Wednesday, August 10th, 2022

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Fueled by Trump-inspired grievance, attempts to terrorize public officials escalate

Through public records requests, several previously unreported incidents came to light — while Capitol Police officials say the agency expects to log more than 9,000 threats this year.

When Rep. Joe Neguse delivered his closing remarks in February at the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, he expressed concern about the direction of a nation that weeks earlier witnessed a homegrown attack in its capital.

“I fear, like many of you do, that the violence we saw on that terrible day may be just the beginning,” said Neguse, D-Colo., who as an impeachment manager had a nationally televised role in prosecuting Trump on a charge that he incited the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Neguse ended optimistically, offering a favorite quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: “I’ve decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

The Senate acquitted Trump. A day later, Valentine’s Day, the propulsive threatening discourse that Neguse worried was taking root in American democracy landed on his doorstep.

A suspicious letter mailed to the congressman’s home was opened to reveal a picture of Neguse clipped from The New York Times. An unknown substance, suspected to be feces, marked an “X” over the photo, according to records kept by the police department in Lafayette, Colorado, and obtained by NBC News.

The disturbing incident, which has not been previously reported, was referred to the Capitol Police for investigation and is among the more than 9,000 threats the agency is expected to log this year. It’s also representative of the escalating security risks confronting public officials from the federal and state levels down to local school boards.

“I had one person call and say, ‘This is the gun I’m going to use. I’m going to put three bullets in the back of his head,’” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said last month on MSNBC. “You find yourself feeling uncomfortable sitting next to an open window in your home. And that’s not something I ever thought I would have to think in this country.”

Quantifying exactly how dangerous things have become is a challenge, but even elections officials — a less prominent rung of public service that is nonetheless central to democracy — are reporting threats.

And officials with the Capitol Police, the agency responsible for protecting members of Congress, have said they expect the number of threats against members to surpass the 8,600 handled in 2020 and continue a significant surge during the Trump era. In 2017, the first year of Trump’s one term, only 3,900 threats were reported. (The department is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, making specifics scarce.)

Through NBC News’ public records requests, several previously unreported incidents came to light.

Rep. Tom Rice, a South Carolina Republican who voted to impeach Trump in January, received a menacing voicemail a few weeks later from a constituent in Myrtle Beach, according to a report from the Horry County Sheriff’s Office. The caller wanted Rice to “come over to his house for coffee so that he could beat the living hell out of him,” the report stated. Deputies visited the suspect, who admitted to making the call but said he had no plans to act on the threat. Rice declined to pursue charges.

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., was threatened with a “citizen’s arrest” several days after the Jan. 6 riot, according to a report from the Torrance Police Department. Although the report said there was no “articulable threat,” officials noted Lieu “has been vocal and in the forefront of national media supporting the removal or impeachment of President Trump.”

Torrance police have received at least four other patrol requests this year for Lieu, who was a House impeachment manager, including an April call from the Capitol Police that mentioned “threats of bodily harm” to the congressman.

Other members, through their staff or the Capitol Police, have made similar requests to local police and sheriff’s departments this year, citing threats or safety concerns.

Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who voted to convict Trump at the February impeachment trial, had at least 77 “property checks” at her home and local office between Jan. 6 and Sept. 1, according to Bangor police records. There also were at least two reports of suspicious behavior at her home: a drone flying overhead on Jan. 15 and a man leaning against a nearby fence March 19. Neither turned out to be a threat. Collins, a moderate with a high-profile swing vote, has been dealing with threats and harassment for years, including for her 2018 vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a Trump nominee.

Property checks “are usually in response to a vague or potential threat” relayed by Capitol Police, Bangor police Sgt. Wade Betters said. “Generally an extra precaution type thing.”

Ohio’s Gonzalez and Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., also reported threats after voting to impeach Trump, according to records obtained from their local police departments. Patrols were increased near their homes.

The records don’t always capture the full size of what a public official is facing. A November 2020 security check at Raffensperger’s suburban Atlanta home, for example, alluded only to his family “receiving multiple threats.”

Raffensperger has offered more details publicly, in interviews and in “Integrity Counts,” the autobiography he published this month. The attacks intensified as Raffensperger refused to support Trump’s false claims that he had won Georgia. His wife, Tricia Raffensperger, received “sexualized” threats, Raffensperger wrote in his book. Someone broke into their widowed daughter-in-law’s home. The family briefly went into hiding.

“We could have stayed,” Raffensperger said of the decision to leave their home temporarily. “But what happens if the situation gets out of control? What if the situation would have developed? So that was just something that was really about, not just us, but also for our grandchildren and our children.”

Raffensperger is seeking re-election next year and faces a Trump-endorsed primary challenge from Rep. Jody Hice. The threats have dwindled, he said, but he received “some nastygrams” after his book was released. “They were just dog-cussing me,” he said, “as we like to say in the South.”

But in times of inflamed tensions and heightened alert, it’s become easy to assume the worst.

At home in Colorado with his wife and toddler, on the day he received the defaced news clipping, Neguse treated flowers that had unexpectedly arrived for him with the same suspicion.

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