‘Citadel of democracy’ under siege: A reporter’s view inside the Capitol

Why We Wrote This

For our Christa Case Bryant, Wednesday was her third day on the job as the Monitor’s new congressional correspondent. Here’s how it looked through her eyes.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
Trump supporters storm into the U.S. Capitol during a rally to contest the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results by the U.S. Congress, in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021.

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“Pence has left! Pence has left!” a reporter yells through the Senate Press Gallery to all the journalists pecking away at their keyboards as Congress debates whether to sustain an objection to the Electoral College results.

It’s only my third day as the Monitor’s new congressional correspondent, and I can barely find my way to the cafeteria, let alone figure out the best escape route.

When I agreed to take this job, I was really looking forward to having a front-row seat to history. I just didn’t realize the history would be quite this consequential. Not since the War of 1812 has the Capitol been besieged – and never by American citizens.

You can read about how the day unfolded from a journalist’s perspective in the “deep read” version. But I’ll share here my biggest takeaway: The “citadel of democracy,” as Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio referred to Congress, is greater than any building. It lies in a shared commitment to ideals of liberty and justice for all. And every citizen, journalist, and public official has a role in defending that shared commitment.

“Pence has left! Pence has left!” a reporter yells through the Senate Press Gallery to all the journalists pecking away at their keyboards as Congress debates whether to sustain an objection to the Electoral College results.

Moments ago, I’d been peering over the balcony overlooking the Senate chamber where Vice President Mike Pence – in his capacity as president of the Senate – had been overseeing the proceedings. I’d just come back to my cubby to eat my lunch and am mid-bite when I see on my little TV that Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma has been abruptly cut short.

The Capitol is on lockdown, my editor texts me. An alarm sounds and a muffled recorded voice instructs everyone to stay away from windows and doors. Protesters outside are trying to storm the building, she adds.

Then the news about Mr. Pence’s departure rings out. “We’re locking the doors! You’re either in or you’re out!” shouts a staffer with the Senate Press Gallery, a suite with dozens of journalists’ desks that opens onto a balcony overlooking the Senate.

It’s only my third day as the Monitor’s new congressional correspondent, and I can barely find my way to the cafeteria, let alone figure out the best escape route. Follow the senators, says my editor. I grab my phone, notebook, and backpack and run back to the balcony. Below, senators are still milling around – some chatting, a few cracking smiles, others scribbling notes on the speeches they had prepared for this momentous day.

When I agreed to take this job, I was looking forward to having a front-row seat to history. I just didn’t realize the history would be quite this consequential. Not since the War of 1812 has the Capitol been besieged – and never by American citizens.

Earlier, I had listened to the Senate chaplain, Barry C. Black, offer his prayer for the day right in the chamber where we are all sheltering now. “Have compassion on us with Your unfailing love,” he said in his deep baritone voice. “Guide our legislators with Your wisdom and truth as they seek to meet the requirements of the U.S. Constitution.”

After the prayer, shuttling between the Senate and the House of Representatives, I could see crowds of protesters on the lawn facing the east side of the Capitol, waving huge blue flags bearing the president’s name. Their shouts and chants mingled with the voices of lawmakers, staffers, and journalists echoing inside the halls of Congress. Later I learned an even bigger crowd had amassed on the west side, where preparations are underway for the inauguration in two weeks.

As I approached the large House chamber for the start of the joint session, I passed Howard Chandler Christy’s 20-by-30-foot painting of the signing of the Constitution, the document at the heart of today’s debate.

Now, all the lofty speeches about the Constitution have stopped, along with the rest of the day’s proceedings, as protesters break doors and windows and burst into the Capitol’s halls, shouting, “This is our house.”

All of a sudden, Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota yells out that shots have been fired. The chamber falls silent. Soon, all the senators are ushered to the front of the room to evacuate. Someone has the presence of mind to pick up the mahogany boxes containing the Electoral College votes on the way out.

What about us? What about us up here? someone yells from one of the balconies.

JUST GET OUT!

Reporters cram into the gilded elevators and head to the basement. When the doors open, we join a stream of senators heading for an undisclosed secure location. I find myself next to Sen. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, one of the more than two dozen Democrats who had run for president, and strike up a conversation. I ask him if he thinks this crisis might enable the Senate to come together at a time of such intense divisions. He says he’d just been discussing that with a colleague.

When we arrive at our temporary holding location, the senators pour into a large room while the press hunkers down in an adjacent foyer. Journalists share power cords, words of support, and tidbits of news, many sitting cross-legged hunched over their laptops. Amazingly, warm food – steak and chicken with rice and Brussels sprouts – appears from somewhere. FBI and other law enforcement officials with large assault weapons are standing guard, making for a well-protected trip to the bathroom.

My phone is lighting up with messages from colleagues, friends, and family. The outpouring of support is extraordinary. It also drives home just how much our Capitol is a symbol not only to Americans but to those around the globe, and how today’s events are reverberating worldwide. One of my international classmates from The Fletcher School comments that if you’ve grown up in a country where you don’t take democracy for granted, then you saw this coming.

Finally, after several hours, House and Senate leaders announce that Congress will reconvene that evening, and we are ushered back into the Capitol. Partway there, we are asked to step aside for two women carrying one of the boxes of electoral votes back toward the Senate chamber.

In just a few hours, the mood has shifted from fear to resolve. 

“We will not be intimidated,” says Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, a Republican, as debate continues over whether to sustain an objection to counting the electoral votes of Arizona, one of six battleground states that President Donald Trump lost. “Here in the citadel of democracy we will continue to do the work of the people. Mob rule is not going to prevail here.”

Amid pleas on both sides to put the interests of the American republic above partisan motives or personal ambition, perhaps none stand out as much as that of Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a veteran who lost both legs fighting in Iraq.

“I refuse to let anyone intent on instigating chaos or inciting violence deter me from carrying out my constitutional duties,” she says. “My troops didn’t sign up to defend democracy in war zones thousands of miles away only to watch it crumble in the hallowed halls here at home. Yet that is what this effort amounts to – an attempt to subvert our democracy, and in the process it is threatening what makes America American.”

Some Republicans point out that it’s possible to believe there are issues of electoral integrity worthy of further investigation, while also unequivocally denouncing violence and respecting the will of the people.

Others remind their colleagues of how this looks to those abroad, especially foreign adversaries.

“Beijing, they’re high-fiving because they point to this and say – this is proof the future belongs to China, America is in decline,” thunders Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. “There’s nothing Vladimir Putin could have come up with better than what happened here. It makes us look like we’re in total chaos and collapse.”

In the wee hours of the morning, they finally certify Mr. Biden’s victory, overruling objections by 138 Republican House members and six senators. 

As cleaning staff quietly begin to sweep up debris and lawmakers and their staff survey the damage, it’s clear to everyone that the building will be repaired and security lapses addressed. Fixing what has gone wrong in our politics, however, remains a more challenging task.

I walk out of the Capitol around midnight, past the shattered glass windows and the heavy law enforcement presence, into the still night air. Looking back at the illuminated dome, my biggest takeaway is that that citadel of democracy, as Senator Portman put it, is greater than any building. It lies in a shared commitment to ideals of liberty and justice for all. And every citizen, journalist, and public official has a role in defending that shared commitment. 

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