WASHINGTON — House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has watched in silence as Republican Rep. Paul Gosar tweeted a fantasy anime video depicting him killing a Democratic colleague and brandishing swords at President Joe Biden.
He has kept his distance as some of the 13 House GOP lawmakers who voted last week for a bipartisan infrastructure bill have been targeted by the far-right, with one of them, Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, revealing that he received death threats.
A man who left a threatening voicemail called Upton a “traitor” for backing the bipartisan $550 billion bill to bolster roads and transit, the same label far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia used for the 13 fellow Republicans who backed the bill as she tweeted their names and office numbers.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., has called for removing Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., as the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee after he voted for the infrastructure bill.
McCarthy has not spoken out about Gosar’s behavior, as Democrats move to censure the Arizona lawmaker. He has also remained quiet about the targeting of members of his caucus who backed the transportation bill, even as he has been active on social media this week to highlight rising inflation and criticize Democrats’ agenda.
The House minority leader’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment by NBC News.
Some McCarthy critics say he’s pleading the Fifth, politically speaking, because his priority is to be speaker in 14 months and he’s afraid to lose support from the Trump movement.
“As with every GOP controversy, even one that now involves a threat to human life, Kevin McCarthy’s direction is informed only by what secures him the speakership next November,” said David Jolly, a former Republican congressman who served from 2014 to 2017, when McCarthy was House majority leader. “He’ll lose votes by engaging, but ultimately keep them by remaining silent.”
The violent undertones reflect a political environment so volatile that the Department of Homeland Security is warning that domestic extremists are promoting violence on the internet and calling for attacks on lawmakers in Congress, along with school and public health officials. Former President Donald Trump and his associates are being investigated by a special House committee looking at whether their falsehoods and lies about a stolen election fomented the Jan. 6 riot on the Capitol.
Trump has chastised “RINOs in the House and Senate” who “gave Biden and Democrats a victory” on the infrastructure package, using an acronym for “Republican in name only.” He said those lawmakers “should be ashamed of themselves.”
The bill was developed by a bipartisan group and backed by 19 Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who called it a “godsend” for his state of Kentucky. President Joe Biden plans to sign it on Monday.
Jolly said McCarthy’s fear is partly about losing the backing of Trump, but also “the Trump caucus.” The former congressman, who abandoned his GOP affiliation in 2018, added that he was among a group of Republicans who blocked McCarthy from becoming speaker in 2015, and that “McCarthy has never, ever forgotten the humiliation of that moment.”
Jolly said he knew then that “McCarthy would never forget that day and would do whatever it took to get the speakership at the very next opportunity,” he said. “That is now.”
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., took aim at McCarthy’s failure to condemn the “insanity” on the right.
Democrats say the silence from Republican leaders shows that the party is being captured by an increasingly radical and authoritarian movement that was responsible for the Jan. 6 riot.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on McCarthy to join her in condemning Gosar’s actions. Her deputies tore into him for ignoring “Mr. Gosar’s disgusting threats.”
“Leader McCarthy’s refusal to take violence seriously is dangerous,” the four co-chairs of the House Democratic policy and communications committee said. “In any other job in America, if a co-worker made a video killing another co-worker, that person would be fired.”
Gosar, for his part, appears to have deleted his tweet amid the outcry, without apologizing for it.
“I do not espouse violence or harm towards any member of Congress or Mr. Biden. The video depicts the fight taking place next week on the House floor and symbolizes the battle for the soul of America,” he said, before criticizing the views of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who was depicted. “This video is truly a symbolic portrayal of a fight over immigration policy.”