Menacing the Powerful: The Use of Violence Against Politicians
Today, in our ever-polarized political world, it might be surprising to see politicians on both sides of the aisle agree on any issue, but lawmakers, law enforcement agencies, and politicians alike have been almost unanimously united against countering violent threats against themselves and the President. Since 2018, there has been a large influx of violent threats and harassment oriented towards US policy makers, cabinet members, and even the President himself. While this is not a new issue, it is worth noting its significance and rising usage.
Title 18 of the US Code states that an individual who threatens “to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm, to the President, Vice President, or others in line of the Presidency, will be fined, imprisoned not more than five years, or both.” Despite this, threats against the President have seen a sharp increase from 2017. According to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), there was a 130% increase in prosecutions against individuals who made threats against the President and his successors. In addition to Presidential threats, TRAC also revealed an almost 41% increase in prosecutions against individuals who made threats against other elected officials and members of Congress.
These startling trends correlate with the more extreme methods used to threaten, intimidate and injure elected officials in the past three years. On June 14, 2017, 66 year-old James Hodgkinson attacked the annual Congressional Baseball Game for Charity, firing several rounds at the elected officials on scene, critically injuring House Majority Whip Steve Scalise. The attack also injured lobbyists Matt Mika and Zack Barth, police Special Agent Crystal Griner, and a staff member for Representative Roger Williams of Texas. After being condemned as an act of terror, the “House Administration Committee allocated $25,000 to each member” in 2017 and 2018 to improve office and personal security for House lawmakers, rattled by the rising use of violence against them. However, despite preventive measures, similar faces of violence would not slow. In October of 2018, Utah resident William Clyde Allen was served a seven-count federal indictment for threatening to “use a biological agent and toxin...as a weapon,” sending threatening messages to Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis, CIA Director Gina Haspel, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, and several other prominent intelligence leaders. Alllen also targeted the President himself, sending a letter containing ricin to the White House.
These same disturbing shows of violence, and particular usage of mailing weapons, would be apparent in August of 2018, Florida native Caesar Saoc was arrested after sending 11 packages to the homes and offices of several influential democratic policy makers and the headquarters of CNN. Saoc targeted Former Attorney General Eric Holder, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and wealthy democratic donors Geogre Soros and Tom Styer, to name a few. Thankfully, no one was injured in the attack.
As chilling as these events may be, their dangers were existent before the Trump Administration. In 2010, The Guardian reported that the office of Democratic Congresswoman Louise Slaughter was pelted with a brick over her support of Obamacare legislation. In the same article, Democratic Congressman Bart Stupak was harassed with illicit faxes and phone calls, with one cited to have said “I hope you bleed...[get] cancer and die.
Perhaps with the ability to reach massive audiences quickly, threats have turned to the internet. According to the Minority Rights Group, “conflict narratives, conspiracy theories and extremist views quickly find a home on platforms where every voice competes for attention, and the moderate voices and restrained language necessary for peace-building are drowned out,” detailing that social media platforms have become incubators for very extreme and violent views. Because of this, individuals who share these violent views can find niches on social media that allow them to flourish, contributing to a wide dissemination of homophobic, sexist and racist content by publicizing attacks, creating content that incites violence and promoting anti-immigrant sentiments. It is these environments that have inadvertently become hotbeds of illicit threats against politicians.
In 2016, Uber driver Kyler Schmitz was arrested after a slew of violent tweets against Senator Roy Blunt, with one reading “I'm going to shoot you in the head for allowing someone to murder my loved ones.” Schmitz also targeted the GOP, writing that he was going to kill Republican lawmakers “one by one.” Thomas Robert Murphy, a Springfield, Oregon resident was arrested in early 2018 after threatening to kill President Trump and Secret Service Agents, writing “Donald J. Trump will be terminated on March 7, 2018 by my hand...” on Twitter. A similar threat would play out in June of 2019, when Chase Bliss Colasurdo boasted that no criminal action occurred against him after threatening to kill President Trump’s son in law, Jared Kushner, shortly after emailing news outlets that he was going to "personally Execute [Jared Kushner] for his countless treasonous crimes." Recently, US Representative Alexandia Ocasio-Cortez was targeted in a violent threat written by Louisiana Police Officer Charlie Rispoli, in which he said that Cortez “needs a round,” suggesting that she should be shot. The post was later condemned by Gretna Police Chief Arthur Lawson as “...very disappointing,” adding “to insinuate a violent act against a seated U.S. congresswoman…[is] completely irresponsible and intolerable."
The Secret Service has determined that a majority of credible threats against officials come from those who are mentally ill, according to the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice also cites a concern in the media coverage of individuals who threaten the President and elected officials. So long as individuals receive attention and notoriety, they will continue to inspire others to do the same. Media reports regarding violent threats should not be covered, as a way to circumvent others from becoming inspired to carry out similar attacks. The individual reporting of violent threats to law enforcement should also be encouraged among the general public, as well as staff of elected officials, to counter and mitigate the risk of an attack.
Government agencies and personnel, politicians, and anyone affiliated with being a public servant are often targets of terrorists and terrorist organizations. The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) can help prevent and deter attacks on government workers, public servants, citizens being served, visitors, and facilities. In addition, the CTG NORTHCOM Team actively monitors developments on threats against politicians, and collaborates internally among a wide array of groups to share intelligence and insights into common tactics used by individuals, to allow for greater mitigation against attacks on government workers and facilities. If you are a public servant or government organization seeking CTG services, do not hesitate to contact us.
1. 18 U.S. Code § 871. Threats against President and successors to the Presidency, Law Information Institute. https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/871
2. Prosecutions for 2018 - Lead Charge: 18 USC 871 - Threats against President and successors, Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. https://tracfed.syr.edu/results/9x705c93c4e530.html
3. Prosecutions for 2018 - Lead Charge: 18 USC 115 - Influencing, impeding, or retaliating against a Federal official, Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. https://tracfed.syr.edu/results/9x705c93dc5523.html
4. Five people shot, including Republican congressman, at charity baseball game, HISTORY, September 2018, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/james-hodgkinson-shooting-republicans-baseball-game
5. Politicians fear for safety as threats against Congress skyrocket, New York Post, June 2018, https://nypost.com/2018/06/11/politicians-fear-for-safety-as-threats-against-congress-skyrocket/
6. Allen Charged In Seven-Count Federal Indictment With Threat To Use A Biological Toxin As A Weapon, Department of Justice, October 2018, https://www.justice.gov/usao-ut/pr/allen-charged-seven-count-federal-indictment-threat-use-biological-toxin-weapon
7. 5 days, 14 potential bombs and lots of questions. Here's what we know, CNN, October 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/26/politics/pipe-bombs-suspicious-packages-what-we-know/index.html
8. Democrats pelted with bricks and death threats for Obama healthcare reforms, The Guardian, March 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/mar/25/brick-attacks-democrats-obama-healthcare
9. Peoples Under Threat 2019: The role of social media in exacerbating violence, Minority Rights Group, June 2019, https://minorityrights.org/2019/06/03/peoples-under-threat-2019-the-role-of-social-media-in-exacerbating-violence/
10. Reminder: Tweeting Death Threats to Politicians "in Character" Is a Very Dumb Idea, Gawker, June, https://gawker.com/reminder-tweeting-death-threats-to-politicians-in-cha-1782711353.
11. Springfield man accused of social media threats to kill Trump,Oregon Live, February 2018, https://www.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwest-news/2018/02/springfield_man_accused_of_soc.html
12. A man who boasted on Instagram about not being arrested for saying he'd 'execute' Jared Kushner has pleaded guilty to making threats, INSIDER, June 2019, https://www.insider.com/chase-bliss-colasurdo-arrested-instagram-death-threats-jared-kushner-2019-5
13. The Cop Who Said AOC “Needs A Round” Just Got Fired, VICE, July 2019, https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/qv77b3/the-cop-who-said-aoc-needs-a-round-reportedly-just-got-fired
14. 9-65.000 - PROTECTION OF GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS - The Justice Manual, Department of Justice. https://www.justice.gov/jm/jm-9-65000-protection-government-officials#9-65.100