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One month later, Northwest lawmakers reflect on ‘horror and disgust’ of the Capitol siege

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 10, 2021

FILE – In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo rioters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington.  (John Minchillo)
FILE – In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo rioters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington. (John Minchillo)

WASHINGTON – Last Wednesday, Rep. Dan Newhouse walked from his office on the south side of the U.S. Capitol to the rotunda under its iconic dome to pay his respects to Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, who was slain defending the building where his remains lay.

It followed four Wednesdays in January whose events made it clear there would be no fresh start in 2021 for a nation beset by overlapping political, economic and health crises.

Four weeks earlier, thousands of supporters of former President Donald Trump besieged the Capitol in the culmination of Trump’s two-month campaign to convince them the election was stolen from him. Sicknick was one of scores of officers hurt in the insurrection and succumbed to his injuries the next day.

A week later, Newhouse, who represents Central Washington, was among 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for his part in inciting the riot that left five dead, including 35-year-old Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt, a Trump supporter who was shot by an officer when she tried to get through the broken window of a door in the Capitol.

Three others also lost their lives after traveling to Washington to show their support for Trump on Jan. 6. Two men in their 50s reportedly died of a heart attack and a stroke in the crowd. A 34-year-old woman apparently was trampled to death as rioters tried to force their way past police.

Just a week after the impeachment vote, President Joe Biden took the oath of office in an eerily quiet Washington, D.C., outside a Capitol surrounded by razor wire and some 25,000 National Guard troops.

The next Wednesday, news broke that a Metropolitan Police officer had taken his own life in the days after the insurrection, the second suicide by an officer who had been charged with defending the Capitol and everyone inside.

With the Senate impeachment trial set to begin Tuesday, some lawmakers are eager to put the events of Jan. 6 behind them while others insist Trump must be held accountable. One thing they agree on is that the siege of the Capitol was an inflection point, either a wake-up call or a sign of things to come.

Four Northwest lawmakers shared their memories from that day with The Spokesman-Review.

Mixed feelings in the morning

On the night of Jan. 5, Rep. Kim Schrier already had a bad feeling about the next day.

The House and Senate were set to meet in a joint session to certify the Electoral College results that would make Biden’s win official. In years past, the vote has been largely ceremonial, since by that point the states have certified their respective results. But Trump and his allies had identified it as an opportunity to voice a range of objections, including concerns about changes to state election laws and claims of widespread fraud, for which GOP election officials and Trump-appointed judges have said there is no evidence.

Trump had also demanded Vice President Mike Pence, who was to preside over the vote, block the certification and prevent Biden from becoming president, something Pence maintained he had no authority to do. Still, Trump fans flocked to the nation’s capital, an eclectic group including some who returned to their hotels after peaceful rallies along with far-right groups like the Proud Boys that embrace violence.

“Everybody who thought about this for half a second knew that there would be violence,” said Schrier, a Democrat whose district stretches from Wenatchee to the Seattle suburbs. “These particular groups, these militia groups, right-wing extremists, they mean business. They are not going to come and peacefully protest. That is not their style.”

The next morning, Schrier coordinated a ride with colleagues instead of walking to work as usual. She followed instructions from the Capitol Police to stay indoors and use underground tunnels to move around the Capitol complex. Some of her colleagues, like Eastern Washington GOP Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, didn’t share Schrier’s concern.

“I was expecting a peaceful protest of the election by those who felt they continued to have questions and concerns about election procedure and changes that were made that had not been addressed,” McMorris Rodgers said.

The Spokane Republican remembers seeing a crowd gathering behind barricades outside the Capitol that morning, but said it was “nothing out of the ordinary.” Newhouse had a similar feeling, since protests are commonplace in the nation’s capital.

Rep. Russ Fulcher, a Republican who represents North Idaho, was more worried about accommodating Idahoans visiting to attend the multiple pro-Trump rallies scheduled that day. The public is normally welcome to visit representatives’ offices, but COVID-19 restrictions limit those allowed inside, and Fulcher ultimately had just one off-site meeting with a constituent that morning.

When he got to the Capitol, Fulcher exchanged greetings with some of the officers.

“We’ve got a big day coming up here,” the representative told them.

But from their nonchalant response, it was clear the officers didn’t know what was in store.

The department’s acting chief has since apologized, admitting leaders failed to prepare officers despite knowing two days earlier “there was a strong potential for violence and that Congress was the target.”

When Congress convened for the joint session around 1 p.m., Fulcher was on the floor of the House chamber. He was among the roughly two-thirds of House Republicans who planned to object to Electoral College results, heeding a demand Trump repeated in a speech to supporters outside the White House just before the session began. McMorris Rodgers had also announced her plan to object, while Newhouse and Schrier maintained Congress should respect the states’ results.

“Given the subject matter and just the gravity of it, I wanted to be there for pretty much the whole thing,” Fulcher said.

The breach

Newhouse was also on the floor when Congress began certifying the results in alphabetical order. When they got to Arizona, a state Biden narrowly won, Republicans objected and the House and Senate split to debate the matter in their respective chambers. After the first few speakers from each party made their cases, another lawmaker turned to Newhouse and told him his office building – where his wife and several staff members were – was being evacuated after a bomb was found nearby.

Newhouse rushed out the doors, through the Speaker’s Lobby and headed to the adjoining office building where the evacuees were forced to shelter. Minutes later, protesters would force their way past police and make their way to those same doors, by then hastily barricaded with furniture, where Babbitt was shot dead.

McMorris Rodgers was also on the House floor when she heard about the bomb threat. The debate continued, but soon after, word started circulating among the lawmakers that protesters had breached the Capitol. She looked up to see police had ushered House Speaker Nancy Pelosi away from the dais, then a voice instructed them to reach under their seats and remove the emergency gas masks hidden there, which they were to use when police deployed tear gas.

Fulcher had just begun his second term in Congress and had no idea the gas masks existed. He was sitting toward the back of the chamber and started to hear shouts coming from behind the doors. As other members began to panic, Fulcher instead went into “a little bit of an anger phase.” But then a loud noise came from outside – possibly the shot that killed Babbitt – and an officer tackled Rep. Dan Meuser, R-Pa., to the ground in the confusion of the moment in effort to protect him.

Another lawmaker turned to Fulcher and said, “We don’t know who this is, and if they’re armed, we’re sitting ducks.”

McMorris Rodgers was in a group closer to the front of the chamber when officers started ushering the lawmakers through a back door and into the underground tunnels. She texted her family to say she was safe and made her way to her office, where she and three of her staffers hunkered down for the next several hours.

As they sat watching the events unfold on TV, McMorris Rodgers decided she could no longer object to the Electoral College results. She was one of just two House Republicans to change her mind. Two-thirds of the GOP Conference still challenged the legitimacy of the election results when Congress reconvened that night.

“I felt like we’d lost the moment,” she said. “What was happening was disgraceful and un-American, and it had taken away our opportunity to actually raise these questions and raise concerns about election integrity.”

While Newhouse rushed to meet his wife and his staffers in the Longworth office building, Schrier was still there. Like many Democrats, she wasn’t eager to crowd into the chamber until the time came to vote. When the order came to evacuate the Cannon building next door, those in the Longworth building were told to lock their doors and turn their lights off.

After calling her chief of staff, Schrier realized her ground-floor office wasn’t safe and quickly contacted a friend, Rep. Sharice Davids, a Kansas Democrat and former mixed martial artist, who welcomed Schrier into her upstairs office.

They joked uneasily that Davids would defend them and Schrier, a doctor, would treat their injuries. As they sat in the dark watching the muted TV news, it became clearer how serious the situation outside the building had become. They barricaded doors and removed flags from outside the door so the poles couldn’t be used to break in.

“We just watched with disbelief,” Schrier said. “When you see people scaling the walls and breaking in windows, it’s just horrifying.”

Sheltering with Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., Newhouse watched the violence outside the window and on TV.

“We watched in horror and disgust,” Newhouse said. “The footage we were seeing was literally hand-to-hand combat between Capitol Police and this mob. There were just numerous acts of individual bravery from the police.”

Back in the House chamber, officers guided Fulcher and other lawmakers through another door, looking for a secure location to shelter. The group got separated a couple of times, Fulcher said – “like herding a bunch of cats” – but they eventually made their way to a large room where more than 100 people spent several hours.

After a few hours, Fulcher decided to see if he could leave. When nobody stopped him, he walked back to his office and prepared for votes to resume that night.

“It was important to go back and finish the job,” Fulcher said. “A lot of us were tired, a lot of us were frustrated, a lot of us had gone through a whole series of emotions, but at least it wasn’t giving people with really bad motives and unlawful behavior the win.”

Looking back on a day ‘that will go down in history’

The next day, Newhouse caught a flight home via Seattle. By coincidence, he sat next to Rep. Suzan DelBene, a Democrat who represents northwest Washington. Most of the other passengers, Newhouse said, appeared to be Trump fans chatting about their trip to the nation’s capital.

“Clearly it’s one of those dates that will go down in history in changing the culture of the U.S. Capitol,” Fulcher said, reflecting on the violence.

If there’s any silver lining, Fulcher said, it may be that Democrats who didn’t condemn the looting and arson that accompanied some racial justice protests last year have now seen violent social unrest up close. While he acknowledged that there was something different about violence in the Capitol, he said he sees a frustrating double standard in the attention left- and right-wing violence get from reporters and politicians.

Reflecting on the four years of the Trump administration, McMorris Rodgers said she is proud of what Republicans were able to accomplish, but conflicted about the means to those ends.

“I think, in the name of getting things done,” she said, “I excused behavior that is inexcusable.”

A month later, Newhouse said it’s important for people in Washington state not to forget what happened in the other Washington on Jan. 6.

“There was a line crossed, one of those Rubicons that in our civilized society people know you don’t do,” Newhouse said. “That was breached that day, along with the building itself.”

He also wants people to remember everyone who was in the Capitol complex that day, including the cleaners, cafeteria workers and legislative staffers.

“As time goes by, I think the seriousness of what happened kind of starts to soften and fade,” Newhouse said. “I joke that it’s kind of a good thing that the state of Washington is so far from Washington, D.C., but on the other hand we’re a little bit removed from what really happened here.

“And I want people to understand how serious of a thing this was.”

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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