CNN on Thursday aired harrowing audio of the kind of intimidation and threats that an increasing number of Republican lawmakers says they’ve faced over their opposition to the speakership bid of Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). And it’s ugly. The caller leaves a message for an unnamed lawmaker’s wife and, while repeatedly qualifying that they aren’t talking about violence, they do threaten to harass the woman endlessly in public.
The caller says the woman’s husband must vote “Jim Jordan or more conservative, or you’re going to be [expletive] molested like you can’t ever imagine.”
The predominant narrative is that these threats — which Jordan has now rebuked but for which some members blame him — failed or even backfired. Jordan lost a third straight vote on Friday before the GOP conference bowed to reality and voted against proceeding with him as its speaker designate.
While some GOP lawmakers on the verge of retirement have in the past occasionally decried the scourge of threats in the Trump era, we’re seeing it suddenly from a whole bunch of lawmakers who still have political skin in the game.
I argued Wednesday that this is a significant moment — when so many members with their careers intact unite to repudiate these threats. It has occasioned a long-overdue conversation about their role.
But that conversation also should include a recognition that these threats and intimidation can work, and probably have.
It’s true that more than 20 lawmakers have stood up to the alleged intimidation by continuing to vote against Jordan. Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) remained dug in despite revealing that his wife felt compelled to sleep with a loaded gun. Rep. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.) cited the bullying as a reason he flipped his vote against Jordan on the second ballot and wouldn’t go back. Others said flatly that they won’t give in to threats, casting their votes as a principled stand against the intimidation.
But we’ve also seen members who swore they wouldn’t vote for Jordan ultimately do so. Most who had voted privately in the GOP conference assuring they wouldn’t back Jordan — 55 Republicans — ultimately did. Some had their office phone numbers plastered all over social media after they signaled their opposition and before they flipped.
It’s difficult to know whether that was because of intimidation they were getting or anticipating; it’s also possible they simply wanted to unite as a conference and/or got assurances from Jordan. But the problem with threats and intimidation is that the real impact is often unspoken. Nobody wants to broadcast that they gave in or to inflame those who have already demonstrated a willingness to threaten. And until people speak up, you just don’t know.
That said, we do have instances in which Republicans have cited these things having an actual impact on votes. And to hear certain Republicans tell it, they might have played a significant role in the political course of the Republican Party in recent years.
We’ve recapped some of this before, but it’s worth running through again at this moment:
Retiring Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) in recently published comments recounted how, during Trump’s post-Jan. 6 impeachment, a member of GOP leadership was leaning toward voting to convict him. Then the senator’s colleagues cited their personal safety, even invoking their children, the Atlantic’s McKay Coppins reported in his new book. The senator voted to acquit.In announcing his retirement, now-former congressman Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) cited a deluge of threats after his vote to impeach Trump.Now-former congressman Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) suggested that the violence on Jan. 6 also weighed heavily on not just impeachment votes but votes to certify the election, which more than two-thirds of House Republicans opposed. “They knew in their heart of hearts that they should’ve voted to certify, but some had legitimate concerns about the safety of their families,” Meijer said. “They felt that that vote would put their families in danger.”Former congresswoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said that during Trump’s impeachment “there were members who told me that they were afraid for their own security — afraid, in some instances, for their lives.” She cited how “members of Congress aren’t able to cast votes, or feel that they can’t, because of their own security.”The Republican majority leader of the Pennsylvania state Senate said of signing a letter backing Trump’s attempt to overturn the results in that state: “If I would say to you, ‘I don’t want to do it,’ I’d get my house bombed tonight.”
The effort to overturn the election ultimately failed; the two-thirds of House Republicans’ votes were in vain.
But to pretend that the actions of lawmakers didn’t matter is to ignore what happened on Jan. 6. The fact is that Trump’s quest to overturn the election was built upon an attempt to manufacture legitimacy — something to which the evidence in Trump’s indictments has repeatedly pointed. Republicans didn’t really echo Trump’s bizarre electoral fraud claims, but they did offer a watered-down version of the argument in the service of giving him backup.
By even pretending this was a serious effort, people became inflamed. And to this day, as many as 7 in 10 Republicans falsely believe the 2020 election was illegitimate, which is something with untold consequences for our democracy. It’s completely valid to posit that the fear these Republicans have cited their colleagues feeling led them to legitimize Trump’s efforts, which continues to reverberate in our body politic.
Such is also the case with impeachment. But in that case, it’s increasingly valid to ask whether intimidation actually saved Trump from conviction. Never before had so many members of a president’s party voted to impeach and remove him. The effort came up 10 votes shy of convicting Trump in the Senate, but many Republicans rested their acquittal votes on a technicality (that Trump was no longer president) rather than on the merits of the case.
Given all we’ve seen this week and all that the Republicans above have said, it’s hardly ridiculous to believe there might have been more senators like the one Romney described whose votes were influenced by fear.
We’ll never know if the absence of that fear might have led to a different outcome; members surely feared for their careers as well, and some might have sincerely believed Trump’s actions didn’t qualify for conviction. But we weren’t that far away from a situation in which Trump would be convicted and possibly barred from waging his current campaign for a return to the presidency.
And the events of this week should probably lead to some introspection from Republicans about how they’ve allowed this situation to fester — and even made questions like this seem legitimate to ask.