‘We thought that we would die’: Lawmakers probe painful Jan. 6 memories

‘The threat that we all watched become a violent act only one year ago has only continued to grow,’ Peters says

By: - January 6, 2022 5:45 pm

Rioters enter the Senate Chamber on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Congress held a joint session today to ratify President-elect Joe Biden’s 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. Pro-Trump protesters have entered the U.S. Capitol building after mass demonstrations in the nation’s capital. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

Democrats in Congress marked the anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Thursday recounting the terror they experienced first-hand — and argued that it gives them even more reason to pursue voting rights legislation.

They remembered the desperate scramble to hang on to the boxes that held the presidential vote tally, the rush to hustle Vice President Mike Pence out of the Senate chair, the rioters pounding on the doors of the U.S. House chamber.

Rep. Ann McLane Kuster of New Hampshire said she and Rep. Sara Jacobs, (D-Calif.), crawled through the chamber as Capitol Police shouted commands and ushered members to safety.

“We thought that we would die,” she said. “As we jumped into the elevator just as the raging rioters came charging down the hallway, 1,000 acts of courage saved my life and saved our democracy by moments … What would they have done to us?”

The attack, and former President Donald Trump’s role in inciting it, are directly tied to the drive in Republican state legislatures to restrict voting rights, Senate Democrats said on the floor Thursday.

Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen fed both the Jan. 6 mob and state laws to restrict voting access, they said. Democrats are seeking to enact federal voting rights laws to counteract state-level restrictions.

“Sadly, as we mark this solemn anniversary, the threat that we all watched become a violent act only one year ago has only continued to grow,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.), chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, said.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters at the Detroit NAACP dinner | Andrew Roth

“The same bad actors who fueled the violence in the first place, including the defeated former president and his supporters, continue to spread the Big Lie that the election was stolen,” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, (D-Nev.), said.

“And they are using these false claims to pass legislation threatening our very democracy.”

Both senators, and other Democrats, urged the chamber to pass a voting rights bill as a way to respond to the attack and the threat to democracy they say it reflected.

No Republicans spoke on the Senate floor. Some were in Georgia attending the memorial service for the late Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson.

In a written statement, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell called the attack a “​​disgraceful scene (that) was antithetical to the rule of law,” but accused Democrats of using the event to advance their voting legislation.

Other Republicans, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, said Democrats were exaggerating the day’s significance.

“The upscale liberals who control the media and Democrat party believe Jan 6th was another Pearl Harbor or 9/11,” Rubio tweeted. “And the rest of America, including many Democrats, think they are nuts.”

Rep. Andy Kim, (D-N.J.), told a group of reporters in the Capitol that he was frustrated that Republicans have remained largely silent, but he’s not surprised because “we’ve heard how they’ve marred the truth of Jan. 6 over the last year.”

“I listened to my Republican colleagues on the night of Jan. 6, and they were calling for accountability,” he said. “Many of them said what happened was criminal, many of them said what happened was un-American, many of them including (House minority leader) Kevin McCarthy said that the president was responsible for this.”

A photo of Kim, on his knees, cleaning up the trash and debris on the floor of the Capitol Rotunda following the attack, went viral on social media. 

As lawmakers struggled to come to grips with the legacy of Jan. 6 on Thursday, American flags remained at half staff at the Capitol and the Senate and House office buildings.

In remarks on the Senate floor and in a House Democratic Caucus room in a Capitol office building, dozens of Democrats related their accounts of the attack.

  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota recounted how she was preparing to certify the presidential election vote when an evacuation was ordered. A staff member shouted “take the boxes” as senators and staff left the chamber, seeking to preserve the containers holding the official Electoral College vote tally, she said.  “We knew they would be destroyed if they were left behind,” she said. Other staff members hid in a closet, “with only forks that happened to be next door to protect themselves,” she said.
  • Cortez Masto said she first noticed something amiss when she looked through an open door to a Senate bathroom normally shared by senators and saw a Capitol Police officer was flushing pepper spray from his eyes. After evacuating to a secure location, she returned that night to the scene of a vandalized Capitol. “I’ll remember what I saw the rest of my life,” she said. “As I walked back, furniture had been thrown everywhere, like matchsticks. Trash, broken glass littered the floor. It was like a war zone.”
  • Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota said her husband, Archie had asked, as she prepared to head to the Capitol the morning of the attack, if she would be OK.   “I said to him, ‘For sure, the United States Capitol is one of the safest places in the country. I’ll be fine,’” she recalled Thursday. She also wrote down a few of her own thoughts that morning, she said. “‘We will get through this day,’ I wrote that morning. ‘I truly believe our democracy is resilient and will get through this coup attempt.’… Little did I know.”
  • Peters said he vividly remembered the stoppage of Senate business as the mob breached the Capitol that only hinted at the “shocking and unthinkable” attack taking place elsewhere. “I was here, in this chamber, as we were conducting the ceremonial certification of our election,” he said. “I just remember so vividly as the proceedings were so abruptly paused and the vice president was hurried off of the podium by the Secret Service and the confusion as we evacuated. “And in that moment, none of us were aware of the brutal altercations that were unfolding all around us.”
U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) speaks to media following a Democratic presidential debate in Flint on March 6, 2016 | Andrew Roth

House members, some of whom were trapped in the chamber as the rioters advanced, shared their accounts.

  • Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) said he laid on the floor of the House gallery and called his family to tell them he was safe, “even though I was not sure that I was.” Kildee said he still carries a piece of glass from a window broken during the Capitol attack in his pocket as a reminder of “how bad that day may have been.”
  • Rep. Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania said she would always remember the sounds of Capitol Police and other members shouting commands to stay down and put on gas masks. “And then the pounding on the doors, that haunting sound I will never forget,” she said.  The sound “of the constant whirring of the gas masks” that members wore as they fled the chamber would also stay with her, she said.
  • Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, a former Army Ranger who helped other House members trapped in the chamber during the attack, presided over the House event.

States Newsroom reporter Ariana Figueroa contributed to this report.

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter in the States Newsroom Washington bureau. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues as well as climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.

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