Before too much time passed, I tried to sit down and process what happened on Wednesday. Here are my thoughts:
Now that the dust has settled, all too literally, on the events at the Capitol, I wanted to share a few thoughts on what it was like to be there, what it means to the country, and where we go from here. For the many of us that were present in Congress during 9/11, it brought back a flood of painful memories, but this time, the damage to our country was self-inflicted, and this time, we are far from unified as a result.
The storming of the Capitol was an act of insurrection, intended to disrupt the most fundamental act of our democracy – the peaceful transition of power. Both Houses of Congress and the Vice President gathered in a Joint Session in the Capitol to perform our duty under the 12th Amendment, to certify and count the electoral votes cast by the States.
In preparation for the Joint Session, and at the Speaker’s request, I had been working for months to study the Constitutional provisions and their history, to understand the role of the Vice President and Congress, to foresee any objections that might be raised and how to handle them, and to help manage our effort on the floor along with Representatives Zoe Lofgren, Jamie Raskin and Joe Neguse.
Shortly after the reading of the states began, a large group of Republicans, joined by the leadership of their conference, Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise, objected to counting the electors from Arizona and we divided into our respective houses to debate the matter.
When I spoke on the House floor in opposition to this challenge to the votes of millions of Arizonans, I wanted to emphasize that these Republican objectors were violating their oaths to defend the Constitution, regardless of the outcome of their objection, and doing grave damage to our democracy:
“Nor can we console ourselves with the intoxicating fiction that we can break that oath without consequence because doing so will not succeed in overturning the election. An oath is no less broken, when the breaking fails to achieve its end.
“We must be mindful that any who seek to overturn an election, will do injury to our constitution, whatever the result. For just as the propagation of a dangerous myth about this election made this moment inevitable, our actions today will put another train in motion. This election will not be overturned, but what about the next? Or the one after that?
“What shall we say when our democratic legacy is no more substantial than the air, except that we brought trouble to our own house, and inherited the wind.”
Indeed, although I did not know it, there was another train in motion only miles away. Nearby on the National Mall, the President of the United States was inciting a crowd of his supporters. He knowingly spread lies about fraudulent votes, suggesting that the election was stolen, and asserted that the Vice President could unilaterally overturn the results of a free and fair election in which 155 million Americans had cast their ballots. And then, he implored his crowd to go to the Capitol and do something about it. Trump even said he’d join them.
And so they did.
The scene was everything you have seen on television and more. I was on the House Floor taking notes for a rebuttal speech I would make later, when the Speaker was whisked out of the room by security, followed immediately by the Majority Leader, Steny Hoyer. The mob had broken into the Capitol, we were informed, and were headed our way. Police were discharging tear gas, there were reports of gunshots, and we were told to take out the gas masks under each seat and prepare to put them on. One of my colleagues, a veteran, was yelling instructions — “breathe slowly under the hoods or you will pass out.” That is when the mob reached the doors to the House chamber and started battering them and trying to break through. Capitol police pushed furniture in the way to barricade them out and drew their weapons. The mob broke the glass in the doors, and members were instructed by police to leave the chamber through the rear doors ASAP. We did.
As bad as it was, it could have been worse. There were many in the violent mob who had every intent to attack people they judged to be their enemies, and several Democratic and Republican members told me to try to keep out of sight. As one Republican said, “I know these people and can talk to them. You are in a whole different situation.” I don’t think he meant that he literally knew people in the mob, who were still disembodied and angry voices banging to get through the doors, only that he knew people like them and what they were capable of.
Capitol police ushered us to a secure location. On the way, one of the Republican members was carrying a large wooden stand he had taken from the House chamber, the hand sanitizer still attached to its top. I could tell he meant to use it as a club, if he needed to. “You that worried about your safety?” I asked him. “Yes,” he said, explaining that he had heard gunshots. I didn’t recognize him and only knew he was a member from the pin on his lapel. “How long have you been here?” I asked, expecting him to tell me that he was in his second or third term in Congress. “72 hours,” he said. “I just got elected.” I wasn’t sure what to say to reassure him, and merely deadpanned, “it’s not always like this.”
As we waited for police and National Guard reinforcements to arrive, I discussed with my colleagues what our next steps should be. I felt strongly that we needed to resume the proceedings as soon as it was safe to do so, that we could not let these thugs interrupt the transition of power any more than they had already. I was pleased to see that sentiment was widely held.
When we did resume, now in the evening, we voted down the objections to the Arizona electors, but nonetheless an astonishing number of Republicans still sought to overturn the results. And after resuming the Joint Session, Republicans objected to counting the certificates from yet another state, Pennsylvania. It was incredible to me that after all this, after seeing the clear and violent implication of their conduct, these members were not finished with their oath breaking.
Late in the evening, I spoke again on the floor. Remarking on the fact that Franklin Roosevelt had given his Four Freedoms speech exactly eighty years earlier, highlighting the dangers of “poisonous propaganda” to our democracy, I called on Republicans to stop. I emphasized the need for unity in the face of the attempted insurrection and a pandemic that is killing thousands of us every day:
“This is the urgency that our new president must address, a virus that will claim more American lives than all our casualties during WWII. To meet that moment will require unity, not discord, will require an abiding faith in our country, in our democracy, in our government’s ability to function and provide for the needs of its citizens.
“We cannot continue debating the merits of an election that was fairly conducted, and overwhelmingly won by Joe Biden.
“Have we not brought enough damage to this House, to this country? It must stop!”
But it didn’t stop. At around 3 am, we voted on the baseless objections to the Pennsylvania electors, and 138 members of the House (a large majority of the Republican Caucus and their leadership) as well as 7 Republican Senators, voted to reject the votes of millions of Pennsylvanians. Astonishingly, Republican members claimed that the ballots were fraudulent even though they had been elected on the very same ballots. Apparently, as I pointed out during the debate: “What value has consistency when measured against ambition?”
On Thursday morning, I felt a mixture of sadness at what our country has gone through, embarrassment at how we appear in the eyes of the world, anger at the irresponsible actions of my colleagues who have spread lies about the election for months and brought this on themselves and the nation, fury over a president who instigated the rebellion, and a grave concern over the future.
The actions of the mob and those who incited them, the President most of all, are despicable and outrageous, and those who committed crimes need to be held accountable. But we should not lose sight of the fact that what happened in the early hours of the morning, in a chamber with windows broken by bats and not far from statutes flecked with blood, was every bit as much an attack on our democracy as anything the mob tried to do. This assault on our Constitutional order was inspired by people wearing suits and ties, and cloaked in the genteel language of Congressional debate, but their purpose was no less ominous.
Donald Trump lit the fuse which exploded yesterday at the Capitol. Every day that he remains in office, he is a danger to the Republic, and he should leave office immediately, through resignation, the 25th Amendment or impeachment. He should have been removed from office a year ago when the House impeached him and we proved in the Senate trial that he abused his power to cheat in the election. During the trial, we warned that if left in office, he would try to cheat his way into staying there. As I said at the time, the odds that he would do so again were 100 percent.
And as much as I am pleased to see people resigning from his cabinet and former officials speaking out, where were they when they had a chance to stop this dangerous man from destroying the country, except by his side? As we read the sudden expressions of outrage from the likes of Bill Barr, Betsy DeVos, Mick Mulvaney and others, let us remember that these enablers wanted four more years of Donald Trump as president and worked hard to make that so. Their statements now are less about saving the country and more about saving what is left of their shattered reputations.
Donald Trump has been the worst president we have ever had and should be confined to the dustbin of history where he belongs — for this failed insurrection, and everything before it.
Yet even when he’s gone, the evil he has perpetrated will live after him. We can fortify the defenses of the Capitol. We can reinforce doors and put up fences. But we cannot guard our democracy against those who walk the halls of the Capitol, have taken an oath to uphold our Constitution, but refuse to do so.
The work to repair and defend our democracy has never been more urgent or daunting.
But we must never back down from this sacred task. I know I won’t.
Take care of yourselves.