2021 02 Chris Smith head

Congressman Chris Smith has a larger-than-life presence in his district, especially in the Mercer County region. His blue and white campaign signs and banners have cropped up in front yards and intersections throughout his district every other year for decades. He’s made appearances at local schools and Hamilton’s former Septemberfest. He’s one of just two Republicans serving New Jersey in the federal government. He hasn’t lost an election in 40 years.

But during a period of turmoil starting with President Donald Trump’s refusal to accept that he lost the November election to Joe Biden, and culminating in a violent attack on the United States Capitol building, Smith was largely silent—he responded with blanket statements and by deleting social media accounts.

Supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the building Jan. 6 in an attempt to overturn the results of the Nov. 3 election, which named Joe Biden the next president. During a “Stop the Steal” rally held the day Congress was set to certify the election, rioters broke into the building — in search of legislators, according to some reports — and entered congressional offices and chambers along the way.

They broke windows, assaulted Capitol police officers and walked out with items like a computer belonging to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Some were armed. Some were photographed holding bundles of zip tie cuffs. One man hung from the Senate balcony in full tactical gear. And they were encouraged by Trump, who spoke to the crowd before its descent on the Capitol—he continued his months-long allegations of voter fraud and a stolen election without evidence and vowed to “never concede” to Democrats and Biden.

“We’re going to walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women,” Trump said. “We’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”

Smith did release a statement on Jan. 6, the night of the attack, condemning violence and vandalism and thanking Capitol police. It was his first official comment on anything related to Trump’s stolen election accusations.

“Despite its many flaws, the U.S. Congress continues to be an extraordinary marketplace of ideas and differing opinions,” he said. “The enactment of wise public policy to benefit all Americans requires robust dialogue and debate—and genuine respect for one another especially when there is fundamental disagreement. We must be committed to zero-tolerance towards violence in any form.”

Smith eventually voted against the Republican-led objection against certifying electoral votes from Pennsylvania and Arizona. GOP senators and congresspeople planned to formally object to the certification of votes from swing states—Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada, Wisconsin and Georgia—won by Biden, clinging to false allegations of voter fraud.

Earlier that same evening, though, Smith spoke to Patch about the rally-turned-riot. He continued to condemn the violence that broke out, but he also aligned with some of his colleagues, insinuating that leftist infiltrators, not Trump supporters, were the ones who attacked the Capitol. He referred to the group as “so-called protestors” and speculated about the identities of the rioters, who had been chanting “We love Trump!” during the president’s speech just minutes prior to the attack.

“I’ll leave that to law enforcement to decipher their identities,” Smith told Patch reporter Carly Baldwin. “I saw very strange things, some strange designs on tattoos, for example a hammer and sickle. Some very strange things. It may have been Antifa. We just don’t know. I’ll leave that to the police to ascertain. We have seen that in other protests. We’ve seen that in Black Lives Matter and some other protests and others.”

The Antifa rumors quickly spread across far-right social media platform Parler and were echoed by extremists like Trump-aligned attorney and conspiracy theorist Lin Wood. Fox News hosts and members of Congress, like Smith, piled on. Those claims, though, were quickly dismissed by federal officials. FBI assistant director Steven D’Antuono said during a press briefing after the attack that there was “no indication” of Antifa involvement, and acting Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen did not mention the group at all in his statement.

The suggestion that Antifa was behind the attack is “dangerous and irresponsible,” said Robbinsville resident Gregory DeLuca in the weeks following the riot. DeLuca is a longtime critic of Smith’s.

‘He is hiding from his constituents.’

“His attempt to codify it as ‘pure speculation’ is as ridiculous as when Trump conjures up his own reality with ‘a lot of people are saying,’” DeLuca said. “It was always obvious the people who stormed the Capitol were Trump’s supporters. Trump invited them to the rally and told them to march down the street.

Even Mitch McConnell has acknowledged Trump’s responsibility. But when asked two weeks after the riot if he would correct his false statements about Antifa, Smith stood by his original statement. Smith was either foolish enough to believe Trump’s lies or—despite 40 years in Congress—lacked the courage and integrity to counter them.”

Trump’s second impeachment came a week later—he was charged with “incitement of insurrection” following the events of Jan 6. Ten House Republicans voted in favor of impeachment, but Smith was not one of them. His floor remarks also sowed doubt about who was behind the attack, calling the impeachment hasty and “highly partisan.” Smith voted to impeach President Bill Clinton in 1998.

“Today’s snap impeachment vote alleging President Trump’s ‘incitement of insurrection’ lacks an objective and thorough investigation of the facts,” he said. “… Our nation is in desperate need of unity and civility as it prepares for the inauguration of President-elect Biden. Impeachment of President Trump—without a thorough analysis of the facts which takes time, effort and serious scrutiny to establish—will not in any way help to heal a divided America.”

This statement, though, doesn’t do that, DeLuca said.

“Smith justified his vote against impeachment by claiming we needed more time to gather all of the facts and that it would do nothing to heal a divided America,” he said. “We will never heal if people like Smith refuse to condemn the lies that fomented the mob and therefore necessitated said impeachment, nor if he is still promoting conspiracy theories.”

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For some of Smith’s constituents, though, his reaction to the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt was no different than the last decade of his tenure—silence and blanket statements have become part of Smith’s playbook.

Smith has held two “town halls”—a conversation with the Asbury Park Press editorial board in 2018 and a virtual meeting with the Alzheimer’s Association in 2020—since 1993. Constituents have launched petitions and campaigns like the #WhereIsChrisSmith hashtag over the last several years in an attempt to communicate with Smith, but those efforts have been ignored, residents say.

Smith, who lives in Virginia full-time, also quietly deactivated his Twitter account and disabled the comment feature on his Instagram account in the weeks following the attack on the Capitol. The decision was made over “security concerns and to help the district and national move toward unity,” Smith’s camp said in a statement.

“While threats are never acceptable, it’s hard to imagine that other members of Congress with higher profiles don’t deal with similar issues yet manage to hold town halls and remain on Twitter,” DeLuca said. “Smith also disabled commenting on his Instagram feed and regularly scrubs negative comments from his Facebook posts. He only does this with his campaign account, he can’t do it for his official page. He is hiding from his constituents and afraid of losing control of his image.”

In the meantime, constituents have been instructed to call and email his office with concerns and to visit his government website with updates.

That’s not enough, said Stephanie Schmid, who ran against Smith in 2020. To Schmid and others, fading into the background in times of crisis is the congressman’s hallmark.

Why won’t he speak with the authority of his 40 years in Congress and lead his party away from their worst inclinations?

“He did this because he refuses to accept any criticism from or engage in a dialogue with those constituents who disagree with him,” she wrote on Twitter. “As justified criticism from NJ-04 folks poured in and the media started to key in on Smith’s trafficking in Antifa conspiracy theories, Smith shut as much of it down as he could in the hopes that the media would let this go and he could continue to pretend to be a ‘bipartisan leader.’ Make no mistake, he is nothing of the sort and hasn’t been for many years. He is a profile in complicity, cowardice and cowering.”

“Nothing says 41 years of ‘leadership’ like the permanent out of office message Smith is implementing as the signature of his 21st term in Congress,” she wrote in another tweet. “NJ-04 deserves much more. What a disgrace.”

It hasn’t always been this way, though, said DeLuca. He said there are times when Smith works for all of his constituents, but spending “political capital” and “his extremist views on reproductive or LGBT rights” get in the way.

“There are plenty of causes Smith champions that I find worthy, and he is universally praised for his individual casework,” he said. “That these efforts are generally noncontroversial makes them no less noble. But why can’t Smith be more? Why won’t he fight for his constituents when the stakes are highest? Why won’t he speak with the authority of his 40 years in Congress and lead his party away from their worst inclinations?”

Basic leadership is what DeLuca and other Smith critics are left hoping for.

“That is what we needed during theTrump administration,” he said. “Every lie Trump told, whether it was cheating in an election, denying foreign intelligence or sowing doubt about election security, was greeted with Smith’s affirmative consent or silent acceptance. Smith wins his district by a comfortable margin and outperformed Trump in 2016 and 2020. There was little political risk to Smith speaking out in defense of our democracy. It would have cost him nothing. But he never did.”

Smith did not respond to a request for comment on this story.