'There's a lot of fear': Capitol Hill anxious as shooting blamed on America's political divide

Politicians in Washington are used to hate mail and harsh words, but the bloodshed on a Virginia baseball diamond has taken tensions in the U.S. capitol to new levels.

Tensions rise even higher after apparent targeting of Republican congressmen

Representative Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee speaks with the media at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, following Wednesday's shooting. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

The email threat landed in a congressional inbox on Wednesday, just hours after a gunman opened fire at Republican lawmakers running baseball drills.

"Did you NOT see this coming?" it read, referencing the shootings of five people, including a high-ranking congressman, who that morning were practising for a congressional charity ballgame in Virginia.

There's a lot of fear of even doing town halls.— Barry  Loudermilk, Republican congressman  

But no, legislators on Capitol Hill told reporters, they hadn't seen this coming. Not this kind of bloodshed. Not even in spite of a deepening political rift in America that's causing lawmakers to question whether ideological divisions are swerving towards a potentially grave outcome.

Legislative staffers are used to electronic hate mail. This one, dropped into the inbox of Representative Claudia Tenney of New York, included the menacing subject line "One down, 216 to go…" — an apparent reference to the 217 House Republicans who voted to pass a bill seeking to undo the Affordable Care Act.

Its timing, coming after Wednesday's shooting, made it all the more disturbing.

Bullets struck House majority whip Steve Scalise as well as a lobbyist, a staffer and a Capitol Police officer. Another officer was injured. Scalise was still in critical condition on Wednesday evening, but, along with the other victims was expected to recover. The shooter, identified as James Hodgkinson of Illinois, was killed after a shootout.

The incident rattled Hill staffers as lawmakers, some still wearing team jerseys and holding their cleats, returned to their offices.

In Statuary Hall, Scalise's teammate, Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee, told CBC News he was doing his post-practice stretches shortly before the shots began. He took cover in a dugout.

"It's sad. I always felt safe at baseball practice," he said, adding that he hoped, if anything, Americans across the aisle would "pull together" in spite of ideological differences.

Lawmakers noted the irony of an act of violence committed against elected officials taking part in the annual congressional baseball game, considered to be one of the few bipartisan traditions left in Washington.

Members of Alexandria, Va.,'s police and sheriff's office near the location of the shooting. The sheriff's office says the Federal Bureau of Investigation is the lead investigating agency. (Jason Burles/CBC)

Florida congressman Ron DeSantis left morning practice about 10 minutes before the shooting and believes he had an "abrasive" encounter with the gunman before departing. He was in the parking lot, he said, when a man they later recognized as Hodgkinson, approached him and congressman Jeff Duncan to ask if players on the field were Democrats or Republicans.

"In hindsight, it was a little strange," he told CBC News, still in shock.

Hodgkinson was a former volunteer for Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders's campaign. His social media accounts were filled with anti-government rants.

DeSantis said the circumstances suggest the assault might have been politically motivated "not just against congressmen, but against Republican congressmen."

"Hating somebody that disagrees with you about political issues is not healthy for society," he said. "Be passionate. Argue your case. But if you have a different view about the role of government than me, is that a reason for me to wish you ill personally?"

U.S. Capitol Police keep watch on Capitol Hill. Two officers were among those wounded in the shooting. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

Safety concerns

Just outside the floor of the House, where applause leaked through the doors during a bipartisan unity meeting and prayer for the shooting victims, Republican Barry Loudermilk said he feared the intensifying political rhetoric could be boiling over into something lethal.

Loudermilk, who recalled seeing bark flying off an oak tree behind him when the shots began, pointed to the hostile tone of town hall meetings as a potential safety concern. Constituents in recent weeks have been confronting representatives to protest President Donald Trump's leadership.

"This is exactly why there's a lot of fear of even doing town halls at this point," he said. "Some of the things this guy is posting on Facebook, we get the same things and even worse."

Since Trump's election in January, Democratic congressman Joe Crowley said the country feels more divided than ever.

"The level of discourse, the level of stress that is unwarranted and unnecessary that's taken place over the last five months is like something I've never experienced in all my political years."

Police tape by the field where a shooting took place at the practice of the Republican congressional baseball team at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park in Alexandria, Va., on June 14, 2017. (Jason Burles/CBC)

'Pitchforks and torches time'

But the disunity began long ago during the campaign, with calls for the arrest and prosecution of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Veiled threats of violence pervaded the ending of the campaign, as Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, a vocal Trump supporter, endorsed violent resistance — "pitchforks and torches time" — should Clinton beat Trump.

Illinois Representative Rodney Davis, who was up at bat when the gunfire started, told CNN on Wednesday the ratcheting up of incendiary partisan talk on both sides must stop.

"We can protest our differences, but let's settle it at the ballot box," he said. "I've been yelled at and spat on walking the streets of Illinois."

Nerves on edge

But are the political differences escalating into something dangerous?

"Apparently so," Crowley said. "When someone takes to a baseball field [to attack] members of Congress in a remote part of the capital region, you had to do a little reconnaissance here. You had to know where this practice was going to take place. That's frightful."

While nerves remain on edge in the Capitol, legislators agreed Thursday's charity game should proceed as planned at Nationals Park. The event has already raised more than $600,000.

As for whether the shooting might have the effect of cauterizing a political wound, Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas, who was fielding ground balls on first base when the shooting started, said he hoped the current camaraderie would persist.

The last time a shooting targeted a member of congress was the attempted assassination of Arizona Representative Gabby Giffords in 2011. Asked if this might be a turning point in the level of discourse between Republicans and Democrats, Conaway was circumspect.

"I don't know," he said. "It didn't when Gabby got shot. But maybe we'll learn from this one. We'll see."

About the Author

Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong