Commentary by Phil Wegmann originally published by RealClearPolitics.com
The would-be assassin had a knife and a gun and, in the end, cold feet: When Nicholas Roske saw the U.S. marshals standing outside the home of Brett Kavanaugh, the 26-year-old Californian called off his plan to kill the Supreme Court justice and phoned the police to turn himself in instead.
It wasn’t just good luck, though, that prevented a tragedy that would have destroyed a family and roiled America’s civic life even further. It was no accident that armed U.S. marshals happened to be in the exact right place at exactly the right time. No, the fact that federal law enforcement were in a position to be “instrumental in this person not accomplishing that horrible deed,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told RealClearPolitics, was due – in no small part – to the diligence of the Biden administration. “One of the reasons” the plot failed was because the Department of Justice took threats against Kavanaugh’s life “very seriously from the beginning.”
Republicans and Democrats have been locked in a bitter battle over abortion since that beginning, when a draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade leaked. And while both major political parties profess to reject mob rule, they simultaneously accuse the other of hypocrisy amidst the growing risk of political violence.
Monday was no different.
The GOP collectively cried foul when Jean-Pierre told RCP that Biden had already denounced threats against sitting judges and would continue to do so. “Democrat leaders, including Joe Biden, have refused to condemn the assassination attempt against Justice Brett Kavanaugh,” replied Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel in a statement to RCP.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told RCP in a separate statement, “It’s an outrage that President Biden found the time to appear on a late-night comedy show and predict a ‘mini revolution’ if the Supreme Court doesn’t rule his way on abortion, yet remains silent on the attempted murder of Justice Brett Kavanaugh.”
This raised an immediate question, one that Republicans have happily raised in the press: Does a statement from the president count if he doesn’t actually say the words himself?
The president didn’t bring up the assassination plot during his interview with ABC late-night host Jimmy Kimmel last Wednesday. He didn’t work that topic into a speech about inflation two days later, either, though he managed to preface those same Friday remarks by denouncing the Jan. 6 riots as “a brutal assault on our democracy.” Biden spoke publicly this week, but again, nothing about Kavanaugh on Monday.
And yet, the same day the plot was foiled, Jean-Pierre was explicit.
“The president condemns the actions of this individual in the strongest terms and is grateful to law enforcement for quickly taking him into custody,” the president’s spokeswoman told reporters aboard Air Force One. “As the president has consistently made clear, public officials, including judges, must be able to do their jobs without concern for their personal safety or that of their families. And any threats of violence or attempts to intimidate justices have no place in our society. He has said that himself, and we have been forceful from the podium many times.”
These debates over who condemned what political violence when and whether or not to a sufficient degree, are ongoing. So are the threats. The day after law enforcement took the would-be Kavanaugh assassin into custody, the Jan. 6 committee held its first prime-time hearing on last year’s breach of the U.S. Capitol. Taken together, the two events would neatly encapsulate the current era of discord – that is, if political violence didn’t continue to make headlines.
Over the weekend, a crisis pregnancy center in Gresham, Oregon, was firebombed. “If abortions aren’t safe,” the arsonists scrawled on the walls before setting the blaze, “then neither are you.” The centers staffed by anti-abortion volunteers often provide resources for women facing unplanned pregnancies, such as adoption counseling and maternal care. Three other centers in Illinois, New York, and Wisconsin were also targets of arson this year.
“We have seen an uptick of that type of arson and bombing, or attempt to bomb, as we saw just recently over the weekend,” Jean-Pierre told RCP, adding that the administration takes such attacks “very seriously” and that they were “something clearly the DOJ is looking into.”
Less clear: whether the White House believes protestors ought to picket the homes of judges in an attempt to influence pending cases. The pro-abortion group Ruth Sent Us posted a map of conservative justices’ residences, and a steady stream of activists have subsequently set up shop there since early last month. The thwarted assassin later told authorities that he found the address of the Kavanaugh family online.
Asked if the president condoned that kind of protest, Jean-Pierre told RCP on Monday, “We have not weighed in on where people should or should not protest.”
“We have said that all Americans have the right to peacefully protest, whatever their point of view,” she added, “but that attempts at intimidation and violence are totally unacceptable, and that they need to be condemned anytime they happen, regardless of who does it.”
And yet, even as Republicans warned of unintended consequences, the White House did seem to offer at least tacit endorsement of demonstrating at the homes of conservative justices, a form of protest banned by federal law. Jen Psaki, the former White House press secretary, told reporters on May 10 that “the protests outside of judge’s houses have not turned violent,” adding that “just because people are passionate, it does not mean they are violent.”
“I know that there’s an outrage right now, I guess, about protests that have been peaceful to date – and we certainly continue to encourage that – outside of judges’ homes. And that’s the president’s position,” Psaki said at that same briefing. What was hypocritical, in the administration view, was how the Republicans who said nothing about protesting school boards were raising the alarm over Supreme Court protests. She said, “The silence is pretty deafening.”
The law, meanwhile, appears black and white. Per Section 1507 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code, it is illegal to protest outside a “residence occupied or used by a judge” if the expressed intent is “interfering with, obstructing, or impeding the administration of justice.” Activists are undeterred. “Don’t like me at your house?” read the sign of one picketer, “Stay out of my uterus.”
Congress has taken up legislation to increase security for Supreme Court justices and their families in line with the kind of protections that other high-ranking officials in the executive receive. The Senate unanimously agreed to that bill on May 9, and Jean-Pierre told RCP that Biden supports such legislation. Minority Leader McCarthy, however, blasted House Speaker Pelosi for her inaction on that bill, “which she had blocked three times.”
Pelosi told reporters that the justices, who have received 24/7 security since May, are protected. “Nobody is in danger over the weekend,” she said last Thursday, “because of our not having a bill.”
Phil Wegmann with RealClearPolitics.com