MONETA, Va. — "This is how we’re going to kill your wife."
That’s the message Rep. Tom Garrett (R-Va.) said he received in a series of recent threats that targeted him, his family and even, at one point, his dog. And it’s the reason, he said, that his town hall here in this sleepy Virginia community on Tuesday night was ringed by law enforcement.
When Garrett took the stage at Eastlake Community Church, the walls in the 300-seat room were lined with security — some uniformed and some in plainclothes. The presence was noticeable all night, as Garrett aides enforced rules to keep audience members from disrupting the event.
Though the town hall proceeded without significant incident — one woman was removed by police for repeated disruptions — security personnel made their presence felt, approaching hecklers throughout the evening and standing watch at all entrances and exits. The high security presence, Garrett said later, was the result of threats that Capitol Police, state police and intelligence officials "have deemed to be credible and real."
"It’s nuts," Garrett said.
The freshman congressman, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said the threats have become so disturbing that he and his chief of staff engaged in some gallows humor over it.
"He read one of the more recent correspondences and called me the next day and goes, ‘Dude, I’m glad you’re alive," Garrett recalled.
"I served in the military. I reconciled myself with the reality that one day I’m not going to be here," Garrett continued.
"I don’t want to die anytime soon. I got stuff left to do, I hope. But when you pull wives and children in, that’s not cool."
Garrett’s remarks are a window into an increasingly tense environment facing lawmakers as they head home to angry constituents whipped into a frenzy over the latest debate in Washington about repealing and replacing Obamacare. Lawmakers expressed concerns to GOP leadership in February, after a particularly angry round of town halls.
At the time, Rep. David Reichert (R-Wash.), a former sheriff, suggested lawmakers have a physical exit strategy at town halls should protests get out of hand. He urged that local police be on hand during town halls, and that lawmakers step up security at their local offices, from installing heavy doors and deadbolts to setting up intercoms to screen visitors.
Garrett said he’d rather be overly cautious than complacent.
"Here’s the fear that I have and I said this to some of the police officers here — that we have 40 police officers here and we do this 10 times and nothing ever happens, and we go ‘oh no problem,’" he said. "And then there’s five and then something does happen."
It’s unclear whether the threats Garrett described were connected to his last-minute support for the American Health Care Act, the GOP plan to replace Obamacare that has stoked intense anger at town halls across the country. But he said he takes no issues with protesters who vehemently reject his position on the health care bill.
"I don’t have any problem with anybody who reaches a different policy conclusion based on the information they amalgamate and process," he said. "That dissent is American — praise God, we need that. That’s what made us who we are."
"But when it’s, ‘I’m going to kill you this way. Then, ‘I’m going to kill your wife. This is what I’m going to do to your daughters’ … Then you get a circumstance where there’s an awful lot of security."