House Republicans are mostly shrugging off violent rhetoric within their ranks and vicious threats directed at some of their own members, as Democrats prepare to punish one GOP lawmaker over a graphic video depicting violence against a colleague.
Democratic leaders are actively discussing ways to reprimand Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona for a now-deleted anime video he posted to Twitter last week that portrayed himself killing Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and swinging a sword at President Joe Biden. The leading option is a formal censure resolution, according to sources, but another idea under consideration is to strip Gosar of his committee assignments.
While Republicans across the board say they don’t condone violence, few, if any, Republicans are expected to back the Democratic-led effort to punish Gosar, besides Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. And GOP leaders have done little to publicly defend the House Republicans who have received vile messages and menacing threats after voting this month for a bipartisan infrastructure bill opposed by former President Donald Trump.
Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the head of the House GOP’s campaign arm, conceded Gosar’s video was not “appropriate.” But when pressed about the threats against some Republican members, Emmer told CNN: “Unfortunately, in the world we’re in right now, we all get death threats, no matter what the issue is.”
Rep. Tom Rice of South Carolina, who himself was threatened after he voted to impeach Trump for inciting an insurrection, said Gosar’s tweet was “in very poor taste” but said he’s unlikely to support a censure resolution and didn’t think it amounted to a death threat.
Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, a member of Republican leadership, said he didn’t want to comment on the Gosar video because he hadn’t seen it, adding that the House GOP is “singularly focused” on “trying to defeat this terrible” social safety net bill that House Democrats are aiming to pass this week.
And House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who did not comment publicly on the Gosar episode until this week, noted that he called the Arizona Republican after the tweet and he then deleted it, but did not explicitly condemn Gosar’s behavior. McCarthy also said Gosar explained his actions during a closed-door conference meeting on Tuesday morning, and his explanation was well received in the conference, according to attendees.
“He didn’t see it before it posted. It was not his intent to show any harm,” McCarthy told reporters. “What I said to conference was, (we) cannot accept any action or showing of a violence to another member.”
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana — who nearly died after a left-wing gunman opened fire on GOP baseball practice in 2017 — echoed a similar sentiment, saying: “He put out a statement and he took the video down. And look, I’ve been very vocal against any kind of political violence. And you see it on both sides over the last few years. Unfortunately, you don’t see the Democrats having an interest in calling it out on both sides.”
Asked if Gosar should be censured, Scalise said, “We’re going to continue to call it out.”
The lack of GOP appetite to punish Gosar exemplifies the tightrope McCarthy and Republican leaders are walking: while they don’t want to appear tolerant of violence, they are also reluctant to anger the hardcore Trump supporters in the conference, who will be a crucial voting bloc in any future speaker’s race. But they could soon be put on the spot, with Democratic leaders eying a floor vote that will force them to go on the record either in defense of Gosar or crossing a chief Trump ally.
Unlike some of his predecessors, McCarthy prefers to operate behind the scenes and tends to take a soft-touch approach with his members. Plus, leadership would much rather keep the spotlight on divisions across the aisle. But that management style clearly has its limits, as McCarthy has struggled to rein in the most radical members of his conference.
Some Republicans privately fume at Gosar and Greene
Even before the incendiary social media video, Gosar has exhibited extremist and problematic behavior, including attending a conference organized by known white nationalist and attacking the police officer who shot January 6 rioter Ashli Babbitt. And earlier this year, McCarthy quietly orchestrated an effort to get Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene to visit the Holocaust Museum and publicly apologize after invoking Nazi-era image to criticize vaccine mandates, but she has continued to use similar offensive language.
It was also Greene who tweeted out the office phone numbers of the Republican members who voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill — a move she later defended, saying “Republicans in the House and the Senate need to learn a lesson.” Greene and others have also vowed to help primary those members whom they have dubbed as “traitors,” and there’s also been discussions about trying to boot them off committees, though GOP leadership has no interest in going that route at the moment.
During Tuesday’s conference meeting, McCarthy urged Republicans to stick together and said now is not the time to go after fellow members, per sources in the room. Several Republicans, including McCarthy and others who opposed infrastructure, defended the members who voted for the bill, arguing everyone has a right to vote their districts.
Despite those pleas, however, Rep. Dan Bishop of North Carolina filed a resolution to strip New York Rep. John Katko of his ranking position on the Homeland Security Committee, but it was referred to the Steering Committee where leadership can essentially bury it, according to lawmakers in the room. Katko also defended his position in front of the conference.
Still, multiple GOP members emerged from Tuesday’s meeting expressing support for the resolution, while Rep. Chip Roy of Texas even got into a heated exchange with McCarthy over whether these members should face consequences.
Privately, several Republicans have expressed outrage, frustration and even “disgust” that GOP leaders haven’t done more to condone the incendiary rhetoric from some of their colleagues or defend the members who are now facing retaliation for their infrastructure vote. But none were willing to go on the record with their criticism, with some worried about further putting a target on their back.
A group of 18 former House Republicans did put out a statement taking aim at GOP leadership for their silence and called on them to forcefully condemn the attacks on their colleagues.
“House GOP leaders are demonstrating their fear of extreme elements within their own conference at the expense of some of their most politically vulnerable members who are essential to winning a House majority,” the statement says. “It’s long past time to reestablish a better, more civil discourse in Congress. Shutting down this latest fool’s errand is a good place to start.”
Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, who says he received thousands of angry calls and multiple death threats after his infrastructure vote, called it a “sad day” during an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday.
“We all know we have a polarized electorate out there,” Upton, who also voted to impeach Trump, said.
Democrats say Gosar’s behavior goes beyond the pale
Democrats say the silence of GOP leaders is especially dangerous at a time when threats against lawmakers have reached an all-time high and say Gosar’s behavior cannot go unchecked.
“You can’t go threatening to kill other members. They tried to kill us on January 6. We’ve got to take this seriously,” said Rep. Annie Kuster, a New Hampshire Democrat. “It’s not safe. … and people aren’t going to serve their country if they can’t stay safe and protect themselves.'”
While Gosar deleted the video amid fierce backlash and a phone call from McCarthy, he continued to defend the video as “truly a symbolic portrayal of a fight over immigration policy.”
And in an email over the weekend, Gosar compared the situation to the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine, suggesting he is the victim, and said he finds the “faux outrage infantile and the hyperventilating and shrill accusations that this cartoon is dangerous to be laughable or intentionally hyperbolic.”
Democrats — who kicked Greene off her committees earlier this year for endorsing violence against Democrats and other inflammatory remarks — introduced several censure resolutions earlier this year against some of their Republican colleagues, including Gosar, in the wake of the deadly January 6 insurrection. Yet those measures went nowhere amid some concerns about sparking a tit-for-tat with Republicans. McCarthy tried, but failed, to force a vote on a censure resolution against Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of California, who said “we’ve got to get more confrontational” about police brutality.
But this time is different, Democrats say, because Gosar’s behavior goes beyond the pale.
“People see this as being different. … He is promoting the killing of a seated member of Congress, ” said Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat and author of the censure resolution, which has over 75 cosponsors. “It’s not a cartoon, it’s not funny, and it has to be slapped down. If we normalize this kind of behavior, someone is going to get seriously hurt.”
A censure resolution is the most severe form of punishment in the House, and requires the censured member to stand in the well of the House while the resolution is read out loud. The last lawmaker to be censured was former Rep. Charlie Rangel, a New York Democrat, for multiple ethics violations back in 2010.
While Speaker Nancy Pelosi said punishing Gosar is not a “priority” for her, Democratic leaders did discuss how to handle Gosar at a leadership meeting on Monday, according to multiple sources, though no final decisions have been made. And Pelosi has also backed ethics and law enforcement investigations into Gosar.
“I do believe that leadership is taking this very, very seriously,” said Ocasio-Cortez, who has long been the subject of death threats. “I was with the Speaker in Glasgow last week, but this is something that she and I and I think most of House leadership are taking extremely seriously especially now that this is an established pattern that has escalated from the Republican party.”
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