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Republicans Gag Mentions of Trump’s Conviction on the House Floor

Republicans Gag Mentions of Trump’s Conviction on the House Floor

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The floor of the United States House of Representatives is supposed to be a dignified place, where lawmakers refer to each other as “gentleman” or “gentle lady,” speak only to the presiding officer, and never engage in personally disparaging remarks against rivals, an offense known as “engaging in personalities.”

But what happens when the leader of one party is a convicted criminal whom a jury has found guilty of things that would normally be considered unmentionable on the House floor?

The history-making felony conviction of former President Donald J. Trump has raised some historic questions for the House’s rules of decorum, which have existed for centuries but can be bent to the will of whichever party controls the majority-driven chamber.

The Republicans who now hold the majority have used those rules to impose what is essentially a gag order against talking about Mr. Trump’s hush-money payments to a porn actress or about the fact that he is a felon at all, notwithstanding that those assertions are no longer merely allegations but the basis of a jury’s guilty verdict. Doing so, they have declared, is a violation of House rules.

In short, perhaps the only place in the United States where people are barred from talking freely about Mr. Trump’s crimes is the floor of what is often referred to as “the people’s House,” where Republicans have gone so far as to erase one such mention from the official record.

In recent weeks, Republican leaders have cracked down on Democrats who refer to Mr. Trump’s court cases on the floor, citing the centuries-old rules of decorum, which date back to the days of Thomas Jefferson. Merely mentioning that Mr. Trump is a felon prompts an admonishment from whomever is presiding when the offending fact is uttered. (Mr. Trump is also indicted on felony charges in cases related to his handling of classified documents and attempting to overturn the 2020 election.)

“The chair would remind members to refrain from engaging in personalities toward presumptive nominees for the office of the president,” is now a common phrase heard in the chamber after the mention of the words “Trump” and “felon.”

On one occasion, Republicans barred Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, from speaking for the rest of the day and deleted his comments from the Congressional Record after he railed against Mr. Trump and his court cases.

“When they censor any mention of Donald Trump’s criminal convictions, they are essentially trying to ban a fact,” Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, said in an interview. “I am not aware of any precedent where factual statements have been banned in our lifetime.”

Mr. Raskin said the silencing of Mr. Trump’s critics on the House floor had a historical analog: the House’s pre-Civil War ban on legislation relating to the abolition of slavery. In 1836, the House passed a so-called gag rule that automatically postponed action on all petitions related to slavery without hearing them.

“In a legislative sense, this was of course far more important than the new rule against mentioning Trump’s criminal record,” Mr. Raskin said.

Still, he said, he considers the prohibition against criticizing Mr. Trump’s felon status “Orwellian.”

The battle over what can be said on the House floor began last month after Mr. McGovern, the top Democrat on the Rules Committee, said on the floor that Mr. Trump “is on trial for covering up hush-money payments to a porn star for political gain, not to mention three of the criminal felony prosecutions he’s facing.”

Representative Jerry Carl, Republican of Alabama and the presiding officer on the floor at the time, admonished Mr. McGovern for “engaging in personalities.”

But Mr. McGovern pressed on.

“We have a presumptive nominee for president facing 88 felony counts, and we’re being prevented from even acknowledging it,” he complained, adding: “He’s also charged with conspiring to overturn the election. He’s also charged with stealing classified information, and a jury has already found him liable for rape in a civil court and, yet, in this Republican-controlled House, it’s OK to talk about the trial — but you have to call it a sham.”

That’s when Representative Erin Houchin, Republican of Indiana, rose to demand that Mr. McGovern’s words be “taken down,” meaning his remarks would be stricken from the Congressional Record and Mr. McGovern would not be allowed to talk on the floor for the rest of the day.

After a lengthy delay while Mr. Carl figured out what to do — including consulting the parliamentarian, whose job is to interpret House rules — he reported that Mr. McGovern’s words would, in fact, be stricken from the record.

“The words of the gentleman from Massachusetts accuse a presumptive nominee for the office of president of engaging in illegal activity,” Mr. Carl said. “Presumptive nominees for the office of president are accorded the same treatment under the rules of decorum in debate as a sitting president.”

In truth, Republicans have exempted themselves from that equal treatment standard when it comes to President Biden, whom they routinely accuse of criminal conduct despite having produced no evidence of any. Representative James Comer of Kentucky, the chairman of the Oversight Committee, began one recent meeting by simply declaring that the rule against speaking ill of a president “will not be in order for the duration of today’s hearing.” Given that it was part of an impeachment inquiry, he explained, “members must be allowed to speak frankly.”

Republican leaders have frequently allowed their members to trample on the rules of decorum without repercussion in other contexts as well, including when Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia insulted the makeup of Representative Jasmine Crockett, Democrat of Texas, during a committee hearing. Mr. Comer declined to take down her words, as Democrats demanded, and allowed her to continue participating.

When it comes to Mr. Trump, Republicans have reached all the way back to the 18th century to justify the prohibition against disparaging him, effectively finding that he should be treated like a king.

Mr. Carl cited a section of Thomas Jefferson’s manual, which governs standards of decorum on the House floor and states that “personal abuse, innuendo, or ridicule of the president is not permitted.” Jefferson based that rule off a similar policy in British Parliament at the time that to “speak irreverently or seditiously against the king is against order.”

(Jefferson prepared the rule book for his own guidance while serving as vice president, and therefore president of the Senate, from 1797 to 1801. In 1837, the House adopted a rule that provisions of his manual would govern their chamber as well.)

“Therefore, although remarks in debate may include criticism of such a candidate’s official positions as a candidate, it is a breach of order to refer to the candidate in terms personally offensive, whether by actual accusation or by mere insinuation,” Mr. Carl said. He added: “An accusation that the president has committed a crime, or even that the president has done something illegal, is not in order.”

The decision sparked outrage from Democrats, who said they would continue to invoke Mr. Trump’s court cases on the floor of the House.

In recent weeks, Representative Hank Johnson, Democrat of Georgia, was admonished for saying that “presidential candidate Donald Trump just became a convicted felon, according to a jury of his peers.” Representative Eric Swalwell, Democrat of California, told Republicans, “You are fighting for a felon.”

No Democrat since Mr. McGovern has had their words taken down, but the threat looms each time.

Ms. Houchin said she demanded Mr. McGovern’s words be stricken because, in her view, he went too far.

“He could have chosen other words that would not have been taken down, but because he persisted in making specific accusations, he broke the rules of the House,” she told reporters afterward.

Mr. McGovern’s listing of the various court cases against Mr. Trump was removed from the record, but this being the 21st century, they live on in videos online.

For his part, Mr. Raskin has tried to come up with creative ways to invoke Mr. Trump’s criminal cases without running afoul of the ruling.

During a recent floor speech, he made reference to an “unmentionable American felon, one of 19 million in the country” and an “unrepentant and anonymous convicted felon from New York” without mentioning the former president by name. He referred to Mr. Trump’s hush-money case as “the trial whose very existence must be sent down the Orwellian memory hole to save someone’s hurt feelings.”

In the interview, he noted that no rule could erase the facts of Mr. Trump’s status as a felon.

“I’m afraid the Republicans have now invited a contest for how creative we can be in talking about Donald Trump’s criminal convictions without explicitly stating those words,” Mr. Raskin said.

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