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Attack on Paul Pelosi puts focus on political violence

Attack comes after other members of Congress have faced violence or threats, along with Supreme Court justices and other government officials

Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, right, with her husband Paul Pelosi, center, attend a Holy Mass for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul lead by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Basilica in June.
Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, right, with her husband Paul Pelosi, center, attend a Holy Mass for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul lead by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Basilica in June. (Stefano Costantino/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

An attack Friday against Paul Pelosi, the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., reawakened a growing concern in Washington about violent threats against high-ranking figures in politics and government.

The Democratic leader was not home at the time, her office said. The intruder was searching for her in the couple’s San Francisco home, shouting “Where is Nancy, where is Nancy?” before assaulting Paul Pelosi with a hammer, The Associated Press reported.

Pelosi, 82, underwent what the speaker’s office described as “successful surgery to repair a skull fracture and serious injuries to his right arm and hands” after being taken to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. He is expected to make a full recovery.

San Francisco Police Chief William Scott said at a press briefing the suspect, David Depape, was in custody and the motive is still being investigated, according to the AP.

“Our officers observed Mr. Pelosi and the suspect both holding a hammer,” Scott said. “The suspect pulled the hammer away from Mr. Pelosi and violently assaulted him with it. Our officers immediately tackled the suspect, disarmed him, took him into custody, requested emergency backup and rendered medical aid.”

Scott said Depape was being charged with attempted homicide, assault with a deadly weapon, elder abuse and other charges. The U.S. Capitol Police said it was assisting with the investigation.

“The assailant’s motive is still under investigation. But political violence has no place in a well-functioning democracy,” Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., tweeted. “Diversity of opinion is fundamental: we must learn to disagree while respecting the other’s right to hold different views.”

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer in a news release said what happened to Pelosi “was a dastardly act.”

The attack comes after other members of Congress have faced violence or threats — along with Supreme Court justices and other government officials — and lawmakers have discussed legislation to make it more difficult for attackers to find their information online.

Also on Friday, prosecutors announced a 22-year-old Pennsylvania man pleaded guilty in New York federal court to making a series of calls on Aug. 29 to the office of California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, with threats to kill him and three staff members. Joshua Hall told the staffers “he had a lot of AR-15s; that he wanted to shoot the Congressman; that he intended to come to the Congressman’s office with firearms; and that if he saw the Congressman, he would kill him,” an indictment states.

“MAGA political violence is at peak level in America,” Swalwell tweeted about the Hall guilty plea. “Somebody is going to get killed. I urge GOP leaders to denounce the violence.”

Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., who is currently running for governor, was attacked by a knife-wielding assailant at a campaign rally in July. Republican Sen. Susan Collins told The New York Times an unknown visitor smashed a storm window at her Maine home, and she “wouldn’t be surprised if a senator or House member were killed.”

A man repeatedly showed up outside the home of Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., armed with a semiautomatic handgun and shouting threats and profanities, the Times reported in a story that found lawmakers were spending their official or campaign accounts to defend themselves.

This week, three men were found guilty in a 2020 kidnapping plot against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. And Congress and the Justice Department have discussed threats to election workers ahead of the midterm elections in November.

Previous concerns

Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, at a Judiciary Committee meeting last year, said threats to members of Congress “are ongoing and escalating.” At the same meeting, Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar pointed out that some higher-ranking senators have security — while others don’t.

Cruz at the time pointed to the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords at an event in Arizona, the 2017 shooting of House Republican Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana at a congressional baseball game practice, and a 2017 attack on Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul by his next-door neighbor.

“Tragically, I think it’s only a matter of time before we see another act of violence in the same tradition that we have seen multiple times,” Cruz said. “I’m confident every member of this committee has received multiple death threats. That is unfortunately a component of serving in elected office now.”

Federal judges have also raised concerns for years about safety, especially after the death of the son of federal Judge Esther Salas, Daniel Anderl, in a 2020 attack at the family’s New Jersey home.

This week, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said at an event that the leak of a draft opinion last year to overturn a constitutional right to abortion made conservative justices “targets for assassination,” and pointed to the arrest of a California man who faces charges that he traveled to the Maryland home of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh with an alleged plan to break in and kill him.

The draft opinion that would overturn abortion rulings in Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood sparked a wave of protests outside justices’ homes.

“The leak also made those of us who were thought to be in the majority and supportive overruling Roe and Casey targets for assassination because it gave people a rational reason to think they could prevent that from happening by killing one of us,” Alito said at a Heritage Foundation event.

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland deployed U.S. marshals to provide around-the-clock protection of justices following the May leak of the draft decision. And in June, Congress sent a bill to President Joe Biden to provide round-the-clock police protection for Supreme Court justices and their families.

Judges, not lawmakers

The Senate now appears poised to pass a measure that would allow federal judges to scrub their personal information from the internet, a push that has stalled for years over whether it should also include members of Congress.

The language from a separate bill on the issue was included in the Senate’s latest version of the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2023, in a substitute amendment expected to be considered in November.

The bill had wide support from Democrats and Republicans for more than two years, as lawmakers have grown concerned over increased political violence, particularly directed against judges.

But efforts to advance the bill on the Senate floor were repeatedly blocked by Paul, who sought to add similar protection for lawmakers to the measure.

“I agree with the spirit of the bill. I agree with the letter of the bill, but really it should be that judicial folks are protected as well as Congress,” Paul said on the Senate floor when objecting to the bill’s passage in May.

On Friday, Paul pointed to a now-deleted tweet from Pelosi’s daughter about the attack on him.

“No one deserves to be assaulted. Unlike Nancy Pelosi’s daughter who celebrated my assault, I condemn this attack and wish Mr. Pelosi a speedy recovery,” Paul tweeted.

Congress has also grappled with threats to election workers in the wake of the 2020 election. Both House and Senate committees have held hearings on threats to election administrators and other workers, including the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attacks.

The executive branch also has acted on the issue. In 2021, the Department of Justice created an Election Threats Task Force to “to address the rise in threats against election workers, administrators, officials, and others associated with the electoral process.”

Michael Macagnone contributed to this report.

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