Amendment rights and genuine threats.
“I don’t envy the job law enforcement has of distinguishing between what we have to investigate and what we let slide, especially because you worry that the one case you overlook could have catastrophic consequences,” said Keith E. Whittington, a political science professor at Princeton University.
“We’re in a very polarized environment with a lot of heated rhetoric, and social media has further complicated it all,” Mr. Whittington said. “We don’t want law enforcement to overreact and police-protected political speech, but I think so far they have done a reasonably good job of investigating when people are issuing a true threat that we ought to worry about.”
Although the occupant of the White House gets the brunt of threats, the 535 members of Congress, often very visible in their communities, also are targets. A congressman from Colorado was instructed to wear body armor while delivering public speeches.
It would be easier to dismiss these disturbed rants were it not for James T. Hodgkinson, a left-wing zealot set on assassinating Republicans. He drove from Illinois to Virginia, cased the ballpark in Alexandria where Republican lawmakers were practicing for the annual Congressional Baseball Game and, on June 14, 2017, unleashed 62 rounds from a rifle and a handgun.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, Louisiana Republican, was shot in the hip and gravely wounded.
He told the National Prayer Breakfast audience in February that he likely would have died had his ambulance driver, creeping through rush-hour traffic, not spotted a helicopter coming to the baseball field. The driver returned the ambulance to the field to have Mr. Scalise flown to an emergency room.
Two special agents with the Capitol Police, Crystal Griner and David Bailey, returned fire against Hodgikinson, who was killed in the gunfight.
Mr. Scalise, 52, acknowledged that the political mood can turn nasty but insisted his horrific experience would not deter him from the campaign trail.
“We live in a politically divided country, and that’s been the case for years,” he said. “But while I’m not going to allow it to change my plans to get out and campaign for our conservative majority, I am concerned with the level of political vitriol in our country.”
Mr. Scalise often points to his long-standing friendship with Democratic Rep. Cedric L. Richmond. The two met while cutting their political teeth together in the Louisiana Legislature.
“I’ve always felt strongly that political differences should never devolve into personal attacks, and have been able to build strong friendships with colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” the majority whip said.
The FBI investigated the shooting incident and determined that “we are not seeing a sustained trend in criminal threats to members of Congress,” agency spokeswoman Nora Scheland said.
Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for U.S. Capitol Police, which provides protection for members of Congress both in Washington and in their home districts, declined to discuss how her office is addressing the spate of threats.
The Justice Department declined to comment beyond press releases and referred all questions to the FBI.
In the aftermath of the attack on Mr. Scalise and other Republicans, agencies held a closed-door meeting with members of Congress on Capitol Hill. An undetermined number of lawmakers reportedly said they were receiving frequent death threats and requested more security.
One Democrat on the receiving end of seriously disturbed emails was Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. The Justice Department said Kevin Lee Olson sent her a message saying, “I guess I should find you, you bitch, and shoot you in your red head.”
Olson, 57, of Fargo, North Dakota, was sentenced on May 15 to a year and a day in prison for delivering his threats via interstate commerce.
A Florida man, Michael James Seaton, was charged in January with threatening to kill a family member of an unidentified senator. Mr. Seaton was living in a motel in southeastern Colorado and then his van as his life unraveled and his threats multiplied, federal prosecutors said.
Mr. Seaton, who remains in custody, has made dozens of similar threats to other lawmakers, prosecutors say, based on “a long-standing delusion that federal police or military have been terrorizing him.”
Ms. Heitkamp’s office did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment. Mr. Goodlatte’s staff said he “respectfully declines” to discuss the topic.
• James Varney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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