Last year, a rampage. This year, a ‘surreal’ quiet grips the Capitol on Jan. 6
Democrats listen to sweet song from ‘Hamilton,’ while Republicans make themselves scarce
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy’s slim new Leica camera was in the shop Thursday, but that didn’t keep him from taking photos. He pulled out his trusty, and slightly bulkier, Nikon to make sure he got his shot.
“This old Nikon is what I call ‘my briefcase camera’ — I always have it in there. If you look at it close, it’s banged up, and everything else. It’s my backup,” the Vermont Democrat said. “But I wanted to make sure I got the pictures, because it’s pretty historic.”
Leahy was talking about the speech President Joe Biden delivered Thursday morning from the Capitol, marking the one-year anniversary of the day that a pro-Trump mob forced its way into the building. Biden spoke in a mostly empty Statuary Hall on a shiny black stage behind a podium with the Presidential Seal.
“That’s the only time we’ve ever seen a Presidential Seal over there,” said Leahy, who’s been practicing his hobby around the Capitol for decades. “It hasn’t been there in my lifetime.”
Biden, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, gave a forceful speech blaming Donald Trump’s “web of lies about the 2020 election” that caused the rage of his supporters to boil over, but he referred to Trump only as the “former president.”
“I did not want it to turn into a contemporary political battle between me and the president,” Biden told reporters later when asked why he didn’t call out Trump by name.
About as absent as Trump’s name was from Biden’s remarks, Republican lawmakers were scarce in the Capitol. It was a stark sign to some that the party has still largely not acknowledged its role in stoking the flames of partisan fury that led to a riot of Trump’s supporters in the symbolic home of America’s democracy.
Law enforcement presence was high, but no throngs of people ringed the building like last year — even the number of staff felt below average.
The Capitol at times felt deserted, the result of pandemic-related precautions to reduce the spread of the new omicron coronavirus variant that’s led to skyrocketing case numbers, as well as the general post-holiday malaise in the last week before the House resumes its business. Therapy dogs roamed the hallways with their minders, delighting those in the building, and some joggers and tourists milled around in the chilly remnants of Monday’s snowstorm.
It seemed like everyone in the Capitol was swapping stories about where they were and what happened to them a year ago.
The day felt “surreal,” said Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, saying she woke up feeling depressed.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been a year,” she said. “In some ways, a year ago was so awful that you have to stop and think, did it really happen? But it did really happen.”
Ben Kamens, now a press secretary for Illinois Democratic Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, worked for Rep. Andy Kim on Jan. 6 and was off-Hill last year. Kim had asked most of his staff to stay home to make sure they stayed safe.
He said he wasn’t doing that this year — the day was an opportunity to remind people that America’s democratic institutions are staffed by people who care about civic duty and public service.
“To be here today and to commemorate what happened and be at my desk was important,” Kamens said. “To show them we’re not afraid and they didn’t break us.”
The Senate was in session, but no votes were held — there were only speeches from lawmakers, who shared a mix of expressions of thanks, firsthand accounts and calls for overhauls to election laws they say would strengthen democracy.
The House convened briefly at noon for remarks from Speaker Nancy Pelosi about the anniversary, and the chamber observed a moment of silence in the memory of four law enforcement officers who died in the aftermath of the attack. She later played “Dear Theodosia,” a song from the musical “Hamilton,” during one of the remembrances.
Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who voted to impeach Trump and now serves on the panel investigating Jan. 6, was the only Republican member spotted in the House chamber. She brought along her father, former Vice President and onetime House Minority Whip Dick Cheney, and a number of Democrats lined up to greet them.
“It’s not a leadership that resembles any of the folks I knew when I was here for 10 years,” the elder Cheney told reporters when asked how Republican leaders have responded to Jan. 6.
Some Republican senators got out of Washington and spent the day in Atlanta instead, attending the funeral for former Sen. Johnny Isakson.
Democrats organized a series of events during the day, including a moderated panel of historians, an evening prayer vigil and a chance for members to give testimonials, led by Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado.
One Senate GOP staffer, who was in the complex on Jan. 6 and back in the building this year, said some of the wall-to-wall news coverage and events at times felt like they had an exploitative tinge.
“It’s important to reflect and think back on what happened in the appropriate context. But I find it inappropriate, and frankly gross, that so many people are glomming on to and hyping it up for largely selfish purposes,” said the staffer, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly.
Although much of the day felt somber, some lawmakers tried to dwell on the positive moments of heroism and hope.
Rep. Dean Phillips, a Minnesota Democrat and part of the “Gallery Group” of about two dozen Democrats who have supported each other after spending harrowing minutes together on Jan. 6, said they hatched a plan to serve lunch. He unsuccessfully tried to find a caterer on short notice to provide food to staff and police officers. So on Monday night he called chef and philanthropist José Andrés, whose nonprofit World Central Kitchen quickly mobilized to provide hundreds of sandwiches, wraps and boxed lunches on Thursday.
The long line ebbed and flowed as the lawmakers thanked officers, laughed and munched on cookies, falafel and chicken wraps, and even some dishes with tofu.
Phillips said the group sought to convert the trauma and disappointment into something a little bit more hopeful and optimistic with a simple action: gratitude.
It’s easy to reflect only on the negative, but “it’s also important to remind ourselves of the people that protected the Capitol and protected us and ultimately protected democracy,” Phillips said. “And we’re celebrating that today, because we stuck together and we preserved it to live another day.”