One House member texted his wife what he feared was a final goodbye. One recalled the look of pure hatred in the attackers’ eyes. Another would never forget the whine of a hundred gas masks, all operating at once.
For some House Democrats who were in the U.S. Capitol on tried to climb through when she was fatally shot, only a few feet away from a door that opened directly into the chamber.
Hearing the shot, Jacobs said she thought it was a flash-bang grenade.
“I remember sitting and thinking to myself, ‘Those doors are going to open and there’s going to be someone with a machine gun, and we’re all done for.’ And trying to think of what I needed to send my team, so that they could at least do something good with that death,” she said.
“I have been in pretty tough places. I worked [for] the State Department, the U.N., armed conflict. And it was definitely the closest I ever felt to feeling like I was going to die.”
McGovern and Gallego recollected trying to ensure no one was being left behind as the floor was evacuated, making them among the last to leave. As they entered the lobby, McGovern said he felt a surge of anger as looked to his left to see the attackers trying to break the glass.
“These people were breaking things, in this historic building. What the hell is wrong with you people?” he recalled thinking. “What I was really thinking was I wanted to turn and give them the middle finger and utter something that I don’t want to repeat here.”
The look in their eyes was what he said stayed with him.
“They seemed, like, manic, or it was like they were almost possessed in terms of just this anger. If looks could say, ‘I hate you,’ that’s the way I felt they looked at me,” he said.
‘Like Something Out Of The French Revolution’
Gallego said he had a personal reason as well for wanting to do all he could to save his fellow members. He said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from combat.
“One of the things I’ve always regretted, from my time in the war, were when I think [about] things I should have done that could have had better outcomes. I always carry that weight with me,” he said. He then paused as his eyes began to well up.
“So that day, I just knew that whatever I was going to do, I was not going to carry regrets again like that,” he said.
Allred said as he left the floor he saw a staffer grabbing the decorative inkwells on the speaker’s podium and another taking the ceremonial House mace, the two oldest objects in the House. The inkwells date from 1819 and the mace from 1841, replacing the one the British burned in 1814.
“It was like something out of the French Revolution or something, grabbing these kind of priceless heirlooms of our democracy and trying to preserve them from the mob.”
‘Being Taken Hostage Would Have Been The Best-Case Scenario’
According to the report by the congressional committee that investigated Jan. 6, the House leaders had been removed at about 2:25 p.m., a little over an hour after the session had started. The floor had been evacuated by 2:38 p.m. and the members in the gallery, who had to wait longer to get out, were gone by 3 p.m.
The lawmakers and staff and even some reporters were led through the Capitol grounds’ network of tunnels to a safe room in one of the three House office buildings. But that room had big windows, and members complained it didn’t feel very safe, so they were quickly relocated to a large room in another building.
But they weren’t out of the woods. There were still fears of attackers in the office buildings as well, and members worried their hiding place might be discovered.
While there was broad, bipartisan support for going back into session to finish the electoral vote counting as quickly as possible, there was also talk of simply continuing the count in the room, Jacobs and Gallego said.
Gallego wasn’t sure they should have even left the House floor. “We should have not shown we had fear and stayed there and continued to vote,” he said.
But as time passed with no signs of danger, lawmakers began to settle in. Many members took to their phones to call friends and loved ones to let them know they were all right, even if they weren’t sure they could say that.
“I thought that being taken hostage would have been the best-case scenario. I didn’t share that with my family at the time, of course,” Phillips said.
‘I Can’t Breathe’
By the time the building and grounds had been cleared by police pushing the attackers back, a job finished around 6 p.m., the stress had begun to wear.
Kuster said she turned around to notice a Republican lawmaker next to her was not wearing a COVID mask. She offered him one from her stock of extras in her purse.
“There’s a lot of people in this room, you shouldn’t be without a mask,” she told him.
“And he just looked at me. He declined and he said to me, ‘I can’t breathe.’”
“And I thought, ‘I can’t believe you just used those words,’” she said. The phrase had been a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement that reemerged in the summer of 2020, and which many Republicans had rejected.
After The Attack
‘Hard To Take’
When lawmakers returned to the chamber at 8 p.m. after about five hours away, it was a mess. The windows of the doors had been broken and glass was strewn everywhere. One member said a faint smell of tear gas could still be made out.
Democrats had assumed that because there was near-unanimity on returning to the floor as soon as possible and finishing the count, Republicans would also give up on their state-specific vote challenges. When that turned out not to be the case and objectors spoke up to dispute Pennsylvania’s results, tempers flared.
“People who I know and who I knew were frightened for their lives when we were in the secure location got up and made an objection. I think 140-some odd voted to object, and that was shocking to us. That was hard to take,” Kuster said.
At 3:32 a.m., the final objections had been dealt with and Biden was officially declared the 2020 winner. Jacobs, who returned to the chamber because “I didn’t want it to become this big scary place I was afraid to go to,” said she had expected more fanfare.
“I’ll be honest, it was a bit anticlimactic,” she said.
‘I’m Still Pissed At A Lot Of Them’
With three years’ hindsight, some of the takeaways in the interviews sound startlingly prescient, from lingering feelings of betrayal to uncertainty about what would be the impact of the attack.
“I’m still pissed at a lot of them,” McGovern said of his Republican colleagues. “All these weeks later, I really have a hard time looking at them. I mean, I don’t want to get into an elevator with them. I’m afraid I will say something that I will regret.”
Jacobs said her past in international affairs showed her the importance of there being consequences for attacks like Jan. 6.
“Having worked in a lot of countries that have been torn apart by violence, how your political leaders act in the wake of that violence is one of the most important things,” she said. She added it was important Trump had been impeached — even though he was not ultimately convicted — for his actions in allegedly inciting the attack.
“When you look historically at coup attempts or this kind of political violence,” she said, “if you don’t have accountability for the first attempt, you’re much more likely to get subsequent attempts.”