(The Hill) — The attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) husband Paul Pelosi has been met with finger-pointing over who’s to blame for political violence, fueling partisan tensions in the week before the midterm elections that will decide if the Speaker and her fellow Democrats keep or lose control of the House.
The brutal assault has kindled the already fraught debate over crime, law enforcement and the repercussions of political speech — issues that were already front and center on the campaign trail this cycle, particularly in the wake of last year’s attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Each political party, as usual, is not on the same page.
In the eyes of Democrats, the attack marked the predictable consequence of right-wing rhetoric that’s targeted Pelosi for decades — an extension of the Democrats’ campaign warnings about the threat of “MAGA Republican extremism.”
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) on Monday tweeted that the attack was “the logical result of a Republican Party that has targeted the Speaker and other prominent women in public life for over a decade now,” sharing screenshots of ominous campaign ads targeting Pelosi.
Republicans, by contrast, blamed the general, post-pandemic increase in certain crimes — and suggested, by extension, that Democrats were at fault for going too soft on those who break the law.
Complicating the debate, the Republican response has been clouded by mixed messages, highlighting the sometimes conflicting pressures facing different GOP factions in the era of former President Trump.
Following the assault of the 82-year-old Paul Pelosi in the couple’s San Francisco home, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) quickly condemned the violence in no uncertain terms, saying he was “horrified and disgusted” by the tragic incident. Yet Trump remained silent for days. And his eldest son, Don, Jr., took to Twitter to mock the attack, suggesting a hammer — the weapon allegedly used in the assault — would make a good Halloween accessory.
Across the Capitol, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who’s hoping to win the Speaker’s gavel if the chamber changes hands next year, condemned violence in a Fox News interview on Sunday, saying “what happened to Paul Pelosi is wrong” and that he communicated sympathies to Pelosi over text after he learned about the attack.
Many GOP leaders, including McCarthy and Trump, linked the Pelosi assault to crime rates and policies in general – an issue that has been a major theme in Republican midterm campaigns.
“With Paul Pelosi, that’s a terrible thing, and with all of them, that’s a terrible thing,” Trump told conservative Spanish language outlet Americano Media over the weekend. “Look at what happened to San Francisco generally. Look at what’s happening in Chicago. It was far worse than Afghanistan.”
The suspect, identified by police as 42-year-old David DePape, did not appear to attack randomly but was looking for Nancy Pelosi specifically and asking where she was, according to a source briefed on the matter. Online posts by DePape questioned the 2020 election results, defended Trump, and promoted QAnon conspiracy theories.
The Justice Department on Monday charged DePape on two federal count of assault and attempted kidnapping.
DePape also had a history of pro-nudity activism, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, fueling right-wing arguments that the attacker was actually a leftist and spurring baseless conspiracy theories about him and Paul Pelosi. Police later said that DePape and Paul Pelosi did not know each other.
Beyond the online bickering about the attacker’s personal political beliefs, Republicans have pushed back on Democratic arguments that right-wing rhetoric fueled the attack by saying political violence is an issue on both sides.
Republicans over the weekend referred back to New York gubernatorial candidate and current Rep. Lee Zeldin (R) being accosted by a man as he spoke at a political rally earlier this year, and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) being shot when a gunman fired at Republicans practicing for a charity baseball game in 2017.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who had six ribs broken in an attack by his next-door neighbor in 2017, responded to the Pelosi attack by referencing a since-deleted tweet from Pelosi’s daughter in 2020 that said his neighbor was right.
“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.
The finger-pointing and score-keeping on political violence comes as 80% of Democratic and Republican voters say that the other party poses a threat that could destroy America as we know it if not stopped, according to a recent NBC poll.
“The attack on Paul Pelosi is a product of our coarsening political rhetoric and shouldn’t be part of it. Any time there is any political violence, or the threat of it, the ultra-partisans go into ‘other side’ mode – my side is good and righteous and the other side is evil,” Republican strategist Doug Heye told The Hill in an email. “The reality is political violence can come from everywhere and is happening on a bipartisan basis. We can all do better, instead of spinning each other up as our discourse spirals further down the drain.”
Pelosi, more than any other Democrat in the Capitol, is accustomed to being targeted by Republicans, who have spent decades demonizing the long-time Democratic leader as a wealthy, San Francisco liberal who’s out of touch with much of the country. That strategy has, at times, been successful, riling up the GOP base and forcing vulnerable Democrats in battleground districts to distance themselves from the party’s top figure.
But the GOP attacks have also frequently jumped from politics to the personal, depicting Pelosi not merely as a political rival of differing views, but as a menacing “enemy” who, left to her own devices, would dismantle the freedoms Americans hold dear. Increasingly, those attacks have featured threatening rhetoric or allusions to violence. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), for instance, has accused Pelosi of being “guilty of treason” — a crime, Greene noted, that’s “punishable by death.”
Pelosi’s Democratic allies have long warned that such violent political speech will inevitably lead to actual physical violence — an argument that’s being amplified in the wake of Friday’s attack on Paul Pelosi.
“This is just the combination of the demonization of Nancy Pelosi by many folks on the other side of the aisle,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) said Sunday in an interview with CNN. “This type of dangerous violent rhetoric is going to lead to the natural result, which is violence. And that’s what happened with Paul Pelosi.”
Partisan relations and day-to-day activities on Capitol Hill have been rocked by political violence and threats. Most prominently, last year’s attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob injured more than 150 law enforcement officers and resulted in several deaths, including police officers who would later take their lives.
Just a month after the Jan. 6 attack, the House voted to remove Greene from her committee assignments when it was revealed that, before coming to Congress, she had liked social media posts promoting the assassination of prominent Democrats, including Pelosi.
Nine months later, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) was stripped of his committee posts after he promoted an animated video depicting him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a national liberal figure who is frequently the target of violent threats.
McCarthy has vowed to return both Greene and Gosar to their committee posts next year if Republicans take control of the House in the midterms.