Jan 6, 2021.
I left home for the office at 6:30am as I anticipated enhanced screening protocols at the Capitol. To my surprise, there were none. There were only low, movable gates (think bike racks) encircling the Capitol complex.
For 10 months, few staff had been attending in-person, so it was a normal day: Capitol Police & Dunkin employees were on duty, but otherwise there were empty hallways. I started tracking progress on the East & West fronts of the Capitol B4 8am from my window.
Rep. Jim Cooper & I gathered in his office to remotely attend the House Democratic Caucus. It was celebratory: Senator Warnock and Senator Ossoff were headed for victories, securing the Senate dem majority. Certification of the presidential results would begin in hours.
As the count started midday, I went downstairs to grab lunch. In passing, I heard two Capitol Police officers asking each other, “Do you think we should lock these doors too?”
This was worrisome for a few reasons: 1) This was the 24-hour door to the Longworth building. It’s always guarded, but never locked. 2) “Too?” What other doors have been locked? 3) Why are these officers making this call? Where is Capitol Police command?
Rep. Cooper had just received his 2nd Covid shot, but was trying to keep his family safe w/ regular testing. He was only going to the House Floor for votes. No lingering there. I reported what I’d heard & he left for the Attending Physician’s office for a Covid test.
Almost immediately, we were notified via internal House email that the Madison and Cannon buildings were being evacuated. Evacuated? What? And go outside? The Longworth building was the next one in the line of buildings. I texted Cooper the news and he rushed back.
The order from the House changed to “shelter in place”. When Cooper returned, we locked the front door, locked his internal office door behind us, and then started clearing out his closet as I noticed that it had a lock on it too. Shoes, dry cleaning — it all came out.
That’s when the security squawk box sounded. Had worked in Congress for 30 years & had never heard it. Thought it was an obsolete relic. We are now watching the insurrection on split screen: via CNN & outside our window.
We took one last look, closed the blinds, turned off the lights & pushed his very heavy desk in front of the door. My cousin coached me on building a proper barricade. Me: “How do you know how to do this? What are you, a French revolutionary?” Jason: “Video games.”
Safely (?) barricaded, he put his banjo away for safekeeping & we fielded calls & texts from family, friends & media. The concern for those outside the Capitol was that the attackers would get into the underground tunnels.
(former Nashville mayor)Megan Barry called to ask if we had a gun & if we knew how to use it. I knew there was no gun in the office. He crossed the room, reached the top shelf of his mostly bare closet, handed (the below) to me & asked: “Do you know how to use it?” A club from travels to Kenya.
As night fell, we inhaled a box of chocolates that was laying around, reinforcements finally arrived, and he played a few tunes on his banjo. As the night wore on, there was never an all-clear signal. The House, determined to fulfill its constitutional duty, reconvened.
We remained there until 3:38am, when the election was finally verified. I got in my car and drove home on the now-empty streets. I climbed into bed at 5:00am and my husband said, “So, honey, how was day at the office?” Humor can help w/ healing, for sure.
People often ask me if this was the scariest day of my life. I say “no”. Because I mistakenly thought that the madness was over, that the American people would never stand for this kind of attack on our democracy. Trump was gone, and Trumpism would be seen as a disgrace.
So, actually, the scariest days have been every day since. Our democracy is still at great risk. We all have to work to save it. It’s fragile.
P.S. – Rep. Cooper gifted me the club from Kenya today, as a morning memento of that horrible day. God Bless America.
Lisa Quigley is the Director of the Anti-Hunger Campaign, Tusk Philanthropies. She spent 30 years on Capitol Hill, most recently as the Former Chief of Staff for Rep. Jim Cooper.