What January 6 Made Clear to Me

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Written By Pinang Driod

The sixth of January is the date prescribed in United States law for Congress to count the electoral votes in the presidential election. It is an occasion of high drama with specific requirements: the security of the mahogany boxes containing the states’ Electoral College certificates; the timing of the joint session of Congress, called to order at 1 p.m.; the precise rules that spell out that the debate on objections to the count shall proceed “clearly and concisely.”

On January 6, 2021, my daughter Alexandra brought her two sons to the Capitol to witness this historic occasion of a peaceful transfer of power. My grandsons did witness history that day, just not the history anyone expected.

The former president had long planned for the nullification of the election, sowing doubt about the results even before ballots were cast and challenging the results in the courts. So before the joint session, we prepared for the possibility of objections to the Electoral College votes by Republican members of Congress. It was clear that the results from Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin would be the targets. Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland strategized with members of Congress from those states about how we would respond to and defeat the objections on the House floor, based on the facts and the laws.

The joint session on January 6 was called to order at 1 o’clock by the vice president. The first Republican objection to a state electoral vote came with Arizona. During that debate, at about 2:15 p.m., my security detail rushed to the speaker’s chair and told me that I had to leave immediately. We left so fast that I didn’t even have time to bring my cellphone with me.

Having failed to overturn the election results in the courts or in Congress, the president had resorted to insurrection in the Capitol. A violent mob—enflamed by the “Stop the Steal” rally held by the former president—had marched to the Capitol, broken through the outer police barrier, and reached multiple entrances to the building. Smashing in windows and breaking down doors, they stormed inside, seeking to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power.

More than 2,000 rioters made it inside the building. Some in the mob were yelling “Hang Mike Pence”—angry that the vice president refused to follow the former president’s diabolical order to overturn the election results. At the same time, the massive crowd swarmed outside my office chanting “Nancy, Nancy, Nancy,” even screaming about wanting to put a bullet in my head.

I was awed by the courage of the Capitol Police and the D.C. Metropolitan Police, defending our temple of democracy and protecting the people inside. Sadly, 140 police officers were injured by rioters. Many sustained long-lasting physical and emotional scars. Some officers later lost their lives.

I feared for those law-enforcement heroes, as I feared for my members, the congressional staff, the workers who maintain the Capitol, the press, and the others who were present that day. Their stories are harrowing—and demonstrate extraordinary courage.

Because of COVID, not all members could participate on the House floor. Jason Crow of Colorado was in the gallery with a group of members and journalists when the building was breached. A former Army Ranger, he snapped into action, telling them to leave their belongings behind, get down on the floor, and crawl toward a secure doorway where they could escape. As the mob outside pounded on the doors—some say it sounded like a battering ram—he even prepared them to use their pens as weapons, if needed. Jason, of course, was the last to leave the gallery.

I would learn, in heartbreaking detail, about what my own team endured on that day. These young staffers—some of the most civic-minded, patriotic folks you’ll ever meet—nearly came face-to-face with the rioters. For two and a half hours, they crouched in a small conference room with the door locked and barricaded, the lights off and in complete silence. As the savages tried to force their way in, my staff was forced to reckon with the possibility that they might never see their loved ones again.

Congressional leadership was taken to Fort McNair. As I left the Capitol, I kept asking if the National Guard had been called, a power reserved for the executive branch. While the governor of every state in the union has the power to call up their own National Guard, the District of Columbia’s National Guard is under the control of the Defense Department—and, ultimately, of the commander in chief.

When I got to Fort McNair, it was clear that no one had deployed the National Guard to the Capitol. As Senator Chuck Schumer and I watched the television coverage of the unfolding insurrection, we began to place urgent calls to the administration.

I contacted Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy, who could not have been more casual. In response to our pleas to dispatch reinforcements, he said: “Well, I have to report to my boss. That takes time. I don’t know what we can do.” His answer was horrifying.

While the Pentagon dragged its feet, Chuck, Representative Steny Hoyer, and I called the governors of Virginia and Maryland to ask them for help. Virginia law enforcement and National Guard troops began arriving in D.C. around 3:15 p.m., and Maryland was cooperative too.

Chuck, Senator Mitch McConnell, and I then contacted McCarthy’s boss, Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, to plead for more reinforcements. Mitch insisted that the National Guard “get there in one hell of a hurry, you understand?” I demanded an answer: “Just pretend for a moment it was the Pentagon or the White House or some other entity that was under siege.” Still, Miller delayed.

Hours later, the Capitol was finally cleared. While it was suggested that we continue the certification from Fort McNair for security reasons, it was always our goal to return to the Capitol that night to finish the count. The whole world had seen the vile “Stop the Steal” venom the president was pushing, and the violence that it had caused. It was essential that we continue our duties in the Capitol of the United States, for the American people and the world alike to see.

At 9 p.m., I returned to the speaker’s chair, took up the gavel, and called the House to order. I read a brief statement: “To those who engaged in the gleeful desecration of this, our temple of democracy … justice will be done.” And I vowed that Congress would “be part of a history that shows the world what America is made of.”

The House resumed debate on the Arizona objection, before the most astonishing thing happened. Even after barricading themselves in their offices, hiding under desks and chairs, and witnessing so much pain and trauma, an overwhelming majority of House Republicans voted against the election results in Arizona—including Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise, who had listened at Fort McNair as Mitch, Chuck, and I pleaded for the National Guard.

Thankfully, 303 members of the House voted against the objection, and it failed. If you can believe it, the Republicans then decided to bring up a challenge to the votes from Pennsylvania. The Senate rejected the Pennsylvania objection without debate, but the House suffered through two more hours of debate before the objection was finally voted down.

Late that night, Vice President Pence officially recorded the votes from all the states and declared Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election. As we shared the podium in the House during the joint session, I thanked and commended Pence for having the courage to do what was right, for honoring his oath of office to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” I also recognized the courage and commitment of the members and staff, who returned to the chambers that night and stayed until about 4 a.m., when we finally adjourned the January 6 session.

I remember the first time I saw the United States Capitol. I was 6 years old, and my family was traveling to Washington to see Daddy sworn in for his fifth term in Congress. As we approached our destination, my brothers were beaming as they said, “Nancy, look, look, there’s the Capitol!” And there it was: a magnificent white dome, towering and imposing, shining in the sun.

But more important than the beauty of the building is the majesty of what it represents. Long seen as a symbol of freedom and democracy around the globe, the Capitol dome was built by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. When some suggested that he halt construction to save steel and manpower for the war, Lincoln said no. He knew that finishing the dome would demonstrate America’s strength and resolve.

January 6 was another perilous moment for our democracy. It was an attack not just on the Capitol, but on our Constitution. And some who carried out the assault under Lincoln’s dome were carrying the Confederate flag. But on that dark night, Congress again projected America’s strength and resolve. Now, three years later, we are called on to do the same.

The threat to our democracy is real, present, and urgent. The parable of January 6 reminds us that our precious democratic institutions are only as strong as the courage and commitment of those entrusted with their care. We all share a responsibility to preserve American democracy, which Lincoln called “the last best hope of earth.”

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