A Capitol Police crackdown turned physical Thursday afternoon, when officers clashed with reporters attempting to speak with senators in a location known as key territory for lawmakers and media to mix: the Senate basement.
Capitol Police officers physically shoved reporters away from senators heading to vote on the spending package, even when lawmakers were willingly engaging with the press.
Officers surrounded lawmakers and escorted them, physically blocking reporters from walking and talking alongside senators. It is common for Capitol Police to be present in the basement during a vote, but there were many more officers on hand than usual.
“It got really ugly,” said Paul McLeod, a BuzzFeed immigration reporter who witnessed the escalation.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito engaged with the media as she made her way from the Senate subway to the elevators. But Capitol Police officers then encircled the West Virginia Republican, physically blocking reporters.
One of the reporters who said he was physically handled by Capitol Police was veteran Capitol Hill reporter Matt Laslo. He provided an audio recording of the incident to Roll Call.
“I am a pregnant woman and you just pushed me” one reporter is heard saying to a Capitol Police officer on the recording. Others repeatedly asked why they were not being permitted to ask senators questions and why officers were putting their hands on them.
NPR’s Kelsey Snell and NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell were also pushed by Capitol Police officers during the altercation. McLeod was standing right behind Caldwell, who was walking with Capito when he said an officer “slammed into her.”
‘It was insane’
“It was insane, people were getting shoved into walls,” McLeod said. “It was unsustainable. It was violent.”
Paul Orgel, chairman of the Radio and Television Correspondents Association executive board, told Roll Call that the group is still gathering information about the incident and consulting with correspondents.
“To say the least, this is a very serious situation,” he said Thursday night.
The Standing Committee of Correspondents for the daily press convenes next week for a regular meeting, and it is likely that the altercation will be on the agenda for discussion.
The panels, made up of reporters elected by their colleagues, oversee press operations and work to ensure press access to public officials and proceedings on Capitol Hill.
Capitol Police did not give reporters any immediate explanation for the heightened security and forceful tactics in an area where reporters and lawmakers usually interact without incident.
But a spokesperson later said Capitol Police officers “observed significant pedestrian crowding in the area of the Senate subway” ahead of the spending bill vote Thursday.
“The USCP monitored the situation to ensure that senators were able to safely traverse the crowds in order to make their way to the Senate chamber to vote. The USCP provided support during this time to ensure that the current rules and protocols in place were adhered to in order to ensure the safety and security of members of Congress, staff, and members of the press,” Capitol Police spokesperson Eva Malecki said in a statement Friday.
During the vote Thursday afternoon, Capitol Police Inspector Thomas Lloyd Jr. repeatedly said, “That’s a violation,” pointing to reporters walking alongside senators as they moved through the basement — a regular practice during votes.
He then told staff from the Senate press galleries, which facilitate press coverage of the chamber, that reporters should not be moving with senators.
“Surrounding them — we lock people up for that,” said Lloyd as reporters gathered to listen to Alabama Sen. Richard C. Shelby’s comments.
“If the public does that, they get locked up,” he said.
The gray concrete tunnel where the Senate subway deposits senators at the Capitol for votes is a longstanding stakeout spot for reporters hoping to catch lawmakers on their way to the chamber.
Many senators stop and talk or walk and talk as reporters gather around to catch the latest comment. Others employ age-old avoidance tactics, including fake phone calls or staffers by their side firmly stating, “We’re late, she can’t talk,” or a similar excuse.
“This was first time any officer put their hands on me or my co-workers in front of me, so it was really disheartening,” said Laslo, who has been covering Capitol Hill for 12 years.
Even some senators appeared to be taken aback.
“Feinstein was doing an interview with one reporter, and she just stopped and her jaw just dropped,” Laslo said. “She was confused. She was just unable to keep doing an interview that she wanted to do because the officers were creating such a mess.”
Capitol Police have been tasked with managing crowds of reporters during high-profile events in recent months, including the media mayhem that descended during Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings. But the media presence Thursday didn’t come close to reaching that threshold.
“This might not have even been the biggest vote today” McLeod said about the number of reporters in the basement Thursday. He said that votes earlier in the day, including on the nomination of Attorney General William P. Barr, drew a larger crowd of reporters.
“This was just a fairly run-of-the-mill day. It just came out of nowhere for us,” he said of the press access limitation.
After the shoving and shouting that erupted around Capito and Feinstein, the situation was on a path of de-escalation. Officers continued to escort lawmakers through the basement, but they hung a little further back and stopped barricading the press away from senators.
Lloyd said Capitol Police were told to have a more significant presence by the sergeant-at-arms’ office, but did not cite a specific event or cause for the ramped-up security.
Laslo said he thought Lloyd and his team were part of creating a problem, rather than preventing one.
“The police were actually forcing reporters into becoming obstacles for senators,” he said.
A handful of reporters picked up on clues that might offer some insight into the heightened security posture. More than one reporter overheard Capitol Police officers in the basement talking on the phone about a political tracker who has caused problems in the past, including allegedly assaulting Interior Department senior adviser and spokeswoman Heather Swift in the Longworth House Office Building.
The individual is known to hang out in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building and approach senators with questions, but he is not a member of the press. He is usually equipped with a hand-held GoPro camera.
The Russell Building is a public space, but the individual often stands among members of the press, leading to confusion about his status.
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