WASHINGTON — A group of House Republicans has received a mysterious threat in recent weeks: an anonymous email that promises political retribution for those who vote yes to a debt-limit increase — sent to their closely guarded personal email addresses.
Because of the near-secret nature of lawmakers' internal email addresses, the emails have raised more than a few eyebrows — and the possibility that one of their own was behind, or at least assisting in the attacks.
The emails, circulated to lawmakers at the end of January and during their closed door retreat earlier this month, came as Republicans struggled to come up with a plan to extend the nation's debt limit. Leadership threw in the towel Tuesday, opting to move a bill that simply raises the debt ceiling without other conditions. The bill passed Tuesday, with nearly every House Democrat and 28 Republicans voting for it.
"It's got to be another member. Probably one of the crazy ones," said a Republican who had seen the email, which was sent from an anonymous email address, firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the email, the lawmakers received a set of forwarded emails sent by "unrepresentative one" to Oklahoma Rep. James Lankford and Speaker John Boehner. The apparent message to GOP House members: If you vote for a debt-limit increase, an outside group mentioned in the email will mobilize against you.
In the forwarded email to Boehner, the writer professes his previous loyalty to the House leader before accusing the Ohio Republican of lying. "John, I've never voted against you. Nor have I ever not done whatever you asked of me, nor am I one of the second-guessers who thinks you have an easy job. But, isn't it time we stopped lying to the American People in re the debt limit?" the email says.
The bizarrely constructed email also contains a cryptic back-and-forth between "unrepresentative one" and a shadowy third party — email@example.com — who demands "High discretion required on attached - no ID on this or source $. Your colleagues merit everything planned. No idea how you can stand it, but yes, you are exempt."
The email includes several attachments, including a list of "targeted debt hikers" who voted for previous debt increases and a spreadsheet of Lankford's donors.
A Boehner spokesman declined to comment, and emails to "unrepresentative one" and exposethefrauds were not returned.
That the messages went to members' internal House emails suggests a member or high-level staffer either wrote them or provided the emails to an outside person to use.
"It's very, very difficult to get those emails," a former leadership aide said, saying that even for a member of Congress it would take work to compile a comprehensive list of members, noting that it's much easier to find, for instance, Lankford's personal, non-congressional email than his internal congressional address.
Lankford, however, downplayed the chances that one of his colleagues sent the strange missive.
"It reads too weird to be that. Some of the statements, some of the stuff in it … at one point in one of the original emails they call me Jim. No one calls me Jim. I go by James. There's one addressed to the speaker and it's starts off to 'John.' Nobody calls the speaker 'John,'" Lankford told BuzzFeed Tuesday afternoon.
"So it looks like something someone has created on the outside that wants to pretend they look like us. Because I keep looking at and reading it and thinking nobody even reads or writes like this. And it's just too weird," he added.
Lankford, who voted no on Boehner's debt ceiling plan, stressed the email had nothing to do with his decision to vote that way.
"Oh no. No, no, no. No, that's just some weird outside who knows what," Lankford said when asked whether the email had any impact on his decision.
The email lawmakers received begins with an "fyi" and then features a number of forwarded emails, starting with the most recent. The first one was sent from "unrepresentative one" to Boehner.
Below the email sent to Boehner is an email sent to Rep. James Lankford (referred to as "Jim").
Below that, "unrepresentative one" forwards an email from a shady outside group to which "unrepresentative one" says he's "not proud" of his ties.
The message concludes with the exchange between the group and "unrepresentative one." A spreadsheet of lawmakers who voted for past debt-limit increases and a list of Lankford's donors were attached to the email.
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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