Victims of 2017 shooting at softball field deserve better answers from FBI
On June 14, 2017, a team of Republican lawmakers went to an athletic field in Alexandria, Virginia, to practice for the annual Congressional Baseball Game for Charity. As they worked out, a man armed with a semi-automatic rifle and pistol approached and opened fire. Rep. Steve Scalise, the House Republican whip, was gravely wounded. A lobbyist was also seriously hurt, and a congressional aide and Capitol Police officer were wounded, as well.
The shooter, James Hodgkinson of Belleville, Illinois, was an active Bernie Sanders supporter who hated Republicans and particularly hated then-President Donald Trump. "Trump is a Traitor. Trump Has Destroyed Our Democracy," he posted on his Facebook page. "It's Time to Destroy Trump and Co."
Hodgkinson came to the Washington, D.C., area in 2017, living out of a van parked in Alexandria. He brought his guns and developed a plan to attack Republicans. He went to the baseball field with a list of several GOP members of Congress in his pocket, along with physical descriptions of some of them. Before the attack, he asked Republican Rep. Jeff Duncan, who was leaving practice early, whether the players on the field were Republicans or Democrats. Duncan said it was the Republican team. A short time later, Hodgkinson opened fire. After a rampage of nearly 10 minutes, he was killed by Capitol Police and Alexandria police.
The attack was a clear act of violent, politically motivated domestic terrorism. There was simply no doubt about that. And yet recently, Republican Rep. Brad Wenstrup, who had been at the practice, revealed that the FBI concluded Hodgkinson was in fact trying to kill himself, not Republicans.
"On Nov. 16, 2017, the FBI briefed those of us who were at the field that day," Wenstrup said at a House Intelligence Committee hearing featuring FBI Director Christopher Wray. "Much to our shock that day, the FBI concluded that this was a case of the attacker seeking suicide by cop."
"We were just astonished," Wenstrup told me in a recent conversation. "We just went, 'What?' I said, 'There's no way. If you want to commit suicide by cop, you just pull a gun on a cop.'" Hodgkinson had obviously done much, much more than that. And the suicide by cop theory made even less sense in light of the fact that the Capitol Police who were at the baseball field that day -- the security detail for Scalise, a member of the House leadership -- were sitting in an unmarked vehicle, wearing plain clothes. Hodkinson would not have known they were police.
Wenstrup also noted that the FBI had not interviewed the members -- the victims -- in this case. They never interviewed Duncan, who had actually spoken to the shooter. "I asked [the FBI], 'Who did you talk to?'" Wenstrup recalled. "They took my number, called me the next day. I called them back, and never heard from them again."
At the hearing, Wenstrup noted that, "Both the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence published products labeling this attack as a domestic violent extremism event specifically targeting Republican members of Congress. The FBI did not. The FBI still has not."
Now, in light of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, which is widely referred to as domestic terrorism, Wenstrup wonders what the FBI was doing. The attack "could have been a massacre," Wenstrup noted. "The attacker may have believed he could change the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives in one morning."
The Republican baseball team was lucky that Wenstrup was among the players at the practice. A doctor from Ohio who is also an officer in the Army Reserve and served as a combat surgeon in Iraq, Wenstrup went to Scalise's aid and is credited with saving his life before Scalise was airlifted to a hospital. And now, Wenstrup wants answers. At the hearing, he gave Wray a letter asking the FBI to investigate how it came to conclude that the shooting was not domestic terrorism and instead "suicide by cop."
Scalise wants an investigation, too. "The 2017 baseball field shooting was not 'suicide by cop,' and it is insulting and outrageous that the FBI classified it so inaccurately," the GOP whip said in an email statement. "The shooter was very clear that he wanted to kill us because we were Republicans, and was not even aware that the plain-clothed officers with me were even police officers. All of us who were targeted that day are calling on the FBI to correct that inaccurate classification."
The unanswered question in all this is why the FBI, at the time under the leadership of Acting Director Andrew McCabe, did what it did. Even at that time, the bureau was warning Americans of the danger posed by domestic terrorists. And yet the FBI refused to publicly recognize a clear act of domestic terrorism. Was some sort of Trump-era bias involved? Was it bureaucratic infighting? Something else? It's time the victims in the case -- and also the country as a whole -- got some answers.
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