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Senators discuss death threats amid Supreme Court nomination fight

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is escorted by U.S. Capitol Police past waiting reporters trying to ask about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018. Sen. Collins, whose vote on Kavanaugh is uncertain, was leaving the Senate Special Committee on Aging which she chairs. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Republican senators met behind closed doors Tuesday to discuss advancing the Judge Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination to a final vote. They also addressed concerns from a number of members who are facing an increasingly threatening environment.

For more than two years, the country has become more politically polarized and civility has been on a downward trajectory. In recent weeks, a number of members of Congress sounded the alarm after receiving death threats related to the Supreme Court nomination and allegations of sexual assault.

Members of Congress are no strangers to public hostility over hot-button issues like health care, immigration, civil rights or war, but some argued the current atmosphere is different.

"There's a lot of unprecedented activity taking place," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. At the Tuesday meeting, he noted some senators expressed a previously unseen sense of "danger" about the political atmosphere.

"We've been through this in the past, but this is the worst it's been since I've been here," he continued. "I think we need to recognize that it's not going to go away with the final determination of whether [Kavanaugh] is going to be on the Supreme Court. There's something underlying there that we're experiencing throughout the country right now that we've got to figure out a way to address."

Both Kavanaugh and his accuser, Dr. Christine Blase Ford have been threatened along with their families and others caught in the political maelstrom. Senators who have taken a strong side either for or against Kavanaugh and those who have yet to decide how they will vote have also been targeted.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., a member of the Judiciary Committee confirmed there has been an uptick in worrying activity around the Supreme Court nomination, prompting a broader discussion about member security. "This is not the first of a kind," he said of members receiving threats from the public. "The level of intensity is probably unlike anything I've seen in three and a half years."

Capitol Police and the House and Senate Sergeants at Arms were not able to provide information on the volume of threats members are facing.

Earlier this year, the House Sergeant at Arms, Paul Irving, reported that members of Congress "received an unprecedented number of threats and threatening communications within the last year."

More than half of the members of Congress (260), requested additional security in the bitter aftermath of the 2016 presidential election after House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., was shot at a congressional baseball practice.

As tempers flare around Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court, there have been almost daily reports of politicians and public figures receiving threats.

On Tuesday, two staffers from Republican Sen. Ted Cruz's Houston, Texas campaign office were sent to the hospital after receiving an envelope with a suspicious white powdery substance. They were released shortly after and first responders confirmed the powder was not toxic.

That same day, two envelopes with trace amounts of ricin were sent to the Pentagon and White House, addressed to President Donald Trump and Navy Chief of Operations Adm. John Richardson. Police in Logan, Utah have taken a suspect into custody and have not reported a motive.

In another incident Tuesday, Maryland Republican Rep. Andy Harris was reportedly assaulted in his Capitol Hill office as he tried to shut the door on a group of protesters supporting marijuana legalization. In a statement, Harris' office said, "Today's aggression by protesters who disagree with my position on the legalization of recreational marijuana demonstrates the problem with political discourse today."

Just one week earlier, activists protesting Judge Kavanaugh's nomination confronted Cruz and his wife in a Washington, D.C. restaurant. The couple quickly left as the protesters chanted, "We believe survivors!" and shouted down the senator as "fascist, racist, anti-gay."

Since the incident, the restaurant, Fiola's, has hired security guards. In an email to customers, the owners said they have personally received death threats and the restaurant is being "inundated" with calls from people taunting staff or threatening to destroy the establishment. "We would have never thought such a thing was possible in the restaurant business," they wrote.

On the Senate floor last week, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., acknowledged that he was receiving death threats because he advocated for a hearing with Kavanaugh's accuser, Christine Blasey Ford. "For that offense of allowing Dr. Ford to be heard, for this offense, me and my family would be 'taken out," he said.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who is still undecided in her vote on Kavanaugh, reported receiving "some pretty ugly voicemails, threats, terrible things said to my staff" in a recent interview with WVOM radio. She described the nomination fight as "a very ugly process and I think that’s very unfortunate for everyone involved."

On the Democratic side, a spokesperson for California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee and point of contact for Dr. Ford, said the office has been dealing with threats since Ford's sexual assault allegations became public. McClatchy News reported that Feinstein has gotten a large number of calls that "have included threats of bodily and sexual harm against staff."

A handful of other Senate Democrats said they were unaware of specific threats against their colleagues and condemned the behavior as "very troubling" and "wrong."

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. stressed, "Threats against anybody are unacceptable."

Outside Capitol Hill, Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh have both faced threats that they said have disrupted their lives, as have other individuals who have been named in the sexual assault allegations.

In her testimony last week, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford said because of the death threats, she and her family had to move out of their house and have been living in "various secure locales, with guards."

Kavanaugh also testified that he and his family and friends being threatened and directed blame at Democratic senators who had criticized him as "complicit in evil" and said he "will threaten the lives of millions of Americans for decades to come."

"I understand the passions of the moment, but I would say to those senators, your words have meaning," Kavanaugh said. Claiming the aggressive rhetoric gave rise to the threats of physical violence, Kavanaugh warned, "You sowed the wind for decades to come. I fear that the whole country will reap the whirlwind."

There have been faint calls for civility on both sides of the aisle, warning the country is becoming more divided and more volatile. An annual survey found the overwhelming majority of Americans, 93 percent, believe there is a civility problem in the country. Other polls show America becoming hyper-partisan, with many tending to view the other party as politically and morally wrong.

It is not clear whether the most agitated parts of the American public are ready to listen or whether the leadership in the White House and on Capitol Hill are willing to de-escalate.

Sen. Flake warned that political leaders are responsible for creating the volatile atmosphere and now have to work to diffuse it. "We lit a match, my colleagues. The question is, do we appreciate how close the powder keg is?"


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