When U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-7) was witness to history, following Wednesday’s storming of the US Capitol Building, he and other members of the legislature were preparing to do the routine but essential constitutional process of certifying the election for Joe Biden. The world knows what happened that day.
The Tuesday following, he hosted an online Zoom town hall for constituents to relate his experience during a day which Senator Chuck Schumer said, echoing FDR, “will live in infamy.” Malinowski himself was unharmed physically, but, he warned that “The drama is not going away.” During his conversation, he warned that there was a growing threat of domestic extremism within the US. The extremism comes from both sides of the spectrum, he said, but right-wing violence was particularly concerning due to the support and, in the case of January 6, incitement by a sitting US president along with other officials in government. Additionally, he warned that over the course of time what had previously been considered a fringe was in danger of becoming “normalized.”
“I was in the House Chamber when all this went down Wednesday,” Malinowski said, “it was a tense moment.” He praised the efforts of the Capitol Hill police officers who stood against the mob before being overwhelmed and lamented the loss of two officers—one, New Jerseyan Brian Sicknick who was killed in the melee by a rioter throwing a fire extinguisher, and another officer who reportedly took his own life. “So many of these wonderful officers feel a sense of responsibility.”
Malinowski said that while the mob was clearly in favor of installing President Trump in office for another term, their targets, he said, were predominantly Republicans. “They were particularly there to target Republicans; this is an important thing to remember.” The gist which was given to the mob, Malinowski said, which came from the president, was that “the Democrats are hopeless but it’s the Republican traitors who they have to focus on,” and Vice President Mike Pence is chief “traitor” among them. Malinowski said that as the mob stormed through the Capitol Building, they were heard chanting “Hang Mike Pence”—for simply carrying out his constitutional responsibility.
At times during the conference it became apparent that Malinowski had been shaken by what had happened, but he remained calm and resolute throughout, taking numerous questions from the audience. On a handful of occasions, audio-only hecklers attempted to interrupt the congressman, but they were promptly muted or ejected by the moderator, preserving the flow and sobriety of the conversation.
So how did the storming even come to pass? Malinowski said that the Capitol Hill Police were neither well led nor well prepared and had apparently been under the assumption that the demonstration was simply going to be a “1st Amendment event”. The Department of Defense was aware as well, and it was being treated as a protest, but not as a high-level security threat. Since that time, the Congressman said that the law enforcement and military agencies have worked together to ensure that the capital, in the lead up to the January 20 inauguration ceremony, will be secure. “If we had on January 6 the security measures now in place, to say nothing of additional measures that will be in place, not a soul could’ve gotten near the capitol. There were no barriers, there was nothing to prevent people from massing on the building.”
The Congressman was emphatic that people understand the danger has not gone away. “This is an on-going threat and attack, but we are ready. They are not ready for what’s going to be unleashed now that the government will be united and law enforcement has woken up to this threat.”
“The danger continues,” he said, “we’ve been briefed by the Capitol Police and FBI of the very serious threats,” adding that, “It’s imperative we have a united leadership.”
For those who participated in the attack, Malinowski said that law enforcement was investigating the matter thoroughly and that those responsible were going to be held accountable.
A caller asked the Congressman about Vice President Mike Pence and whether or not he would invoke the 25th Amendment to deem President Trump unfit to serve. While he could not speak for the Vice President, Malinowski noted that, “He just saw a mob of people marching through Washington DC chanting ‘Hang Mike Pence’. They weren’t saying ‘Hang Tom Malinowski’– their hatred of him after he supported Trump 100% in four years, but once chose to read what the law dictated… Their hatred of him is greater than their hatred of any Democrat. The president he loyally served has a movement that wants to kill him.” For other Republicans, Malinowski said he believes they are “caught between competing fears, major companies are cutting off their campaign contributions, a lot of mainstream Republicans are turning their backs, while others are expressing a very real concern about the safety of their families from death threats.” Far more, he said, being received than he ever has.
Malinowski said that, “It’s really important to stress that all of us were absolutely determined… that the moment it was safe… we were going to finish our job, certify this election. Because the last thing we want to do is let thugs and terrorists intimidate the US Congress.” The process lasted many hours into the night, but, “The Democrats were united, Mitch McConnell was totally united with us, and we did it.”
Since last week, NJ Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman and others have tested positive for coronavirus. Whether or not it was because of the confinement, Malinowski said he could not be sure, but it was not an unreasonable assumption. He said that he also was tested and it came back negative. “After we evacuated the chamber, many of us spent the afternoon in a hearing room where there was what I call the ‘QAnon Caucus’, a small number of people in that caucus who are… I’m trying to use polite language… they are among the people who helped encourage this Stop The Steal movement and march and seizure of the capitol. Some are QAnon supporters openly… There was a group not wearing masks despite being asked to repeatedly. Since then we have had several members test positive. I can’t be certain it was because of that but it was a fair assertion.”
A caller asked if Republican members of congress were getting the vaccines or turning them down. “Oh everyone is getting vaccinated,” he replied without hesitation. “When it comes to protecting themselves most are pretty much on the same side. When it comes to protecting others there’s a little division.”
More than once the Congressman was asked about security issues surrounding the failure to protect the building. He declined to comment in depth because it was an on-going investigation and he did not want to “blame anyone unfairly”. The main priority, he said, were the security challenges facing the next two weeks. “What’s clear is there was a general failure within the law enforcement community, including Department of Defense and National Guard, beginning with Capitol Police, to understand the nature of the threat.” He said that these agencies now “realize beyond a shadow of a doubt” that the mob came with violence in mind and while some thought that the police would side with them, such was not the case, and so they attacked the police in turn. While he is confident that the Hill is secure and that no federal government buildings were likely to be stormed again, although nothing is ever completely certain. “The security officials I have spoken to are very serious when they describe the threat and I think the plan they have in place… had that been in place on January 6, a fly couldn’t have penetrated the complex.”
Looking carefully at social media is high on Malinowski’s future agenda, which he blames, in part, for facilitating the radicalization of Americans and allowing them to plan acts of violence. Companies such as Apple, Google, and Amazon have taken action to shut down social media platforms like Parler, which have little to no moderation of hate speech and have become popular with extremists. Facebook, for its part, has been using software to flag misinformation and shut down groups and pages disseminating violent message or hate, with highly imperfect results. “We have private companies like Twitter and Facebook with a lot of people screaming censorship, but what they’re saying is the government should allow platforms to give terrorists and extremists a platform.” The Congressman said that the rioters had been in communication for weeks through social media forums in advance of the attack. Following the Capitol Hill attack, social media began to de-platform President Trump, himself, citing violations of their terms of service for encouraging violence, along with thousands of other accounts affiliated with the conspiracy cult QAnon. “Right now the president has been denied access to social media. I can feel the difference just over the last two days.” Malinowski noted that the president has not been muzzled, even if he has been thrown off Twitter. “He can have a press conference any time he wants!”
Describing social media as an “echo chamber”, Malinowski insists that these companies have to address their inherent designs. He said that the current way social media systems are set up are, “designed to tear us apart, polarize us. Facebook isn’t liberal or conservative, but knows what you are, and will feed you more and more extreme and biased versions of whatever you believe until you’re driven farther into the direction you’re inclined to go and that has to change.” Malinowski was loud and clear that this was unacceptable and reforms have to be implemented. “If they won’t do it voluntarily we’ll have to regulate them to death because I’m fed up.”
Similarly, bias in television is a matter which has fueled the polarization of the American populace. A caller asked the congressman to address this. “With cable TV it’s not like an algorithm, it’s not automatically generated by software to deliver to each person whatever information will keep us enraged. Social media has it down to each person. MSNBC, Fox, these are editorial decisions that are made by journalists and we need to communicate this to them. Frankly that communication needs to come from Democrats. I haven’t done it, I have not addressed MSNBC directly, but you’ve put me in a mind to consider doing that.”
When asked about the implications of new domestic terrorism legislation, Malinowski did not seem enthusiastic about rapidly embracing the idea. “I would approach domestic terrorism legislation very cautiously–we need a hard look at our national strategy for protecting Americans against domestic home-grown extremism,” saying that while he did not think there was an absence of need, he warned that congress should not “don’t rush to it in the passion of the moment.” It was also worth bearing in mind that, “Everything we do today leads to precedents for future presidents.” Rather than rolling out new powers right away, Malinowski said that he believed law enforcement, in general, has resources already which have not been fully implemented. “I’m interested in whether it should be easier for victims of these crimes to sue extremist groups–civil lawsuits which can be an effective way of breaking Mafia-like organizations and, let’s face it, these guys don’t have a lot of money.”
Another constituent asked if the president was going to issue pardons for those who had participated in the riot. “I don’t know what Donald Trump’s going to do,” Malinowski said matter-of-factly. “It would be outrageous, but if he pardons a bunch of people who beat a police officer to death then, I think history will damn him for that probably more than anything else he’s done.”
Apologists on the right calling for national unity are disingenuous, according to the congressman. “A lot of the appeals to unity now are coming from people who never hesitated to introduce poison into our national conversation. They are appealing to unity as a way of shielding themselves not as a way of healing this country.”
With respect to future security measures, Malinowski said that while he does not like the sight of huge security fences being set up around DC, he said it is important that he does like the sight of law enforcement fanning out throughout the country and arresting those responsible for the attacks. The government was playing offense now and he wants to see the FBI “empowered without having to make excuses to the president and his staff to infiltrate these organizations, terrorist groups, like the Klan in the past, to take the fight to them…”
Malinowski’s security concerns are not so much for the District of Columbia, having faith in the new protocols in place and powerful police and National Guard presence, but more for the states and their respective capitals. “These guys are dangerous but they’re not that intelligent, not that empowered… I’m thinking about the guy sitting in the senate chair with his horns and body paint. American democracy is not going to bend or cower to somebody like that.”
So while social media is in Malinowski’s legislative crosshairs, he has also introduced a resolution to censure Representative Mo Brooks, who was alleged to have encouraged the rioters. The censure would require Brooks to stand in the well of the House chamber while the resolution is read. “It’s a mark of shame I believe a lot of his Republican colleagues would vote for it. At the same time I believe that our ethics committee needs to take a deeper look at Congressman Brooks and other members who might’ve played in encouraging and perhaps even colluding with the rioters.” He added that expulsion from the Congress was possible, but that the accused were entitled to due process.
Malinowski remains optimistic that the republic will endure and that the capital will be secure leading up to Joe Biden’s inauguration. Accountability is essential to the congressman and whether the 25th amendment is invoked, if impeachment goes forward against President Trump, or if the 14th amendment provisions of insurrection are put into place. “My bottom line is there has to be some accountability, it could be that, or impeachment but it’s got to be something real.”