The FBI declined Thursday to rescind its determination that the 2017 shooter who nearly killed House GOP Whip Steve Scalise — and fired dozens of rounds at a Republican baseball team practicing in Virginia — was motivated by a desire to commit “suicide by cop.” But the bureau would likely have treated it as a domestic terrorism event if it occurred today, a top official told lawmakers.
“It’s fair to say the shooter was motivated by a desire to commit an attack on members of Congress and then knowing by doing so he would likely be killed in the process,” said Jill Sanborn, the executive assistant director of the FBI, during a hearing before a House Appropriations subcommittee, adding, “This conduct is something that we would today characterize as a domestic terrorism event.”
Testifying before House appropriators, Sanborn said that the shooter, James Hodgkinson, appeared to be motivated by a “blend” of factors, but ultimately “intended for the shooting to be his final act on Earth.” Hodgkinson died shortly after the shooting, after a firefight with police.
Sanborn’s comments came in response to questions from the panel’s top Republican, Rep. Robert Aderholt, whose inquiry came after a week in which GOP lawmakers repeatedly upbraided the FBI for its years-old conclusion — first reported by POLITICO last week — that the attack should be classified as a “suicide by cop.”
Lawmakers say the FBI revealed its conclusion during a private briefing with members of the GOP baseball team in November 2017, but their conclusion remained secret until Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), who was present when the June 14 shooting took place, grilled FBI Director Christopher Wray about it during a House Intelligence Committee hearing earlier this month. Democrats and Republicans raised concerns about the FBI’s classification of the attack during that hearing.
Asked about Sanborn’s comments, a Wenstrup spokesman said the congressman was grateful that the FBI “broadly” addressed his concerns.
“However, we expect answers specific to the June 14th assassination attempt and look forward to working with Republicans and Democrats on the Intelligence Committee to obtain the answers to our questions,” he added.
Testifying Thursday, Sanborn said that if the shooting happened today, the case would likely be classified as domestic terrorism, in part because of a shift in the understanding about lone-wolf actors. Since 2016, the FBI has noted an increase in attacks by people with multiple motivations — some ideological, some personal, she said.
“It’s a blend of their ideology but oftentimes really partnered closely with a personalized grievance,” Sanborn said. “As you can imagine, that makes it very hard to figure out what truly was the motivating factor.”
Until this month, the FBI had said little about the 2017 shooting since its immediate aftermath. Investigators found that Hodgkinson, an Ohio resident, had camped out in his van near the Alexandria, Va., baseball field for weeks. Before he opened fire, he approached one of the players, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), and asked whether the team consisted of Republicans or Democrats. Investigators found a list of GOP lawmakers’ names in Hodgkinson’s pocket, and social media posts revealed he aligned with the political left.
A Virginia prosecutor investigating the shooting classified it as a “domestic terrorism” crime based on the state’s laws. Sanborn emphasized that given trends that have taken hold since the 2017 shooting, the FBI might classify the Hodgkinson case differently today.
“If it were to happen today,” she said, “we would open this as a domestic terrorism case.”