A mere week after a gunman tried to kill more than two dozen Republican senators, House members and staffers on an Alexandria baseball complex, FBI supervisors spoke to the press to deliver their verdicts.
James T. Hodgkinson’s gust of 70 rifle and handgun rounds, while positioned like a sniper behind the third base dugout and then on the move, was not terrorism, nor was it planned, they said at the June 21, 2017, briefing.
“At this point in the investigation, it appears more spontaneous,” said Timothy Slater, FBI special agent in charge of the Washington field office, in what proved to be the bureau’s public accounting.
By November, the FBI was ready to brief privately the more than a dozen Republicans who had gathered at sunrise that June 14 for the final practice before the annual congressional charity baseball game versus Democrats at Nationals Park.
The bottom line stunned the Hodgkinson-targeted lawmakers assembled in the U.S. Capitol visitors center.
Mr. Hodgkinson was committing “suicide by cop,” the FBI briefer said. In essence, the bureau had relegated the near-mass killings aimed at Washington’s legislative branch to a self-centered personal decision by a leftist activist from Illinois.
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“What are you talking about?” Rep. Brad Wenstrup, Ohio Republican, recalls asking the briefer.
“I said ‘if you want to do suicide-by-cop, just pull a gun on the cop,’” he told The Washington Times in an interview. “‘Where are you getting this?’ They just kind of stood by it. We were pretty dismayed.”
By that fall, the attack on a dozen or more Republicans had fast-faded from Washington media consciousness. Conservative pundits asserted that the “memory hole” stemmed from the wrong formula: a backer of Sen. Bernie Sanders like Hodgkinson trying to murder Republicans was not as good a story line as a Donald Trump supporter trying to kill Democrats.
In light of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot by Trump supporters that has been labeled an “insurrection,” Republicans today are making their near-death experience better known.
President Biden is making exposing domestic extremism a top priority — the Pentagon has launched a program to find such people in the military ranks and the Director of National Intelligence issued a report that Republicans say emphasized extremism on the right, but not the left.
“If you’re going to make it all about Jan. 6, that’s inappropriate,” Mr. Wenstrup told The Times. “You’ve got to look at 6-14 and you’ve got to look at [Nation of Islam follower Noah Green] who drove up on Good Friday and killed a Capitol Police officer. We’ve got to be looking at everything. This should not be Republican or Democrat.”
Scalise’s detail saved day
If Republican Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana had not been at practice that morning, it is likely Hodgkinson would have had more minutes to hunt and kill at will. But Mr. Scalise, who himself was shot in the hip with a bullet that nearly killed him, traveled with two Capitol Police officers as is protocol for congressional leaders.
Crystal Griner and David Bailey were on inconspicuous duty, dressed in plainclothes and parked in an unmarked vehicle. They sprung into action with the first shot at 7:09 a.m. The two, and later arriving an Alexandria police team that included a sniper, fired rounds that mortally wounded the would-be assassin by 7:14.
“He could have marched right in and started picking people off.,” said Mr. Wenstrup, who at 7:09 was in a batting cage down the right field line.
On April 15, Mr. Wenstrup, an Army Reserve colonel and decorated combat surgeon in Iraq, chose to publicize the “suicide by cop” verdict during a hearing before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
He had stayed up until 1 a.m. crafting a statement to stay within the five-minute limit. He listed evidence rebutting “suicide by cop.” He told FBI Director Christopher A. Wray he has submitted a letter asking the bureau to do a re-evaluation.
Two weeks later, Jill Sanborn, the FBI’s counter-terrorism chief, received similar questioning from Rep. Robert Aderholt, Alabama Republican, at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing.
In her response, she basically repudiated the 2017 FBI finding.
“If it were to happen today, we would open this as a domestic terrorism case,” Ms. Sanborn said.
On Nov. 16, 2017, when Republicans first heard the FBI’s “suicide by cop” verdict, the full story of how the FBI investigated the Trump campaign in 2016-19 was not fully known.
McCabe, hostility toward GOP
But today, the FBI is a raw point for some Republicans.
Two Justice Department inspector general reports have described deep political biases by agents toward Mr. Trump, both as candidate and as president. The FBI readily used a Democratic Party-financed dossier sourced to the Kremlin to try to bring down campaign staff and the president himself.
“You take that from ’17 and you add to all the things we later discovered about the Russian collusion hoax … you’ve got a reputation to repair here,” Mr. Wenstrup told The Times. “We were naive at that point and still in shock.”
At the April 15 hearing, Rep. Devin Nunes, California Republican, said that “as for the leaders of the intelligence community, I hope you plan on spending a reasonable amount of time in upcoming years on activities other than investigating conservatives and spying on Republican presidential campaigns.”
The hearing also saw Mr. Wenstrup bring up the name of Andrew McCabe, a Trump antagonist.
Mr. McCabe was acting FBI director on the day of the baseball-field attack and also when his agents issued the findings that it was not terrorism but spontaneous.
By then, Mr. McCabe had opened a counterintelligence investigation into Mr. Trump after he fired then-Director James Comey in May 2017. The Justice Department fired Mr. McCabe in 2018 after an inspector general report said he misled investigators about a leaked press story he engineered concerning the Hillary Clinton email scandal.
Post-FBI, he emerged as a CNN analyst, continuing his barbs at Mr. Trump.
To Mr. Wenstrup and other Republicans, there is ample evidence the ballpark shooting was a planned attack by what the U.S. government calls a Domestic Violent Extremist (DVE),
The 66-year-old Hodgkinson:
⦁ Was a committed leftist devoted to Mr. Sanders, a socialist, and who ranted against Republicans on social media and wanted followers to “destroy” Mr. Trump;
⦁ Came to the Washington area with a Soviet-designed 7.62m SKS semi-automatic rifle, a 9mm handgun and hundreds of rounds;
⦁ Took photos of Washington tourist sites, but also of Alexandria’s Eugene Simpson Stadium Park, the crime scene;
⦁ Had written down the names of six Republican congressmen, with physical descriptions, at least one of whom, Rep. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, attended the practice;
⦁ Asked two Republicans, including Mr. Duncan, that morning whether the people on the field were Republicans or Democrats. They answered: “Republicans.”
“So I’m making the assumption that he was targeting the Republicans based on what he did,” Mr. Duncan told Fox News.
As to the June 21 statement of a “spontaneous” attack, Mr. Wenstrup said, “I guess it was spontaneous after he asked if this was Republicans or Democrats.”
That FBI statement contained this description of Mr. Hodgkinson’s opening shot: “Acting alone, Hodgkinson shot in the vicinity of the field where members of Congress and staffers were standing.”
Mr. Wenstrup said Hodgkinson did not shoot in the “vicinity.” His first shot was directed at Rep. Trent Kelly of Mississippi, who was along the third base line within yards of Hodgkinson.
“This guy came up and took his first shot at Trent Kelly,” Mr. Wenstrup said. “Very clear at almost point-blank range. But by the grace of God, it hit that link in the fence. That wasn’t in the ‘vicinity.’ That was aimed at Trent Kelly and only missed him because it hit the link in the fence.”
A spokesman at FBI headquarters told The Times there would be no comment beyond Ms. Sanborn’s congressional testimony.
The FBI also did not call the attack a “suicide by cop” when agents engaged reporters on Jun 21, 2017.
Whether that ultimate finding was made under Mr. McCabe’s watch or involved Director Christopher Wray, who was sworn in the following August, is not yet known by Mr. Wenstrup.
The FBI’s case for ‘spontaneous’
The FBI’s case for a “spontaneous” attack is that Hodgkinson was a troubled man, living out of a van, and regularly visiting the Alexandria YMCA, after traveling to Alexandria from Belleville, Ill., in March.
Agents do not believe his photographs represented surveillance or that his list of Republicans were selected targets. His social media did not contain direct threats against Republicans, just intense dislike.
Special Agent Slater said that day, “On the shooter, we found a piece of paper that contained the names of six members of Congress. No context was included on this paper. However, a review of the shooter’s web searches in the months prior to the shooting revealed only a cursory search of two of those members. A second document with a rough sketch of several streets in Washington, D.C. was found on him as well. However, we have determined that this is not of investigative significance.”
After questioning Mr. Wray on April 15, Mr. Wenstrup sent the director a letter formally asking for an investigation of the original Hodgkinson probe, plus an internal review of how “suicide by cop” was adopted. He said the FBI never interviewed him or other crucial witnesses on the field.
Making his case, Mr. Wenstrup wrote: “This conclusion defies logic and contradicts the publicly known facts about the perpetrator and the attack. The shooter had an extensive social media record highlighting his hatred of President Trump and Republicans. He had a list of names — including Republican Members of Congress — in his possession.
“Before carrying out his attack, he asked if the Members at the baseball field were Republicans or Democrats. Furthermore, the shooter’s operational movements during the attack demonstrate his murderous intent. He was heavily armed, sought cover during the shooting, well over 100 rounds were fired, and the attacker could not have known that then-Majority Whip Steve Scalise’s security detail was present given that they were in an undercover vehicle and in plain clothes. All these facts are inconsistent with a designation of ‘suicide by cop.’”
If the Wray-directed FBI changes its verdict, it will re-align with two official findings.
Last year, the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security submitted classified domestic extremism overviews to the House intelligence committee.
Both contained unclassified sections, including the determination that the June 14, 2017, baseball diamond attack was domestic terrorism.