The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What congressional leaders were doing as the mob stormed the Capitol

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a previously unseen video from a secure location at the Capitol, shown Oct. 13 during a hearing of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
4 min

It is understandable that a House committee tasked with detailing a violent attack on the House of Representatives should spend some amount of time articulating the threat they themselves faced. For the most part, the House select committee probing the attack at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, has largely focused elsewhere, discussing the threat to themselves far less often than the threat the day’s violence posed to American democracy.

On Thursday, though, during what is likely to be the committee’s last public hearing, several minutes were devoted to showing a specific facet of how the threat to legislators unfolded. For the first time, Americans were given a look at what congressional leaders were doing as the rioters ransacked their offices and rifled through their desks.

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The footage began with the initial evacuation of House members out of the chamber. Not all were immediately evacuated; photos of legislators huddling for safety in the chamber’s balcony are an important part of the historical record of the day. But leaders including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) were removed to a safer, unidentified position.

The video shown by the committee included only snippets, a segment of professionally filmed interactions or phone calls. Those were interspersed with footage showing what was happening in and around the Capitol itself: police being beaten, protesters loudly seeking out Pelosi herself.

The first snippet shows Pelosi and Clyburn in a small auditorium somewhere in the Capitol complex. (The leaders were removed from the Capitol itself through the tunnel system.) In that room, Pelosi and Clyburn are informed (with Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) in the background) that those remaining in the House chamber had been asked to don gas masks as rioters neared.

Pelosi turns to Clyburn. “Do you believe this?” she asks. He doesn’t answer, as he didn’t need to.

Then, footage of those representatives evacuating, some with heads covered by the masks that many probably had no idea were readily at hand.

One thing that jumps out from the video is how omnipresent the pandemic is. This was near the height of the daily death toll, and nearly everyone shown is wearing a mask. In the first shot of the auditorium, shown at the top of this article, two out of three seats are taped off in a wan attempt at social distancing.

Pelosi is shown calling various leaders: the governor of Virginia, the acting head of the Justice Department. She was making those calls, of course, because President Donald Trump wouldn’t.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) eventually joins her.

This image is striking: the leftover Christmas tree in the background, the generic office space suddenly repurposed as a command center. Schumer’s socks, certainly.

A screen is lowered and the assembled politicians put on CNN, which is how Pelosi learns that windows in the building have been broken. According to the video she was on the phone with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam at the time.

Republicans join them. In the image below you can see House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) at far left. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is shown next to Pelosi, whose back is turned to the camera. Beside her is House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), wearing a white mask and, at back, Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).

Perhaps the most remarkable part of the video, to my eye, was Pelosi’s conversation with Pence a bit after 4 p.m. This was shortly after Trump had finally called on the rioters to leave the building; the scene was still very volatile. In the time that the group was gathered, though, they’d come up with a plan of action once they got back to work: Republicans would still object to the electors from the state of Arizona — and hopefully no more than that.

In other words, even as they were huddled for safety away from the Capitol, members of Congress were figuring out how to move forward with the performative opposition to President Biden’s victory that Republicans had become convinced was necessary in order not to anger Trump’s base of support. In other words, they came up with a plan to accommodate some proxy for the exact goal of the rioters as the rioters were still marching through the building nearby.

Shortly after 7 p.m., they returned to the Capitol. About an hour after that, they got back to work.

Republicans ended up objecting to both Arizona and Pennsylvania, with a majority of House Republicans voting to block the electors submitted by those states.

Scalise was among them.