- Threats and “concerning statements” tracked by Capitol Police more than doubled from 2017 to 2021
- Study: 3% of Americans willing to threaten, injure, or kill to advance a political objective
- Documented FBI investigations rarely result in prosecutions
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has investigated a series of threats of violence against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dating back nearly a decade, although federal prosecutors rarely pursued charges.
Records released to USA TODAY through the Freedom of Information Act show the Capitol Police passed on threats to the FBI at least four times between 2013 and 2017. Capitol Police’s Threat Assessment Section handles most threats but escalates some of the most urgent and serious to the FBI.
While not comprehensive, the records offer a window into some past threats the speaker has faced, which were typical for both Democratic and Republican party leaders.
On Friday, police say a man broke into Pelosi’s San Francisco home and attacked her 82-year-old husband Paul. Authorities say the hammer-wielding attacker was targeting the longtime California lawmaker and planned to break her kneecaps as a warning to other members of Congress.
The suspect reportedly called out, “Where is Nancy” during the attack that left Paul Pelosi hospitalized with a skull fracture.
In 2017, USA TODAY began requesting all investigations from cases the Capitol Police passed on to the FBI to gauge the level and tenor of threats against members of Congress. Frequent targets included leadership – Chuck Schumer, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan – as well as lightning-rod representatives such as Rashida Tlaib and Elizabeth Warren.
In USA TODAY’s sampling of federal records, which spans decades, more than 80 members of Congress have been seriously threatened. Based on the thousands of pages of investigative information sheets provided, those threats arrived in a variety of ways, from unhinged social media posts to letters and phone calls.
One threat from 2013 against Pelosi and other top Democrats on Facebook spawned an FBI investigation. “Your time is about up scumbags,” a New York man wrote on his page according to an FBI affidavit, “Your dirt nap is coming very soon.”
Police executed a search warrant on the man’s home and found rifles, a bayonet, piles of ammunition, a sword, a knuckle knife and flak jacket. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison.
Two years later, Capitol Police surfaced tweets naming Pelosi, including: “I’m gonna stab u” and “I will break her neck.” It’s unclear if that person was ever charged but the FBI visited and seized a laptop in the case.
In 2017, a series of threatening voicemails left for Pelosi prompted an investigation by both Capitol Police and the FBI. Special agents paid the man a visit in Denver where he confessed to being drunk and leaving the messages. Assistant U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute.
Prosecutors generally decline to prosecute if threats are not deemed imminent or actionable. The FBI relies on its scale of “mobilization indicators” when assessing threats, according to Garen Wintemute, a University of California, Davis professor who studies political violence.
Later in 2017, a Capitol Police watch commander flagged a series of threatening tweets aimed at Democrats, “Anybody else jacked up and ready to start killing liberals?” the user wrote.
“I think it’s time for Nancy Pelosi Obama Hillary Schumer and the rest of the progressive nut bags to be taken out and shot in the head.” The FBI looped in the U.S. Secret Service and FBI in Detroit, Florida, Minneapolis and Vermont. It requested and received back subscriber information from Twitter for IP session logs and the email address of the user, who was located in Florida.
Eight months after that investigation was opened the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tampa declined prosecution. “The AUSA would consider prosecuting if he acts up again,” according to the internal FBI documents.
In July, Wintemute’s group published a study showing approximately 3% of Americans were “very or completely willing to threaten, injure, or kill another person to advance a political objective” — and another last week tying extreme political ideology to the consideration of violence.
“Some days it feels like being the bowman on the Titanic, ‘Hey, look at the iceberg,'” Wintemute said in light of the Pelosi attack. “A lot of us have been saying this for years: This is coming. It’s here; we shouldn’t be surprised.”
Wintemute believes threats have been treated more seriously in the last two years under the Biden Administration, which has labeled domestic extremism a leading threat to the U.S. His surveys also found an escalation of potential violence against specific groups, including federal elected officials.
The number of threats and so-called “concerning statements” tracked by the Capitol Police more than doubled, from nearly 4,000 in 2017 to 9,625 in 2021, according to department data.
Protesters who breeched the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 singled out Pelosi among their targets, some of them entering her office, others threatening to shoot or hang her.
In the aftermath of that incident, a Capitol Police examination of operations last year cited the rising threat number.
“Provided the unique threat environment we currently live in, the department is confident the number of cases will continue to increase,” the agency said in a May 2021 statement.
So far, the FBI has released investigative documents to USA TODAY only through 2017. Since then, local news coverage indicates many more people have been investigated and charged with lodging threats.
Recent prosecutions suggest the Department of Justice may be prioritizing the political threats: Arrests made for other threats against Pelosi have resulted in prison time for at least five men in the last two years.
Last year, a North Carolina man was sentenced to 28 months in prison for threatening to shoot the speaker.
A Georgia man who drove across the country with a rifle and threatened to kill Pelosi was sentenced to 28 months in prison last December.
In February, an Arizona man was sentenced to 21 months in prison for threatening voicemails.
This week, the FBI released another wave of documents to USA TODAY from its Freedom of Information Act request filed five years ago. The new documents did not include mentions of Pelosi but they did feature a series of threats to Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif. in 2016.
“Thompson’s gonna get his f***-ing head cut off and I’m the guy to do it. I”ll f***-ing cut his f***-ing head off and place it on a dinette table,” a man said in a voicemail to the congressman who serves the northern portion of the San Francisco Bay Area.
The FBI tracked the man down in Mendocino County for an interview. An assistant U.S. attorney in San Francisco declined prosecution over the objection of the FBI special agents, according to the newly released documents.
In a letter to colleagues over the weekend, Pelosi acknowledged the political violence facing politicians, but said she was comforted by a Bible verse from the Book of Isaiah: “Do not fear, for I am with you. Do not be dismayed, for I am your God.”
Nick Penzenstadler is a reporter on the USA TODAY investigations team. Contact him at [email protected] or @npenzenstadler, or on Signal at (720) 507-5273.