For the 535 members of Congress, the haunting memories of the violence and chaos from January 6 don’t go away as they leave Washington, DC.
The ongoing threat remains top of mind for many lawmakers ahead of the August recess when Republicans and Democrats will return to their home districts — far removed from the immediate protection of Capitol Police.
There have been discussions about security for lawmakers and staff during the August recess amid warnings about potential threats fueled by a variety of conspiracy theories and incidents when members were traveling to their home states in recent months, according to a congressional source briefed on the matter. Discussions in the weeks leading up to recess have been mostly informal, the source said, noting they have not received any specific guidance or updates from the Sergeant at Arms, but there have been talks about the number of uniformed police officers lawmakers want at the events, including town halls in August, what area of their district they want that increased presence to be located and what time of day, the source said.
This source pointed specifically to an incident last month where Rep. Katie Porter’s town hall in California was disrupted by a group of political critics — as particularly troubling considering the lingering safety concerns for lawmakers while in DC and back in their home districts.
“The Porter incident was nuts,” the source said, noting it was particularly concerning that it happened at 2 p.m. during a public event.
“There hasn’t been, you know, meaningful security measures I would say that are based adequately on the assessment of individual member such scenarios and threats,” said Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. “I mean it’s absolutely a broken system.”
Ocasio-Cortez is among a particular group of members of Congress with an extremely high profile. She has been vocal about the lack of funding and resources for proper security for members when they return home. According to the progressive lawmaker, some have even been forced to raise funds from their supporters to invest in security improvements to their homes, offices and travel detail.
“It is just simply the case that right now, members of Congress, if they want and if they need security. They have to literally fundraise for their own safety,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
Congress did recently pass a broad security supplemental package designed to fill gaping holes left behind in the wake of the January 6 insurrection. The House-passed package had allocated more than $10 million specifically for district security. The final version of the bill only included funding for Capitol Police to enter into agreements with local law enforcement for protective details.
The lack of funding and a broad policy to deal with district security has left members to deal with the issue on their own and for Capitol Police to assess the threat on a per member basis with the goal of working with local police to keep members safe. It comes at a time where the toxic energy surrounding the Capitol Insurrection is still boiling across the country, fueled in part by former President Donald Trump continuing to peddle lies about the election results. The FBI and Homeland Security have issued warnings, noting false narratives about voter fraud and the 2020 election will almost certainly contribute to additional violence by domestic extremists this year.
“I’d be a fool not to be concerned about that,” newly tapped USCP Chief Tom Manger told CNN in an interview late last month when asked if he is concerned about the Big Lie. “The safety and security of the Capitol, the Congress, the legislative process. Those are priorities and I’m concerned about all those things.”
Fears over the ‘Big Lie’ spurring possible violence
Law enforcement agencies in DC and around the country have been consistently briefed on potential threats during the August timeframe. Lawmakers have also been briefed and CNN has previously reported that officials have made clear they are concerned about how a variety of conspiracies could lead to more violence this month. As an example, a recent FBI threat assessment specifically pointed out that QAnon followers are becoming more emboldened to take real-world action and increasingly believe that they must become personally involved in bringing about the conspiracy’s premonitions rather than simply serving as “digital soldiers.”
More broadly, providing security for members traveling outside of Washington, DC has been a consistent concern since January 6. Those fears have only been compounded by warnings from the US Capitol Police that threats against lawmakers are up more than 100% compared to last year and law enforcement expects that number to increase going forward. Capitol Police plan to expand their footprint nationwide to better assess threats from the ground. In July the department announced plans to open regional field offices in California and Florida.
As members spread to their home districts, much of the immediate security need will fall upon local law enforcement departments. Major Cities Chiefs Association — a professional organization for executives of police departments — told CNN elected officials must work closely with local law enforcement rather than rely exclusively on private security for protection.
“Elected officials need to take their security needs seriously and stay close to their police chiefs and report any threats or incidents involving his/her family or staff as soon as possible,” said Laura Cooper, executive director for Major Cities Chiefs Association. “Police chiefs strongly discourage the use of private security personnel for dignitary protection units as private security officers lack the authority needed to effectively fulfill the dignitary protection function,” Cooper said.
Republicans also have concerns over threats
The threats are not reserved for just Democrats. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a Republican from New Jersey who recently switched parties and became a vocal Trump supporter, said he was targeted in a local newspaper by a columnist who threatened his wife and suggested she be assaulted in a similar fashion to what accusers of Trump had said the former president had done to them. It was enough for Van Drew to reach out to the FBI as well as Ocean City and State Police. He said Capitol Police worked with Ocean City to determine how serious the threat was.
“When I travel now, I have somebody right with me and a lot of people think that you really do need protection these days because I never know what’s going to happen,” Van Drew said. “So I never worry about it, but it’s something that you think about a little bit.”
Rep. Adam Kinzinger a Republican of Illinois and a member of the January 6 Select Committee has found himself the target of Trump supporters unhappy with the way he’s bucked his party and Trump in particular. Kinzinger brushed off concerns that his new highly visible role on that committee could make him and even bigger target.
“I haven’t really feared for my safety at all but, I mean obviously I’m aware of it,” Kinzinger said. “I think you know it is important if there’s threats out there that, you know, they make sure they take care of us. Look my local police are always really great.”
But he conceded the current system is clunky and not necessarily nimble enough to meet the specific needs of each member.
“You know, in many cases, yes we can pay protection from the campaign funds,” Kinzinger said, while also pointing out even that process has its flaws and that the entire district security plan needs an overhaul.
“It’s a problem,” he added. “It needs to get fixed, it’s very archaic.”
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