It was always going to be an extraordinary day because some Republican House and Senate members planned to try to undo the presidential preferences of several states in a last-ditch attempt to prevent Democrat Joe Biden from being inaugurated in two weeks.
But as Oklahoma GOP Sen. James Lankford was outlining his objections to the electors from Arizona, CQ Roll Call reporter Chris Cioffi, seated in the press gallery seats overlooking the Senate floor, noticed someone rush into the chamber and head for Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley, a Republican who also holds the constitutional office of president pro tempore.
“Someone rushed in, and it felt like they were running down to Grassley and saying he needed to get up to the presiding officer’s desk,” Cioffi said. “They kind of jerked him up there.”
Cioffi couldn’t see it, but the constitutional Senate president, also known as Vice President Mike Pence, was being rushed out of the chamber.
“Lankford, he stopped talking, and then Grassley gaveled out and said there’d be a 10-minute recess,” Cioffi said.
Up a few steps behind him and behind a pair of narrow French doors, reporter Katherine Tully-McManus was in the gallery offices, looking out the window at protesters who had broken through barriers on the northeast side of the Capitol, not far from doors that lead to the Senate.
“We were having hypothetical conversations with the gallery staff about what a lockdown would look like, what security procedures are,” said Tully-McManus, who spent several years as the “campus” reporter for CQ Roll Call covering the small city that is the Capitol complex. At that moment, Washington Post reporter Paul Kane burst into the offices from the chamber.
“He was shouting, ‘Pence is leaving, Pence has left. The vice president has left the chamber.’ That was my first indication that the security situation had gotten to the point that there was concern for the vice president’s safety,” Tully-McManus said.
Photojournalist Caroline Brehman, who had earlier photographed the movement through the Capitol to the House chamber of wooden crates holding the states’ certifications of their electoral votes, was in the Crypt, a circular room on the first floor below the Rotunda.
“I was looking out the windows at the protesters, trying to get a good vantage point, and the Capitol Police were taking in injured police officers. And I was told, ‘Leave, go to your office.’ They were absolutely screaming.”
Brehman walked toward the Senate end of the building, where she saw police spraying what she thought was mace at someone breaking through a first-floor door. She headed up to the second floor, and in the Rotunda she saw people trying to break through doors that lead to the Capitol Visitor Center. Then she hid in a balcony area over Statuary Hall, peeking out occasionally to see crowds of protesters streaming through the room, which has a center walkway set off with metal stanchions.
“They surprisingly stayed within the stanchions, through the chaos,” Brehman said. “It was bizarre.”
At the other end of the building, photographer Tom Williams was roaming the second floor outside the House chamber. He saw a crowd at the top of an outdoor flight of steps normally used only by members during votes. They were trying to push the door, and police were holding them back.
“Protesters were right up against the door, and I tried to shoot [photos] through the glass. A cop saw me, let me go about a minute, then he said, ‘Be smart, go shelter.’ I went up to the [third-floor] House gallery, tried to get in, and it was locked. Me and another photographer hung out until cops grabbed us and had us go into the chamber on the third floor, on the side where the first lady sits for the State of the Union.”
Inside, members on the chamber floor and press in the gallery were told to put on gas masks and take shelter behind seats. They heard loud bangs that could have been gunshots. After a while, police started to move members off the floor to another location as officers used a heavy piece of furniture to barricade a door and stood behind it, guns drawn.
“Then everyone in the gallery started escorting us out. As we were walking off the gallery, as we started evacuating, they had protesters laid out on the floor, detained or under arrest,” Williams said.
A quick march down a maze of stairs he doesn’t often use led to tunnels to a House office building, where the press was separated from the members. One member with a nearby office allowed reporters and photographers looking for a place to shelter to come inside.
Meanwhile, on the Senate side, reporters in the press gallery offices were hustled into the chamber seating area moments after Pence was evacuated, and they were locked in.
“Of course there’s no phones or electronics allowed in the chamber,” Tully-McManus said. “I politely asked for dispensation to let [my editor] know that Cioffi and I were safe, and that was granted.”
Shortly after the recess was called, Grassley also was escorted from the chamber, and the senators were locked in, Cioffi said. A veteran Capitol officer stood at the president’s podium and told members to take their seats and clear the aisles.
“Members were on their phones, relaying their safety,” Tully-McManus said. “Usually in the chamber, [Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell doesn’t have his [security] detail. It’s presumed to be a safe place. This time, McConnell’s detail was right next to him, up on him, blocking him from whatever would come.”
After a while, members started to gather in groups and chat. There was another instruction from police to take the situation seriously. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., was heard saying there was a report of shots being fired.
“I heard someone in the security detail saying they need to get the toilets,” Cioffi said. “I said, ‘Is that something we need?’ Apparently there’s temporary toilets.”
Then an order came for the senators to evacuate.
“There was a crush of people, where they were all rushing to exit,” said Tully-McManus. “There was serious nervousness, but you could see members, who on the floor are so opposed to each other, they linked arms, they were steadying each other in this crush to get out, which I found remarkable.”
Shortly afterward, the gallery staff had the press evacuate. For reasons that no one explained, they were told not to take stairs, so they crushed into small elevators instead. In the basement, they found themselves in the same parade as the senators.
At one point they passed a maintenance worker who clearly had no idea about the situation happening aboveground. Tully-McManus suggested that he head to an office and lock himself in. Cioffi asked a police officer if they were going to take care of the maintenance staff, and the officer asked him whose staff he was on.
“I told her I was a reporter, and she said I couldn’t go with the senators. I was walking past [newly sworn-in] Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., and he said, ‘He’s with me.’ And she asked who he was and let me continue,” Cioffi said.
When they reached an undisclosed location, reporters and senators were separated but knew where each other was. Something a member of the Senate chamber staff managed to take on the way out, they learned, were the boxes holding the states’ elector certifications.