Lawmakers shaken by this week’s shooting at a GOP baseball practice say the toxic political climate needs to change. But there’s little sign that it will.
The calls for unity in the wake of the attack have already given way to finger pointing, with both sides blaming the other’s rhetoric for exacerbating public anger at Washington.
Republicans have cast blame on the left, with one senior member going to the House floor to castigate the “liberal media.”
Democrats say that any discussion about incivility starts with President Trump, who routinely hurled insults during the 2016 campaign and considered paying the legal fees of a supporter accused of punching a protester at a rally.
Trump, for his part, received bipartisan praise for his measured statement in the hours after a gunman shot House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and three others in a Washington suburb. But a day later, Trump was already tweeting again about “crooked Hillary” and the email scandal that plagued her 2016 campaign.
It’s become a familiar pattern for lawmakers after a tragedy.
After former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot in the head at a constituent event in 2011, members of Congress made a show of bipartisan seating arrangements at the State of the Union a few weeks later.
The political discourse has arguably worsened in the six years since.
“It comes down to one thing: leadership,” Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) said. “And if we as leaders in Congress — but the other leaders in government as well — are willing to set the right tone going forward, then we’ll see a difference. But if the president comes out and was unifying yesterday and then divisive again today, it won’t change. And he was.”
The shooter, identified by the FBI as James Hodgkinson from Belleville, Ill., had volunteered for Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersLawmakers struggle to maintain unity after shooting Bill Maher, Breitbart editor bond: Sometimes ‘free speech does pause’ Yes, Trump is privatizing the VA MORE’s (I-Vt.) presidential campaign and posted on Facebook that “It’s Time to Destroy Trump & Co.”
After prompting from Fox News’s Sean Hannity, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) expressed alarm over the left’s fury at Trump. Even before the shooting, GOP lawmakers had been worried about angry town halls and some physical threats from people upset over Trump and the GOP’s healthcare bill.
“You’ve seen the vitriol since the election from the left, the town halls that members of Congress have had all over the country and how they’ve been treated,” said Duncan, who left the baseball practice minutes before the shooter began firing.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, delivered a House floor speech blaming the “liberal media” for inciting anti-Trump anger.
“The media’s constant barrage of personal attacks can incite someone to take irrational actions,” Smith said.
Democrats suggested it was hypocritical for Republicans to blame extreme rhetoric on the left without considering the vitriol directed at President Obama, Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonLawmakers struggle to maintain unity after shooting Olivia Wilde: ‘Trump seems so much like a toddler’ Trump sends prayers for missing US sailors near Japan MORE and other top Democrats.
“I would quote the late, great singer Michael Jackson, that said: ‘If you want to make a change, start with the man in the mirror,’ ” said Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.).
Trump, he said, has fed the partisan divisions.
“If you have two eyes, you see that the way the last two presidents conduct themselves is totally different when it comes to things of that nature,” Richmond said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) recalled the “horrible, disgusting, yucky messages” she got last year after hackers posted House Democrats’ phone numbers.
“When you have a president who says, ‘I could shoot somebody on 5th Avenue and nobody would care’; when you have people saying ‘Beat them up and I’ll pay your legal fees’; when you have all the assaults that are made on Hillary Clinton; for [Republicans] to be so sanctimonious is something that I really am almost sad for myself that I have gone down this path with you because I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to have the fullest discussion of it,” she said at a Capitol press conference on Thursday.
Lawmakers agree that there are some steps they can all take to help tamp down the partisan flames.
Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn.), who represents a district won by Trump last year, said he tries to avoid gratuitous partisan insults in his media statements and speeches.
“I told my staff about a year ago, I don’t want any vitriolic rhetoric in my press releases, in my speaking, I’m just not going to do it. It’s not good, it’s not healthy. So I don’t do it,” Nolan said.
Rep. Roger WilliamsRoger WilliamsLawmakers struggle to maintain unity after shooting Bipartisan baseball game a show of unity after shooting House votes to thank Capitol Police for saving lawmakers in baseball shooting MORE (R-Texas), the GOP baseball team’s coach, injured his ankle while running away from the shooter at Wednesday’s practice.
As he walked around the Capitol on crutches, Williams suggested members of both parties should try using more affirmative arguments instead of always blasting the other side.
“If we sell our positions, let’s sell a little bit more rather than saying, ‘If you’re for it, I’m against it.’ That doesn’t work,” Williams said.
“It’s been a lot of the attitude. Not all the people here, but just around the country. You know, ‘If President Trump is for it, then I’m against it.’ ‘President Obama’s for it, I’m against it.’ I mean, let’s take a look at each situation. That’s the way we live our lives,” he said.
Lawmakers turned to the Congressional Baseball Game on Thursday night to make a show of unity.
At least two pairs of bipartisan lawmakers announced they would sit together at the game, not unlike at the State of the Union after Giffords was shot six years ago.
Democrats handily won the game but gave the trophy to Republicans so it can sit in the office of Scalise, who remains in the hospital after multiple surgeries.
“We are going to put this trophy in Steve’s office until he comes back to work,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the Republicans’ team manager.
But beyond Thursday’s game, there’s not much to suggest lawmakers will be able to bridge the partisan divide any better than they are now.
When asked if there is hope for more unity after the shooting, Richmond replied, “I don’t know.”
“You can’t just say it’s time for unity and expect unity. You have to do it with some action.”
Mike Lillis contributed.