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Derrick Van Orden Makes No Apologies for Being a Jerk
The Wisconsin congressman seems determined to further his reputation as a magnet for bad press.
IN MARCH 2021, DERRICK VAN ORDEN WROTE an op-ed for the La Crosse Tribune blasting Ron Kind, the Democrat representing Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District, for his vote a few days earlier against the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. He called this vote “one of the most blatant displays of lack of character, integrity, and courage by a politician in the [sic] modern American history.”
Van Orden, a former Navy Seal and sometime movie actor, noted that Kind had voted for the bill in June 2020 but was one of just two Democrats in Congress who voted against it when it came up again in 2021. “The only difference between now and then,” Van Orden wrote, is that, in between the two votes, “Ron almost lost his job.”
In the fall of 2020, Van Orden came close to beating Kind, garnering 48.6 percent of the vote. He claimed in his op-ed that this was why Kind switched positions on the bill, which passed the House only to die in the Senate, and not for Kind’s stated reason that it failed to “increase resources for de-escalation, implicit bias, and diversity training,” something he had worked for after the bill came up the first time. As Van Orden put it, “By this unprincipled vote [Kind] has proven unequivocally that he is a used car salesman of a political opportunist who is willing to say or do anything to maintain his personal political power.” A month after he wrote his op-ed, Van Orden launched his second bid for Kind’s seat.
To be clear: Van Orden was attacking Kind for not supporting a bill that Van Orden himself clearly abhors, to judge from his derisive comments about its call to end the qualified immunity that protects law enforcement from liability even for egregious misconduct. (Van Orden’s spokesperson, Anna Kelly, did not respond to an email asking his position on the bill, which will likely be reintroduced in the current session of Congress.)
As it turned out, Van Orden’s blustery assertion that Kind voted against the George Floyd bill to secure his reelection fell apart a few months later when Kind announced that he was retiring after a quarter century in the House. Van Orden went on to be elected to Kind’s seat, thanks to an endorsement from Donald Trump and aggressive redistricting by state Republicans, who now hold six of the eight congressional seats in the politically evenly divided state of Wisconsin.
Of course, Van Orden did not acknowledge his error or apologize for conjuring up a fake, cynical reason for why Kind did not back the bill. That’s really not his thing.
As a freshman member of the majority party in Congress, Van Orden has largely failed to gain traction for his efforts related to veterans, immigration, infrastructure, and congressional rules. Eight of the 11 bills he’s sponsored—including those to make U.S. citizenship a prerequisite for getting a driver’s license and to bar members of Congress from going on to become lobbyists—have zero cosponsors.
But Van Orden has distinguished himself for boorish behavior that puts him among the most obnoxious MAGA Republicans in Congress. Exhibit A is the vulgar and perhaps drunken tirade he unleashed upon a group of teenage Senate pages in the U.S. Capitol in late July.
ACCORDING TO news accounts, the 16- and 17-year-old pages were lying on the rotunda floor just after midnight taking photos of the dome, a Senate page tradition. Van Orden, who had been holding a beer and cheese event in his Capitol office that evening—a photo posted by a reporter shows empty alcohol bottles on a desk in his office—came upon the group and flipped out.
“Wake the fuck up, you little shits,” he shouted. “What the fuck are you all doing? Get the fuck out of here. You are defiling the place.” Van Orden also called the pages “jackasses” and “pieces of shit.” An eyewitness cited by NBC News said he was “screaming inches from the pages’ faces” and repeatedly made a “shooing” gesture at them.
In response to media inquiries about the encounter, Van Orden offered no apologies and instead claimed the moral high ground. In a widely disseminated statement, Van Orden noted that the rotunda had served as a field hospital for Union soldiers, adding that the Capitol as a whole “is a symbol of the sacrifice our servicemen and women have made for this country and should never be treated like a frat house common room.”
He added: “Luckily, bad press has never bothered me and if it’s the price I pay to stand up for what’s right, then so be it.”
It’s a good thing Van Orden likes bad press because he got plenty of it. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he was “shocked” by Van Orden’s behavior and his refusal to apologize. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) agreed with Schumer, saying “everybody on this side of the aisle feels exactly the same way.” Sen. Tom Tillis (R-N.C.) said in a tweet: “This is inexcusable and embarrassing behavior for a member of Congress or any adult for that matter. The Congressman should do the right thing and apologize.” Chimed in Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.): “For someone to perhaps drunkenly, and definitely belligerently, yell at these kids for enjoying our nation’s Capitol is just stupid. He would be best to say it was stupid and just move on.”
Pocan also argued that Van Orden’s deep respect for the sanctity of the U.S. Capitol was nowhere in evidence when he joined thousands of Republicans there on January 6, 2021. Referring to Van Orden’s bizarre claim the pages’ actions were tantamount to lying “on the grave of a soldier that died fighting for freedom,” Pocan mused, “Wonder if he told that to his fellow insurrectionists, who were beating police officers on the same ground?”
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Van Orden has long insisted that he did not enter the Capitol grounds, although the Daily Beast later unearthed photos on social media showing him in a restricted area that could be reached only by crossing police barricades. Van Orden was also among the named plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed shortly after the 2020 election by Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, contesting the result; he said his name was included without his permission.
IN FACT, BAD BEHAVIOR WITHOUT contrition or apology is pretty much standard operating procedure for Van Orden. This isn’t even the only time he’s directed his wrath at a teenager.
In June 2021, after he had been a congressman for six months, Van Orden tore into a 17-year-old girl who was working at Prairie du Chien Memorial Library in western Wisconsin, because he was upset about a display of LGBTQ fiction and nonfiction books in the children’s section, which had been set up as part of the library’s recognition of Pride Month. He was especially corked to find a book called A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, which tells a fictional story about how Mike Pence’s actual pet rabbit falls in love with and marries another rabbit of the same sex.
“His voice was loud, he was aggressive, he had his finger jabbing into [the book] constantly,” the girl, Kerrigan Trautsch, told the La Crosse Tribune. He demanded to know who had put up the display so he could “teach them a lesson.” She did not volunteer that it was her display. “He was full on shouting at this point and he kept aggressively shoving the books around.”
Van Orden checked the objectionable books in the display out of the library so that others could not.
In response to the paper’s interview request about this incident, Van Orden issued a statement in which he claimed to support equal rights for all Americans, including LGBTQ people. He cast blame for his deplorable behavior conveniently outward, saying “there are people who continue to divide us as Americans for political purposes. I will not allow them to further degrade the relationships we have as citizens.”
Van Orden has played bit part roles in movies including Act of Valor (2012), in which he delivers the line “Shit filter’s full” while interrogating a terrorist. In August 2021, as a candidate for Congress, he was fined and ordered to take a firearms safety course after screeners at an airport in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, found a loaded handgun in his carry-on luggage. His campaign said it was a mistake for which he apologized to TSA workers while suggesting it was no big whoop because Van Orden is “a decorated Navy SEAL veteran with 5 deployments to combat zones who is an expert with firearms and firearm safety.”
In his 2015 memoir, Book of Man: A Navy SEAL’s Guide to the Lost Art of Manhood, Van Orden bragged about having exposed a hospitalized male lieutenant’s enlarged scrotum to a pair of female officers who happened to be nearby. He said the “cute girls,” which is how he described the officers, “gasped in horror as they saw the LT in all of his glory. I’m sure they never wanted to have anything to do with a man ever again.”
In a 2020 statement to a La Crosse television station, he claimed his action constituted medical training: “I discussed the treatment modalities used to approach the problem set and the pharmacological interventions utilized to ensure that the SEAL officer could maintain a patent airway.” Yeah, right.
See a pattern? Van Orden’s revolting behavior is always excusable and never his fault. As he heads onto the 2024 election, where he already has one declared Democratic opponent (Rebecca Cooke, a former small business owner and founder of a nonprofit group that helps women entrepreneurs), expect that there is nothing he won’t say or do anything to maintain his personal political power.