On Feb. 14, 2019, U.S. Capitol Police officers pushed and shoved Capitol Hill reporter Matt Laslo and other journalists while they were trying to interview U.S. senators in the basement of the Senate building.
“It was happening to everyone who tried to get close to a senator,” Paul McLeod, a BuzzFeed News reporter who witnessed the altercations, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
McLeod said that the Capitol Police officers physically prevented reporters from interviewing senators, even though the senators were willing to talk to the press.
“I have never seen them do what they did today, which was forming a protective circle around senators to keep press away,” he said. “The senators were just walking in to a vote like normal and the police were doing it to everyone. There was no sign the senators were requesting it.”
Laslo gave a similar account to the political news site Roll Call.
“[Sen. Dianne] 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.”
Roll Call, which obtained a recording of the altercation, reported that a Capitol Police officer could be heard telling journalists that they were violating the law.
“That’s a violation,” the Capitol Police officer reportedly said to the reporters walking alongside the senators. “Surrounding them — we lock people up for that. If the public does that, they get locked up.”
Laslo said that the Capitol Police officers’ aggressive tactics were unprecedented.
“There were no more reporters there than there are any day of any week,” McLeod said.
“This was first time any officer put their hands on me or my co-workers in front of me, so it was really disheartening,” Laslo told Roll Call.
The Feb. 14 altercation came in the midst of heated confrontations between members of Congress and journalists.
The day before, Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez accused Henry Rodgers, a reporter from the right-wing news site The Daily Caller, of harassing him and threatened to call the police.
“I won’t answer questions to the Daily Caller, period!” Menendez said, according to Rodgers’ recording of the conversation. “You’re trash … Don’t keep harassing me anymore or I’ll race to the Capitol Police!”
Menendez did not follow through on his threat to involve the Capitol Police.
On Feb. 14, Roll Call reports, the Capitol Police were on high alert after receiving reports that a certain individual — a former journalist and political tracker with a reputation for aggressively confronting conservative politicians — had been spotted in the area.
McLeod said that the presence of the political tracker shouldn’t excuse the Capitol Police’s aggressive treatment of the press in the Senate basement.
“Looks like it was all an absurd over-reaction because this [political tracker] was apparently somewhere around,” he said. “But the thing is he can't get into the actual capitol and that is where this took place. We were in an area past a security checkpoint where you needed to have ID or be a guest of someone to get in. So the whole thing made no sense.”
The National Press Club also released a statement criticizing the Capitol Police response as an over-reaction.
“Capitol Police dramatically over-reacted on Thursday and did more harm than good when they prevented accredited reporters from doing their job and further obstructed senators from communicating with the press,” NPC President Alison Fitzgerald Kodjak said in a statement.
“There was no call for the police to shove or place their hands on the reporters.”