For 13 minutes on Jan. 6, 2021, as smoke clouded the air and Vice President Mike Pence hid from rioters in his office adjacent to the Senate chamber, his Secret Service detail scrambled — in increasingly frantic radio messages — to clear a path for Pence to flee the Capitol.
“We need to move now,” an agent said, according to excerpts of radio traffic played by the committee. “If we lose any more time, we may lose the ability to do so.”
Pence’s Secret Service detail described smoke of unknown origin filling a hallway of the Capitol and protesters advancing on outnumbered police. “Harden that door up,” one agent said.
A White House security official who was monitoring the traffic told the committee that agents were “starting to fear for their own lives.”
“There were calls to say goodbye to family members, so on and so forth,” the security official said in audiotaped testimony. “For whatever the reason was on the ground, the VP detail thought that this was about to get very ugly.”
The communications of Pence’s Secret Service agents were among the most remarkable revelations of Thursday’s hearing. The committee featured snippets of radio traffic, a series of messages exchanged by security officials monitoring the traffic from the White House, and testimony from one of those officials.
Although the committee did not share which office the anonymous witness worked for, a very small group of individuals would have had access to such radio traffic. Secret Service staff in an emergency operations center monitor those communications. But it’s also likely that employees in the White House Situation Room could have tuned in to the radio traffic, because the Capitol was under attack and their job is to monitor threats to the country’s security.
Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), who co-chaired Thursday’s hearing, said the official’s name was being withheld out of concern that his testimony could draw retaliation.
The witness said he could tell the danger that Pence and Secret Service agents were in because some agents were yelling and screaming, and some sent “very personal” messages to have colleagues tell their families goodbye for them.
“It sounds like that we came very close to either, service having to use lethal options, or worse,” the official said. “At that point, I don’t know. Is the VP compromised? Is the detail? I don’t know. ... If they’re screaming and saying things like, ‘say goodbye to the family,’ like the floor needs to know this is going to a whole ’nother level soon.”
“The floor” could be a reference to the main office space of the National Security Council.
Indeed, less than a minute after Pence was rushed off the Senate floor to his hideaway just 100 feet away, the rioters — some of whom had earlier been chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” — breached the second floor of the Capitol, coming within spitting range of where the vice president was huddled with a small group of aides and family members.
Later, as agents escorted Pence, his wife and daughter and top advisers to a garage in the basement of the Capitol Visitor Center, Pence’s group came within 40 feet of the rioters as they raced through the underground complex, the committee found.
Trump was watching television footage of the riot in the West Wing dining room, and was well aware of the mob’s mood and actions, the committee showed.
But in a tweet at 2:24 p.m., the president further attacked his vice president, writing, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done.”
“USA demands the truth!” Trump concluded.
Sarah Matthews, a former White House communications aide who testified before the committee Thursday night, described how she had watched, in countless rallies, Trump’s supporters latch onto his every word.
The 2:24 p.m. message, she said, was like “pouring gasoline on the fire.”
The tweet convinced her to resign, she testified. It also prompted Matthew Pottinger, Trump’s deputy national security adviser, to leave his job, he told the committee on Thursday night.
“I simply did not want to be associated with the events that were unfolding at the Capitol,” Pottinger said.
During the hearing, committee members also played witness testimony recounting efforts by Pence to quell the riot from his secure location well into the afternoon of Jan. 6.
“He was very animated and issued very explicit, very direct, unambiguous orders,” said Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a taped deposition.
Milley recalled Pence’s directives: “Get the military down here. Get the [National] Guard here. Put down this situation.”