'Find a place to hide or seek cover': A harrowing day at the U.S. Capitol for Texans in Congress

click to enlarge A mob of Trump supporters overruns the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. - J.M. Giordano
J.M. Giordano
A mob of Trump supporters overruns the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.
Like just about every other Capitol Hill staffer, Jose Borjon was worried about trouble on Wednesday.

The top aide to U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez was unnerved by President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and that of his followers ahead of Congress’ traditionally ceremonial counting of the Electoral Votes — so much so that he ordered all but one of the staffers in the McAllen Democrat’s office to work from home. Across the chambers and aisles of Congress, other chiefs of staff took the same approach.

“It’s a very unfortunate day for this country,” Borjan told the Texas Tribune on Wednesday. “I was preparing our staff for this. The president’s rhetoric does not help in this matter, so I took all the measures needed. … I closed down the office completely.”

Just a block or two away from the Capitol, Texas-based GOP consultant Susan Lilly was in town and felt a similar unease as she walked around Capitol Hill Wednesday morning.

“Eerie quietness and no one on the street, silence where on a normal day would be anything but silent,” she described the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, the wife and son of Dallas Democratic U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, a Dallas Democrat, also happened to be in town.

“I said goodbye to them this morning knowing it was going to be a tough day, expecting there might be some incidents,” he said.

click to enlarge U.S. Rep. Colin Allred took this photo after he was sworn in as a member of the 117th Congress. Days later, mobs swarmed the Capitol. - Twitter / @RepColinAllred
Twitter / @RepColinAllred
U.S. Rep. Colin Allred took this photo after he was sworn in as a member of the 117th Congress. Days later, mobs swarmed the Capitol.

Practically everyone with anything to do with Congress anticipated a bad day. But when pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol steps, halls and offices, Texans who serve in Congress and the people who work for them were left frightened for their physical safety and for the future of American democracy.

House Democratic members had encouraged each other to avoid walks to the Capitol in the open streets, from wearing the Congressional pins that might mark them as potential targets for violence, and to generally stay within the relative safety of the U.S. Capitol complex. Some more senior members of the delegation recalled the bitter protests around the facility in 2010, ahead of the vote for President Barack Obama’s health care law.

This is the account of about a dozen Texas staffers and members who experienced the moment pro-Trump rioters breached security at the U.S. Capitol. A number of staffers requested anonymity for fear of violence.

'Find a place to hide or seek cover'

At 1 p.m. members began counting the Electoral College votes of the states, in alphabetical order. Members went into their respective chambers — the Senate and the House — to debate counting of Arizona’s certification after Republican members, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, raised objections. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delivered an emotional speech from the Senate floor, an implicit broadside to Cruz and others who were objecting to he certifying the votes.

Then Cruz took to the floor, declaring it “a time when democracy is in crisis” and making his case for interfering in what is traditionally a mostly ignored and ceremonial step on the way to a presidential inauguration.

In the House, a few members were also debating the Arizona votes. Only a few members were on the floor, in accordance with COVID-19 precautions. In the gallery looking down, other members observed the floor proceedings in assigned time slots.

Across the street, other Texas staffers and members were stationed in their offices. As the debate began, one Republican staffer watched the crowds outside of the Capitol swell.

“It just started building and building and building,” he told the Tribune. “There was some kind of cherry bombs or fireworks amid the megaphones and speeches.”

“It went from bad to worse,” he later recounted.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, watched the same scene through his office window in the Rayburn House Office Building.

“It just was unbelievable,” he said. “I saw a few of the police running around the Capitol to get over there to the west front and seeing more and more protestors arrive. They eventually got up on the stand for the cameras for the Inaugural and eventually got in the door there. It was an incredible day.”

Doggett could hear alarms going off, and began receiving text alerts to his phone. Security warnings are not that unusual around Congress — they’re often false alarms over suspicious packages. This text, however, shocked him and other members.

“Due to ongoing police activity and continuing security threat inside the building, if you are in a public space, find a place to hide or seek cover,” he read from his phone to the Tribune.

'Nancy wasn't at the podium.'

Inside the Capitol, sophomore U.S. Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, D-Houston, was stunned with what she saw.

“I stepped out in the gallery to make a phone call, and actually walked down the hall and looked out the window and could see protestors on the steps,” she said.

“Protestors on the steps” is a massive breach of U.S. Capitol Police security. There are only a handful of entrances where visitors may enter the premises and on a normal day, anyone without proper identification is immediately blocked from access. But this was a mob scene.

Allred was on the floor in a new leadership role. He grew increasingly alarmed as alerts came into his phone, most specifically that his office building — Cannon — had been locked down due to concerns of an explosive device and that rioters were rushing the steps of the Capitol.

“Then I saw the security details for the congressional leaders come basically running into the House chamber, which never happens, and the speaker was taken down from the rostrum,” he said, describing the scene where leadership was evacuated from the Capitol.

Downstairs, off the House floor, U.S. Rep. Sylvia R. Garcia, D-Houston, was in the ladies room and oblivious to the escalation. A Capitol Police Officer pulled her out of her restroom stall and directed her back to the House floor. She was startled to see Pelosi missing. Fletcher, too, reentered the chamber and was shocked at the scene before her.

“When I walked in, Nancy wasn’t at the podium, and I thought this is … serious,” Garcia said.

House members attempted to resume the proceedings but were continually interrupted by Capitol Police. The noise from the Trump supporters began to alarm them. The police began to lock the doors from the inside.

“They’re really not security doors,” Allred said. “They’re mostly ceremonial doors.”

Law enforcement then made a stunning — but obvious — announcement: The Capitol was no longer secure.

Members were ordered to stop the proceedings and to reach under the seats and put on gas masks, as tear gas was being deployed in the Capitol. Up in the gallery, Fletcher had never worn such a device; she credited the colleagues she was with — a retired Army Ranger and a former 911 telephone operator — for setting the tone of calm.

Adrenaline pumping, Fletcher and her colleagues followed police orders and crawled in front of the gallery seats toward an exit. Someone knocked on that door. Not knowing who it was, Fletcher removed her Congressional pin in hopes of not attracting a rioter’s violence.

“We didn’t know who was on the other side of the door,” she said. “It turned out it was the Capitol Police.”

Holding the doors shut

Back across the street in his office, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, watched the events unfold on television and was increasingly frightened.

“We heard the protestors outside the door outside, and we barricaded the door,” he said.

Doors were being barricaded on the House floor as well.

Along with U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma, the four Texas Republican freshmen — U.S. Reps. Tony Gonzalez of Del Rio, Pat Fallon of Prosper, Ronny Jackson of Amarillo and Troy Nehls of Sugar Land — held the doors shut, according to a Fallon Facebook post. Jackson and Gonzalez are military veterans and Nehls is a former county sheriff.

“We broke off furniture to make clubs to defend the US House of Representatives,” Fallon later wrote on Facebook.

“We then helped the police barricade the set of doors we were guarding with a large piece of furniture and we had stepped to the side to place it there and that’s when the small pieces of glass went flying.”

Allred, a retired NFL football player, sent a text to his pregnant wife expressing his love for her and then got ready to help hold the door.

“At that point, it did not appear to me we had an exit,” Allred said.

Members could hear yelling and bangs outside of the chamber. And then they received evacuation orders.

“I took off my jacket, took off my tie, was prepared to do, to face, whatever was going to come through those doors,” he said.

In a scene he described as “apocalyptic,” Allred saw Capitol Police with guns drawn, windows broken, House staffers grabbing heirlooms from the rostrum, in the words of one the parliamentarians, “so they wouldn’t be lost to history.”

Lawmakers moved to a secure the location as police officers yelled at them to run. There was confusion over how to best help a congressman who was using a wheelchair.

“It’s not a place of violence. It’s not a place of this kind of unconstrained rage that you say,” Allred said. “To have to flee the way we did, to have to really not be sure of our own safety during that time, and to see some of the kind of important artifacts and iconography of our democracy, people having to grab them and hope that looters and rioters don’t destroy them — that’s not something you expect to see in the United States.”

Eventually, all of the Texans made their way to safety, and spent the rest of the day in lockdown in undisclosed locations. Some staffers locked themselves in their offices, while others scattered in hiding places. Many had no access to television to understand the scale of the breach, but were overwhelmed with concerned texts and calls. All described a lost sense of time. The recurring term that emerged from the interviews was that this was “a sad day.” Doggett and McCaul worried about the perception of America because of these scenes.

'End of this nightmare'

Many of those Texans were still stunned hours later, just before both chambers reconvened. Fletcher, a trial attorney in civilian life, struggled to articulate her feelings.

“For me, who’s relatively new here, there’s really a majesty to this place and it is … it is the Capitol of the United States of America. To see it attacked? And to be present on this assault for our democracy and our country was just … it’s an assault on everything that we do right.”

McCaul did not mince words, calling it a riot.

“To see the Capitol invaded and disgraced as it was by these protestors, they deserve to be prosecuted for what they did,” said McCaul, a former prosecutor.

“Our leaders need to be honest with the American people, and not mislead them that the Congress can somehow overturn an election. We don’t have that constitutional power and these people thought that was going to happen.”

“I hope this is the beginning of the end of this nightmare,” McCaul added. “The president needs to be responsible.”

Allred seethed as he put the events in perspective.

“It’s something I will never, never, ever forget, seeing people staring through broken glass that they’d broken out,” he said. “Capitol Police barricading a door to the U.S. House floor, it’s just something that’s indescribable, and it was far, far worse than any picture can convey and it was extremely dangerous. … Just a few minutes later, had we tried to evacuate then, we would have seen a lot of members of Congress injured and attacked.”

The chaos stretched beyond the Capitol grounds. Authorities deactivated a bomb at the Republican National Committee’s headquarters. Members saw blood and protestors in paramilitary gear. And a woman was shot and killed trying to get into the House floor.

Police evacuated Lilly, the Republican consultant, from her nearby townhouse. She concurred with Allred that television images fall short of conveying the terrible scenes they witnessed.

“People need to know back home this is serious,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, was not on the Capitol grounds but heard the nonstop sirens. He was en route to the Capitol and turned around when he received the warning texts.

He called out the Republican members who said they would object to the Electoral College certification.

“I hope that they’re embarrassed and ashamed,” he said. “This is going to change politics forever.”

Just before midnight, both chambers returned to a secured U.S. Capitol to vote down that initial objection to certifying the Arizona results.

More than half of Veasey’s Republican colleagues sided with Trump in his effort to overturn the election.

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