Capitol Breach Organizers

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. Associated Press/Julio Cortez

WASHINGTON – On her way to the U.S. Capitol complex to deliver remarks to a joint session of Congress, Rep. Chellie Pingree was turned around by police.

It was around 1:30 p.m. on Jan. 6, 2021. Congress was gathering for the ceremonial counting of the certified Electoral College ballots of the 50 states, one of the final rituals in the transfer of power to the winner of the election, Joe Biden. A mile and a half to the west, the sitting president, Donald Trump, was holding a rally to encourage followers to help keep him in power anyway.

Rep. Chellie Pingree  Joel Page/Staff Photographer

At First and D Streets Southeast, a squad car and police barriers blocked the route Pingree’s vehicle was taking to her office in the Capitol complex, accessed via a nearby security checkpoint. A pipe bomb had been found outside the Republican National Committee, the four-story building to her right, drawing Capitol Police away from the Capitol itself.

Texts and messages started coming in from other members and aides: Rayburn and two adjacent buildings housing congressional offices, Cannon and Longworth, had gone into lockdown because of the pipe bomb and a second one found two blocks to the south at the Democratic National Committee. Pingree and her aide had to turn around.

By the time Maine’s 1st District Democrat got back to her apartment a few minutes’ drive to the south, it was clear the day was about to get a lot worse. While she had been in the car, thousands of Trump’s supporters had shoved aside the metal fences blocking access to the Capitol lawns and were clashing with Capitol Police officers. Within minutes, members of Congress would be lying prone on the House floor with gas masks on as rioters beat on the chamber doors and prowled the halls and corridors in search of congressional leaders and Vice President Mike Pence, whom some among them had chanted their intent to hang.

Trump had instructed them to march on the Capitol and “fight like hell” to give the lawmakers assembled to anoint his rival’s electoral victory “the kind of pride and boldness they need to take back our country.” As Trump watched the chaos unfold on a television in his private dining room off the Oval Office, he posted encouragement on Twitter: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our country and our constitution,” he tweeted as Secret Service agents scrambled to evacuate Pence, whom Trump had been pressuring to somehow block the ceremonial ratification of the election. “USA demands the truth!”

It has been called a coup attempt, an effort by Trump and his allies to keep him in power by overthrowing the results of a free and fair election through the use of violence. Though it failed, it has nonetheless pushed the United States’ world-changing democratic experiment toward collapse, as most of the Republican Party and its voters have embraced the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump through massive-but-somehow-undetectable election fraud.

Capitol Riot Seattle Police

Violent insurrectionists loyal to Donald Trump scale the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

“We have a profound undermining of confidence in our electoral system to the point that now any Democrat who wins will be suspected of having used illegitimate means when there is no evidence of that and what evidence there is, is to the contrary,” said Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and was trapped near the Senate chamber for hours that day. “I can’t imagine a more damaging action to the fabric of our democracy than that.”

• • •

Around the time Pingree was approaching the police barricade on Capitol Hill, Kyle Fitzsimons of Lebanon was at the Ellipse, a park behind the White House, listening to Trump, his hero, fire up the crowd at the “Stop the Steal” rally. Fitzsimons, a 37-year-old butcher who cut meat at the Hannaford supermarket in York, was not shy about his political beliefs, telling state legislators in Augusta in 2018 that they were “killing off Yankee New England culture” and replacing it with immigrants. “You’re bringing in the new Third World, you’re bringing in the replacements,” he said.

Kyle Fitzsimons

“The speeches from the morning were overtly preaching the election was not over, there was a path to victory through decertification, there was a plan to delay the certification by the House and Senate and then state legislatures would convene and (certify) the right result,” Fitzsimons told a reporter for a newspaper in Rochester, New Hampshire, which neighbors Lebanon across the Salmon Falls River. “All those who spoke were confident that good things were happening.”

After Trump directed the crowd to march on the Capitol, Fitzsimons walked to the parking garage where he’d left his car and changed into his white butcher’s uniform with “Kyle” emblazoned on the left shoulder. He proceeded to the Capitol with a fur pelt or garment in one hand and an unstrung bow in the other.

By the time Fitzsimons arrived, thousands of Trump supporters had surged over the metal security fences blocking access to the Capitol’s West Lawn, had climbed stairs and ascended the scaffolding being erected for Biden’s inauguration, and were clashing with outnumbered police in an attempt to gain access to the building itself.

• • •

Toward the back of the crowd – well inside the exclusion perimeter but stopping short of the Capitol steps and plazas – stood a man who might well have been one of Fitzsimons’ Hannaford customers. Former U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher – who earned the moniker “Putin’s favorite Congressman” for his eager defense of the Russian president and his interests – had moved to York after losing re-election in Orange County, California. While in Congress, Rohrabacher had attended dinners with alleged Russian agent Maria Butina in Moscow and Washington, D.C., and in the summer of 2016 traveled to London and met with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who released hacked emails damaging to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

“I thought the election was fraudulent and it should be investigated, and I wanted to express that and be supportive of that demand,” Rohrabacher told the Press Herald in June during the only interview he has given about his attendance. “But I was not there to make a scene and do things that were unacceptable for anyone to do.”

Former Rep. Dana Rohrabacher AP

Rohrabacher, accompanied by a man wearing a hat with lowered ear flaps he said was a friend active in the cannabis industry, never entered the building but rather hung back, taking notes and pictures with his cellphone for at least an hour and a half. “By going into the building, they gave the Left the ability to direct the discussion of what was going on in a way that was harmful to the things we believe in,” he said.

“I went there to take a look and make sure I saw firsthand what was happening,” he added. “I didn’t go into the Capitol at all and in fact was telling people not to.”

The crowd didn’t listen. By 2 p.m., about the time Pingree reached her apartment, rioters had overpowered guards on the western steps and were trying to batter their way through windows and doors. Others, led by men in black militia-style gear, had circled around to a door on the southern, Senate side of the building. The D.C. police commander declared a riot was occurring. The crowds started surging into the building.

• • •

Sen. Susan Collins AP

Sen. Susan Collins was in the Senate chamber, listening to Republican colleague James Lankford of Oklahoma give a speech, when Pence’s security detail suddenly whisked the vice president and his wife out of the room and across a landing to his ceremonial office. One minute later, rioters chanting his name ascended to the same landing and the Senate went into emergency recess.

“My first thought was that the Iranians had followed through on their threat to strike the Capitol,” Collins, who declined an interview request, recalled in an essay published in the Bangor Daily News days later. She said the police officers were overwhelmed and unprepared to defend the chamber. Senators pointed out that the press gallery doors right above the Senate floor were still unlocked. “We were told to stay put in the chamber, which did not seem wise to me because the rioters’ purpose was to disrupt the counting of the electoral vote, so they were clearly headed our way.”

A Senate colleague, Marine veteran Todd Young of Indiana, moved close to Collins and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. “Only later did I learn that he was positioning himself to repel the rioters and defend us,” Collins said. Outside the main door to the chamber, Officer Eugene Goodman confronted the first rioters, tricking them into following him away from the senators.

A few minutes later, Collins and her colleagues were ushered out of the chamber and led through tunnels under the Capitol to a secure location in the Hart Senate Office Building to the north, the police urging them to hurry throughout. “Unfortunately, I had chosen to wear high heels that day so it was hard to run,” Collins recalled.

Sen. Angus King AP

King was not among them. He had been preparing his scheduled speech in an office near the Senate chamber at 2:19 when the police issued an emergency bulletin to shelter in place. He locked the door and sheltered there alone for an hour and a half to two hours. “I heard some noises, but I can’t say if they were right outside my door or nearby, but I don’t think they got to the area where I was,” King recalled days after the attack. “I didn’t know at the time how serious what was going on elsewhere in the building because I wasn’t watching television and couldn’t see the people with zip ties and nooses.”

Collins and many other members – locked in the secure room for many hours – had little to do but watch television. She recalled that they watched “in disbelief as the rioters broke windows, scaled the scaffolding put in place for the inauguration and, most disconcerting, roamed around the Senate Chamber, with one thug sitting where the vice president had been presiding and others rummaging through our desks.”

She texted her closest White House contact, demanding the president urge the rioters to go home. At 4:17, he tweeted a video repeating the Big Lie, telling his supporters to leave, but adding: “We love you. You’re very special.” Collins wrote that Trump had “completely undercut” what should have been his central message. “This was terrible, especially since he incited them in the first place,” she added.

Around this time security officers escorted King to the secure location, but he chose to isolate alone in a nearby room instead. “I literally walked in the door,” he told the Press Herald, “and there were several hundred senators and staff in this one large room, and I said, ‘No, I’m not staying here. This is a petri dish for COVID.’”

• • •

On the Capitol steps, federal prosecutors say, Fitzsimons tried unsuccessfully to breach the building. Video and still images appear to show him repeatedly charging officers guarding the arched tunnel entrance on the west side of the building. Prosecutors say he first tried to pull a police sergeant out of the tunnel and into the mob, then pulled another officer’s mask away, allowing another protester to spray him with mace, and finally charged the police line with his shoulder in an effort to get through the tunnel.

During the melee, police struck him with a baton, and at 4:19 he could be seen on video footage retreating from the tunnel with a bloodied head. He told the Rochester reporter that good Samaritans took him to a hospital where he received six stitches. He also said he expected a peaceful protest like that of the Whos in Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Who Stole Christmas” and claimed provocateurs started the violence.

“I’m not the one who is rebelling, it’s the leadership of this country,” he said. “I was used. By whom? That’s anyone’s guess. In the end the American patriot was made the sucker.” He was arrested at his home Feb. 4 and remains in a D.C. jail facing a 10-count criminal indictment.

Rep. Jared Golden Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Rep. Jared Golden was in his office in the Longworth House Office Building when the lockdown began and he remained there for the duration of the crisis. “I don’t want to compare my experience with those who were on the House and Senate floors who were in far greater risk at that moment,” Golden, who declined an interview request, told the Press Herald in March.

For reasons that remain unclear, the National Guard and FBI did not arrive and secure the Capitol complex until 7 p.m., nearly five hours after the building was breached.

Congress reconvened that evening and, over the continued objections of two-thirds of Republican House members, confirmed the election results at 3:24 a.m. Collins wrote in her Jan. 11 essay that “the forces of democracy had prevailed.”

“I look back on January 6th with a profound sense of sadness,” Collins said in a written statement Wednesday. “The day represents the harsh divisions that are part of politics right now. I know this country can and will do better. I hope that we use this anniversary as an opportunity for all of us to consider what we can do to lessen the divisions and bring our country together.”

Pingree and King worry the jury is still out on whether democracy has prevailed. “From the night we cast those votes I think there was a sense of shock that so many colleagues voted against certification, and that feeling has been exacerbated by members who try to act as though nothing happened, some of whom were inside the chamber that day and had their lives threatened,” Pingree said Wednesday. “It is deeply disturbing when you can’t count on your colleagues to tell the truth.”

King is also concerned. “Our system is based on trust, and if most Americans lose trust in the democratic process it’s hard to see a future that doesn’t involve violence, because people will believe that they won’t have any recourse,” he said. “We’re in a profoundly dangerous moment.”


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