ST. PAUL — In the halls of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, lawmakers convened to fulfill one of their most important — though typically mundane — constitutional duties: certifying the presidential election results.
The joint session came on the heels of months of accusations from President Donald Trump and his campaign, claiming the 2020 election to be rigged and President-elect Joe Biden's win as illegitimate. The claims have been investigated and results litigated in courts throughout the country, and there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
As members of the U.S. House and Senate were debating whether to give the final OK to Arizona's state tally, they were interrupted: A mass of Trump's supporters had breached the Capitol, breaking windows and chanting, some of them armed, with the goal of disrupting Congress' proceedings. Trump advertised the protest for weeks ahead of time, and spoke to the crowd that morning.
Since the deadly insurgence — there were at least five fatalities associated with the protest-turned-riot — many of Minnesota's Democratic members of Congress have called to remove Trump from office, even with Biden's inauguration days away. But Republican members across the aisle say that would only divide the country even more.
Minnesota's U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the Democratic lead on the Senate's Rules Committee, has called for congressional hearings to investigate Wednesday's "security failures" at the Capitol, calling the events "a stain on our nation’s history."
Forum News Service interviewed members of the Minnesota delegation over the phone after Wednesday's events. Below are their accounts of what they witnessed, and how they think the country can move forward.
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., first knew something was wrong on Wednesday when she was in a coat room near the Senate floor and a police officer rushed down the stairs, coughing and choking from pepper spray. Recounting the events in a Thursday phone call, she said she went back onto the Senate floor where “suddenly, there was a flurry of activity.”
Vice President Mike Pence abruptly stopped presiding over the chamber and was escorted by the Secret Service out of the room. The Senate went into recess “and we knew we had a real problem on our hands,” Smith said.
“None of us knew exactly what was going on because we were listening to the debate ... not watching our phones,” she said. “But we quickly understood that his mob had attacked the Capitol and was inside the Capitol. And then we realized they were really a short, just a few feet away from us right outside the Senate chamber doors.”
They remained on the floor for 10 or 15 minutes when the Sergeant at Arms came to the door of the chambers and said, “Everybody move!”
The senators quickly — “almost running” — took a back stairway out of the Capitol.
“It just felt like a disrespect to the institutions of our democracy to see these people, this throng of people, who had been instigated to do this by the president of the United States,” Smith said. “That was the scary part.”
While she said the individuals who stormed the Capitol are responsible for what happened, “We cannot just talk of that and not talk about the fact that they were encouraged to do that, they were inspired to do that, by the president.
“Not only by what he said just an hour or so before when he spoke to them all at the (rally), but what he’s been doing for months by telling them this big lie, that the election was stolen. It was not stolen,” she said. “He is responsible and the responsibility for this lies at his feet.”
Calling Wednesday “one of worst days in our country’s history,” Smith has called for Trump to be removed from office before Jan. 20, the day Biden will be inaugurated, either by Trump's cabinet invoking the 25th Amendment or by impeachment.
Asked if she believes a peaceful transition of power is possible, Smith said, “it has to be.”
“It is the hallmark of our democracy,” she said. “In a democracy, you need winners and losers. Political parties compete and then the winners win and the losers concede and without that, there is no democracy.”
Even so, she said she is “deeply concerned about what president might do even just in the next few days,” and she doesn’t think she’s the only one, even across the aisle.
“This is a painful painful chapter in our history but it’s not a democratic or republican issue,” she said. “It’s a question of whether you believe in democracy and the rule of law.”
U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer
U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., said earlier in the day, he saw on television the crowds outside the Capitol. But while he was on the House floor, he and his colleagues couldn’t see outside while the situation escalated.
Emmer was on the floor listening to members debate whether to certify Arizona’s election results when they were told the Capitol had been breached, and advised to don gas masks stowed under their seats in case tear gas was deployed.
“I guess I didn't view it as serious as perhaps I now learned I should have,” Emmer admitted. “When you realize how violent these people were, when they took a fire extinguisher to a Capitol Hill policeman ... it escalated.”
In the House chamber, Emmer said “all of a sudden,” he realized the main doors were being barricaded with furniture. Then he heard the demonstrators from outside ram onto the doors.
“You heard this big bang,” he said. “It was clear they had hit the doors with something and then the glass broke.”
Soon, he said members were being ushered out of the chamber, taken to an undisclosed location. After several hours, police swept and secured the Capitol and lawmakers returned to their respective chambers to debate and vote.
Now, Emmer said he is focused on investigating what happened Wednesday, and how the Capitol was breached because “clearly, more needed to be done and something went wrong from the standpoint of planning and preparation.”
As for where to go from here, Emmer said elected leaders need to “start taking responsibility” for the escalating political rhetoric which has bubbled over.
“We didn’t get to this place in a day. We got here over months and years of a lack of trust, destroying trust amongst us,” he said. “Every U.S. senator, every U.S. representative needs to look at themselves. We are responsible for this.”
Once lawmakers went back on the floor, Emmer voted to certify the 2020 election results, telling Forum News Service he saw Congress’ constitutional role as clear. But his House Republican caucus was split on the issue, with more than 100 members — including Minnesota’s U.S. Reps. Jim Hagedorn and Michelle Fischbach — voting against Arizona and Pennsylvania’s state-certified results.
Emmer said he isn’t pointing fingers at President Trump or Congress members’ objections to the results for Wednesday’s violence, and he doesn’t support calls to remove Trump from office in his term’s final days. Instead, he said there should be a peaceful transition of power from Trump to Biden.
U.S. Rep. Angie Craig
U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., happened to have left the House floor just minutes before the demonstrators broke through the chamber’s glass. In a phone interview with Forum News Service on Friday, Jan. 8, she said she was headed back to her office through the tunnel system under the Capitol complex when she received an alert to take shelter.
She got to her office where she and her chief of staff shut off the lights and waited in silence for over an hour. She texted her wife and four children to let them know she was safe.
“We were seeing the images from the Capitol, what was happening, literally on Twitter, on social media,” she said.
Capitol police then did a sweep of her building and collected the members and staff who were in their offices, taking them to an undisclosed, secure location with other House members and staff, where they could be guarded as a group. Craig said there was “a range of emotions that certainly filled that room” as she stood with her colleagues of both parties, just hours after they had been debating whether to certify the 2020 presidential results.
“Frankly, it was difficult to sit in the room for four and a half hours with my colleagues who are complicit in this lie,” she said, referring to the president and lawmakers’ rhetoric that the election was rigged.
After the Capitol was secured and members returned to their chambers, Craig said she felt waves of emotions as the House continued to debate certifying the election: anger at the attackers on the Capitol, sadness at the division in the country, shock that the capital grounds weren’t kept more secure from the get-go and gratitude for the police officers and colleagues who helped keep lawmakers safe.
“I am still processing what’s happening in our nation,” she said. “The idea that more than 100 of my colleagues could come back down to the House floor after what happened on Wednesday and continue their debate … I’m still processing how our politics have come to this, where politicians can lie to the American people with a straight face.”
Craig said she flew home to Minnesota from D.C. on Thursday night, and “frankly, that plane was filled with the president’s supporters.” She listened quietly to their discussions.
“In listening to them, you have to say more than 'they’re the problem'," she said. “These are Americans. I believe that we can extend our hand to those Americans. But I also believe that we have got to find a way to hold those accountable who lie for political purposes.”
Craig has called for the removal of Trump from office. She supports invoking the 25th Amendment to remove him, or impeaching him once again.
“I believe the president and those complicit initiated not just Wednesday, but they've been building to this for years,” she said.