Capitol Reacts After Shooter Targets Republican Lawmakers
Shock waves rippled through Capitol Hill on Wednesday after a shooter targeted Republican lawmakers during a morning baseball practice, wounding House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and four others.
“An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us,” Speaker Paul Ryan said from the House chamber, where most members gathered Wednesday afternoon following a security briefing on the incident.
Also shot were Zack Barth, an aide to Rep. Roger Williams of Texas; Matt Mika, a lobbyist who was volunteering at the practice; and two Capitol Police officers, Crystal Griner and David Bailey. The gunman died at the hospital, President Trump announced later.
Scalise’s office released a statement saying that prior to entering surgery, the Louisiana Republican was in good spirits and spoke to his wife by phone. MedStar Washington Hospital Center later tweeted that the congressman was “critically injured and remains in critical condition.”
The incident seemed to confirm the worst fears among some lawmakers that partisan rhetoric has reached a troubling, even dangerous level. Many expressed concern about their security, particularly in situations like a baseball practice where they gather together.
“It’s a concern we always have,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican, “and ... until the rhetoric changes, I think it’s a concern we’re always going to have.” He added that “everybody” is responsible, in his view, for deepening divisions.
Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, who witnessed the shooting, still wore his baseball uniform and cleats in the Capitol as he recounted the attack to reporters.
“What that rhetoric and that hatefulness has led to is members of Congress, I believe, having to dodge bullets today at a baseball practice for a game that we play for charity,” Davis said. “This should never happen, and we as Republicans and Democrats have to come together and say, as a team and as members of Congress ... that this hate and this rhetoric has got to be toned down, it has got to stop.”
The shooter was identified as James T. Hodgkinson III, 66, from Illinois, according to various news outlets. Hodgkinson had volunteered for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, and his Facebook page included a photograph of Sanders as its cover image. He had written anti-Republican and anti-Trump posts, including one with a picture of the president and the message that Trump is a “traitor” and “It’s time to Destroy Trump & Co.” He belonged to a number of anti-Republican groups, according to the Belleville, Ill., newspaper, including one called “Terminate the Republican Party.” The newspaper also released a number of letters to the editor Hodgkinson had written critical of the Republican Party, though none of the letters released specifically mentioned Trump.
NBC News reported that Hodgkinson was arrested in 2006 for assaulting a girlfriend, but that the case against him was ultimately dismissed.
Sanders, in a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon, said he was “sickened by this despicable act.”
“Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms,” he said.
The shooting upended much of the business in Washington Wednesday. Trump, who was celebrating his 71st birthday, canceled an appearance at the Department of Labor and had no other public events. In a remarks made several hours after the shootings, he called Scalise a “patriot and a fighter.” He said he’d spoken to the congressman’s wife, and he also praised the bravery of the Capitol Police officers.
“We may have our differences, but we do well, in times like these, to remember that everyone who serves in our nation’s capital is here because, above all, they love our country,” Trump said. “We can all agree that we are blessed to be Americans, that our children deserve to grow up in a nation of safety and peace, and that we are strongest when we are unified and when we work together for the common good.”
Back on Capitol Hill, lawmakers were visibly shaken after the events unfolded, with many breaking down in tears as they addressed reporters or spoke with their colleagues. The rhythms of Congress were brought to a halt, as votes in the House were canceled for the day and many press conferences and committee hearings were also postponed. But the Senate continued its business, holding committee hearings and a vote, and the Capitol was flooded, as usual, with lawmakers, staff and visitors.
Members were also resolute, saying they would not recede from public events and their communities. They also vowed to move forward with the congressional baseball game — an annual tradition dating back nearly a century that raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity.
Pennsylvania Rep. Patrick Meehan, a member of the Republican team who was not at practice Wednesday morning, recalled how he often jokes with Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan about striking him out on a curveball a couple of years ago.
“It tells you how much we share, something away from this -- a charity game for a good cause,” Meehan said, pausing to control his emotions. “We can’t let haters win. And they won’t. We will play.”
Lawmakers gave Ryan a round of applause during their briefing when he announced that the game will be played Thursday at Nationals Park, as previously scheduled.
“We cannot let the bad guys win. Whether they’re terrorists, whether it’s a lone gunman like today, the bad guys can’t win. ...So, I’m not going to change my behavior,” said Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, a Tennessee Republican. “I want to be out, see the American people, whether they come to see me here in Washington or at home.”
During his remarks in the House chamber, Ryan said one enduring image from the day's events would be that of Democratic lawmakers gathered in prayer for their Republican colleagues.
"Every day, we come here to test and challenge each other," he said. "We feel so deeply about the things we fight for and believe in. At times, our emotions can get the best of us. We are all imperfect. But we do not shed our humanity when we enter this chamber."
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, joining the speaker on the floor, echoed Ryan's sentiments, and said she was asking for updates on Scalise's condition "every five minutes" given the bond she feels with him through their shared Italian heritage.
"On days like today, there are no Democrats or Republicans, only Americans united in our hopes and prayers for the wounded," she said. Both Pelosi and Ryan received standing ovations from their colleagues.
Lawmakers at the shooting scene described terror similar to that on a battlefield. The gunman approached Reps. Jeff Duncan and Ron DeSantis as they left early, asking them whether Republicans or Democrats were practicing, Duncan later told reporters.
Sen. Rand Paul said on MSNBC he was in the batting cage off the field when he heard one gunshot, followed by a rapid succession of others.
Lawmakers said the shooter came around the third-base side of the field. Rep. Trent Kelly, who was playing third at the time, ran off the field to avoid being hit. Scalise was shot in the hip, and dragged himself from the infield to the outfield as the gunman continued firing.
“He was not able to move under his own power,” Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, who was present, later said. After the shooting stopped, Brooks, Sen. Jeff Flake and Rep. Brad Wenstrup, a veteran and former combat physician, helped tend to their fellow lawmaker. Flake picked up his cellphone and called Scalise’s wife, he said in a statement, not wanting her to find out about the shooting from media reports.
Other players ran off the field and hid in the dugout, some later running for cover beyond the field. Davis said he and two others ran into an alleyway between two apartment buildings, where “a Samaritan” saw them and let them inside. He said from there he called 9-1-1 and his wife and children.
An aide shielded the 10-year-old son of Rep. Joe Barton, the manager of the team, in the dugout as the shots rang out. Scalise’s security detail, normally stationed in the stands behind first base, engaged and shot the gunman, and were themselves wounded in the exchange. Several witnesses credited those officers with preventing a far greater tragedy.
“Had they not been there, it would have been a massacre,” Paul told CNN. “The field was basically a killing field.”
Fleischmann described a “stunned chaos” immediately following the shooting, as members and staffers checked on one another and some tended to the wounded. Fleischmann led a prayer. A bus ultimately arrived to transport the members and staff back to Capitol Hill, a frustratingly long ride through morning traffic.
In the House gym, Duncan encountered Ryan as he spoke with his own security detail, looking concerned. By that point, Duncan had not yet learned of the attack on his colleagues, and asked Ryan if he was all right. "Yes, everything’s still blurry,” a stunned Ryan told Duncan, the South Carolina congressman later told reporters. "I’m just trying to make sense of it.” Not wanting to press the speaker, Duncan says he responded, "I’ll pray for you."
Meanwhile, Democrats got word of the shooting at their own practice, according to Sen. Joe Donnelly, and held an impromptu prayer for their Republican colleagues. When the GOP team returned to the Capitol, a flood of support greeted them. Rep. Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican and a practicing psychologist, offered counseling to his colleagues.
But the process of coming to grips with the attack was only beginning for lawmakers Wednesday afternoon. "I do think our world changed a little bit today in how we operate in Congress,” Duncan said.
Republican Rep. Martha McSally, former Air Force fighter pilot who represents Gabby Giffords’ district in Arizona, has been the recipient of death threats. Last month, the FBI arrested a Tucson man who left a series of threatening voicemails directed at the congresswoman.
“I don’t want to politicize this, but I do think we need to take a hard look inside ourselves as to how we are behaving towards each other in our sincerely held beliefs on policy issues,” McSally told reporters after the briefing.
“We can have a discussion on the health-care debate, but when you have people doing ‘die-ins’ and basically, they’re accusing me of getting up in the morning trying to figure out how to make their family member die. That’s not what’s in my heart,” she said, referring to activists who are protesting the GOP health-care bill. “I put my life on the line to protect our freedoms and I’m here to serve.”
“If you don’t think there are others out there who are unstable or on the verge of violence who are listening to all of that… I have to operate in the political circus, but I’m not going to breathe life into it. I’m not going to stir it.”
New York Rep. Joseph Crowley, chairman of the Democratic caucus, noted how threats are part and parcel of being a member of Congress. “There’s no fool-proof plan in guaranteeing the safety of everyone,” Crowley said. “It’s part of job to try to draw attention to ourselves, it’s part of what we do, so we have to deal with the ramifications, both positively and negatively.”
The congressman from Queens said members are often advised on how to operate safely, and have been told, even before this shooting incident, to exercise caution when on the Capitol Plaza, for example. But the heightened tenor of discourse, he said, has added another layer of concern.
“There has been tone and rhetoric, and I think we do have a responsibility to be mindful of that,” he said. “And I think it starts at the top, as well. It’s the president on down. We all have a role to play here.”
Correction: Rep. Joseph Crowley was erroneously identified as Michael Crowley in an earlier version of this story.