WASHINGTON – Open hostility broke out among Republicans and Democrats in Congress on Thursday amid growing fears of physical violence and looming domestic terrorism threats from supporters of former president Donald Trump, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi leveling an extraordinary allegation that dangers lurk among the membership itself.
“The enemy is within the House of Representatives, a threat that members are concerned about, in addition to what is happening outside,” Pelosi, D-Calif., said at a Thursday morning news conference.
But even as she and others sounded the alarm, Republicans continued to deepen their ties to the former president, who has been impeached on a charge of inciting an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Hours after Pelosi’s remarks, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., met with Trump in Florida. In a statement, the pair vowed to work together to take back the House. On Thursday afternoon, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., a Trump acolyte, traveled to the district of Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a member of the House GOP leadership, to hold a rally criticizing her vote to impeach Trump earlier this month.
The events reflected the extent to which the country’s legislative branch, which has for years been mired in partisan bickering, has reached new levels of animosity just as newly inaugurated President Joe Biden is seeking to win passage of a massive bill designed to help lift the country out of the pandemic.
Some Democrats are expressing fears that Republican lawmakers – who in some cases have tried bringing weapons onto the House floor – cannot be trusted. Some have bought bulletproof vests and are seeking other protections.
And Democratic leaders are putting maximum pressure on the Republican leadership to denounce freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who once endorsed violence against members of Congress. One Democrat advanced a resolution to expel her from Congress.
Greene, a onetime far-right online commentator, has a history of promoting violent ideas and beliefs. This week, social media postings surfaced showing she had liked Facebook posts that advocated violence against Democrats, including one that suggested shooting Pelosi in the head.
Greene also spread conspiracy theories that the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 people dead was a “false flag,” and new videos showed her stalking and harassing David Hogg, a Parkland student turned advocate of stricter gun safety laws, who was a teenager at the time.
Pelosi and other senior Democrats have called on McCarthy and other senior Republican leaders to address Greene’s social media comments. Democrats were incensed that Greene was given a spot on the House Education and Labor Committee, given her comments about the Parkland shooting.
“Assigning her to the education committee, when she has mocked the killing of little children” at school, “what could they be thinking, or is thinking too generous a word for what they might be doing?” Pelosi said. “It’s absolutely appalling.”
Greene responded to the Democrats’ criticism in an emailed statement: “Democrats and their spokesmen in the Fake News Media will stop at nothing to defeat conservative Republicans. They are coming after me because I’m a threat to their goal of Socialism. They are coming after me because they know I represent the people, not the politicians..”
Through a spokesman McCarthy described Greene’s comments as “deeply disturbing.
“Leader McCarthy plans to have a conversation with the congresswoman about them,” a McCarthy spokesman said, though he did not elaborate further.
The GOP leader spent his day in West Palm Beach, Fla., with Trump, formulating a plan for Republicans to take back the House in 2022. In a statement after the meeting, Trump’s super PAC Save America issued a warning shot to Republicans who cross him: “President Trump’s popularity has never been stronger than it is today, and his endorsement means more than perhaps any endorsement at any time.”
McCarthy’s has long struggled with how to address Greene, highlighting the current predicament for House GOP leaders, whose party attracts an increasingly virulent anti-establishment, conspiratorial base.
Just weeks after GOP voters chose to oust one persistent headache for party leaders – Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who had a long history of racist rhetoric – reporters unearthed videos of Greene, then a candidate for office, making disparaging remarks about African Americans, Muslims and Jewish megadonor George Soros.
McCarthy denounced the comments through a spokesman but did little subsequently to intervene over the following weeks in the primary runoff against a more conventional GOP candidate.
Republican aides familiar with McCarthy’s thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the episode said GOP leaders were in a tight spot: Greene had won nearly twice as many votes as the runner-up in the primary’s initial round, and it was clear that intervention from a national party leader could easily backfire in Greene’s favor.
But other Republicans say McCarthy and other leaders could have done more to persuade Trump – the only Republican with credibility with rural Georgia voters – to intervene.
Greene ended up winning by 15 percentage points, calling it a “badge of honor” on election night that the “D.C. swamp has been against me.”
Trump tweeted the next day: “Marjorie is strong on everything and never gives up – a real WINNER!”
After November’s elections, McCarthy found his standing in the House GOP at an all-time high after Republicans beat expectations, cutting the Democratic majority to single digits after most forecasters had predicted Democrats would gain seats.
Despite Trump’s loss, McCarthy hewed closely to the outgoing president — backing up his false claims of a stolen election, even after his Senate counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declared Biden the winner on Dec. 15.
Instead, McCarthy signaled to Republicans that he would back Trump’s election fraud claims to the very end – at the Jan. 6 vote to certify the electoral college tally.
The politics could not have been clearer for McCarthy, who was among the first senior Republican leaders to intuitively sense Trump’s appeal to voters in 2016. Breaking with the soon-to-be-ex-president – then and now an overwhelmingly popular figure among GOP voters – would threaten his 14-year climb up the party leadership, with the speaker’s chair just within his grasp.
But the riot at the Capitol scrambled that calculation. As the pro-Trump mob ransacked the seat of Congress, McCarthy was among the most senior officials calling Trump and begging that he make a public statement denouncing the violence. Later that night, after the House returned to session, he called the riot “unacceptable, undemocratic and un-American” and said it was “the saddest day I have ever had serving as a member of this institution.”
He then voted with the vast majority of House Republicans to challenge the electoral votes of two states won by Biden.
McCarthy kept largely quiet over the following week as House Democrats moved toward impeaching Trump. While some Republicans privately floated alternatives that might have garnered bipartisan support with a push from GOP leaders, McCarthy only endorsed censure until just hours before the House voted to impeach Trump.
“The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters,” he said. “He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.”
Those, however, would be the last critical words McCarthy would speak about Trump for the coming weeks as the internal GOP backlash grew against the 10 Republicans who supported impeachment – most prominently his third in command, House GOP Conference Chair Cheney.
McCarthy’s office issued a terse statement backing Cheney the next day. Last week, he qualified it further, saying there were “questions that need to be answered,” including about the “style in which things were delivered.”
Former GOP congressman Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, who left the House in 2018 largely in disgust at the direction of the party under Trump, said in an interview that he couldn’t make sense of McCarthy’s thinking.
“I can’t understand why anybody would think we should welcome that element into the party,” Dent said of Greene, adding that she should have been ostracized by the GOP conference from the start.
Back in Cheney’s Wyoming district, Gaetz held a rally Thursday to bash her. Donald Trump Jr. phoned in to pile on and call for her defeat in the next election.
Amid this month’s public reckoning over the state of the Republican Party, McCarthy was engaged in a behind-the-scenes effort to patch up relations with Trump – who has made clear his desire to remain a Republican kingmaker, if not a future GOP presidential nominee. In a syndicated TV interview aired Sunday with host Greta Van Susteren, McCarthy inched further away from his previous comments saying Trump “had some responsibility when it came to the response” to the riot, while adding, “I also think everybody across this country has some responsibility.”
The pitched battle over Greene’s threat to Congress comes against the backdrop of the looming Senate impeachment trial of Trump in which the vast majority of Republicans are likely to vote to acquit him.
On the other side of the Capitol, Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., is seeking to have Greene expelled and is asking every GOP lawmaker for their support.
He plans to introduce his initiative as a privileged resolution next week, effectively ensuring it receives a vote on the floor.
“I’ve been getting a lot of support from colleagues, even Republican colleagues who are saying some positive things, but they’re nervous,” Gomez said in an interview.
He warned that if Greene’s rhetoric goes unchallenged, “things are going to get a lot worse.”
Other Democrats said Republicans’ refusal to acknowledge that Biden legitimately won the election is fueling the threat of violence.
On Thursday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., publicly admonished Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a leader of the election challenges, after he signaled support for her position on an unrelated issue.
“I am happy to work with Republicans on this issue where there’s common ground, but you almost had me murdered 3 weeks ago so you can sit this one out,” she said on Twitter. “Happy to work w/ almost any other GOP that aren’t trying to get me killed.”
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The Washington Post’s Zach Purser Brown contributed to this report.