A Republican Congressman who is also a staunch supporter of former President Donald Trump used language largely considered to be racist to describe the husband of a Democratic Black Congresswoman under federal investigation in connection to her spouse.
Texas Rep. Troy Nehls, a former sheriff who presided over a police department with a history of jail deaths and credible accusations of racial profiling, on Tuesday dog whistled his apparently implicitly biased opinion about Cortney Merritts, who is married to Missouri Rep. Cori Bush.
Nehls’ commentary came after Bush confirmed that the U.S. Department of Justice was investigating her for allegedly misusing campaign funds to pay for her personal security. Bush, a progressive member of “The Squad” first elected to Congress in 2018 as a prominent Black Lives Matter leader, said in a statement Tuesday that Merritts had been hired to work in that capacity because “he has had extensive experience in this area, and is able to provide the necessary services at or below a fair market rate.”
“As a rank-and-file member of Congress I am not entitled to personal protection by the House, and instead have used campaign funds as permissible to retain security services,” Bush said in part of her statement. “I have not used any federal tax dollars for personal security services. Any reporting that I have used federal funds for personal security is simply false.”
It was in that context that Nehls called Merritts a “thug” and blamed Bush’s “tone” for feeling the need for personal security.
I asked whether he was suggesting Bush deserves to be threatened, and Nehls said: “No, what I’m saying is, is that when you’re out there talking the way she does.. She’s pretty radical. And maybe she should tone it down a little bit.”
— Melanie Zanona (@MZanona) January 31, 2024
“She doesn’t even support the police,” Nehls said about Bush, a staunch advocate of defunding the police and reimagining public safety. “But the idea to pay her thug money to try to help protect her this and that, for what? Maybe if she wouldn’t be so loud all the time, maybe she wouldn’t be getting threats.”
Parsing that statement, it’s impossible to ignore the racial implications.
As Columbia University English professor John McWhorter notably told NPR in 2015 when addresing the way people in Baltimore reacted to the in-custody death of Freddie Gray, “the truth is that thug today is a nominally polite way of using the N-word.”
That is to speak nothing of Nehls referring to Bush as “loud,” an indirect reference to the “angry Black woman” stereotype that the National Museum of African American History & Culture describes as being characterized as “aggressive, loud, and angry – in direct violation of social norms.”
Bush promptly called on Nehls to apologize for his language.
.@RepTroyNehls just called my husband, a Black man and army veteran, a thug. And I’m the loud Black woman who needs to be silent in order to be safe from violence, or else?
This is the kind of rhetoric that endangers Black lives. He must apologize. https://t.co/QeqZ7yYfRX
— Cori Bush (@CoriBush) January 31, 2024
Who is Cortney Merritts?
Bush and Merritts secretly married early last year and will celebrate their second anniversary next month on Feb. 11, according to the River Front Times.
More from the River Front Times:
According to social media posts that have since been taken down, Merritts and Bush have known each other since at least 2021, when he was seen at her inauguration. He also accompanied her on several other trips, including to the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York, where she appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Merritts was then hired in 2022 and paid $62,359 in direct payments, with more than $2,000 of that consisting of cash reimbursements, according to campaign finance records. It is illegal to use campaign funds for personal use, but family and friends can earn money from a campaign if they are providing a “bona fide service,” according to election commission rules.
A rep for Bush at the time defended the Congresswoman’s marriage:
“Those who know the Congresswoman personally and have followed her inspiring story know that she is a survivor of multiple forms of violence, including intimate partner violence. That she has married someone who supports her in all that she does, including as Representative of the incredible people of St. Louis, is cause for great celebration.
“Our team hopes that everyone will join us in celebrating the Congresswoman during this joyous time while respecting her privacy as she and her husband begin this new chapter together.”
In March of last year, two conservative political groups filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission claiming Bush was illegally employing Merritts.
Both complaints “note that Merritts does not appear to have a private security guard license in either Washington or Missouri,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
“FEC rules do not contain a blanket prohibition on a candidate employing family members,” according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “The rule states that campaign funds may be used to pay family members, as long as the member provides a ‘bona fide service’ and that payments ‘reflect the fair market value.’”
Little else about Merritts is publicly known.
His social media profile on X shouts out “Black Lives Matter” and describes himself as a “Father and protector of two beautiful daughters” and an “Army Vet” who is “East St Louis born and raised.” The description is followed by a quote: “Speak the truth, even when your voice shakes.”
I was talking to Doug, the Second Gentleman, about the craziness in politics now. Especially dealing with our wives. He started going in like I’ve never heard him snap before. And then Anderson Paak popped up outta nowhere and calmed us both down. Like a shiny hair angel. pic.twitter.com/JbXJKzlR58
— Cortney Merritts (@CortneyMerritt4) September 25, 2023
Bush has long said that she’s faced death threats since taking office, many of which have been racist in nature.
White supremacists wanted me dead before I came to Congress. And white supremacist threats on my life have only intensified as a Black woman speaking truth in the halls of power.
Just know: They won’t stop us. They can’t.
TW: white supremacist violence pic.twitter.com/Rg5oZx1zW8
— Cori Bush (@CoriBush) July 22, 2021
NBC News determined that Bush has spent more than $750,000 on security services since she was elected.
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