'Hit the floor:' Himes, DeLauro were in House chamber, breached by Trump mob

Photo of Emilie Munson

WASHINGTON — As dusk fell Wednesday, U.S. Reps. Jim Himes and Rosa DeLauro huddled in a conference room crowded with lawmakers in the bowels of the U.S. Capitol. They didn’t know whether they were safe from a mob of protesters who had stormed the building, angry that Congress was about to seal the results of the 2020 presidential election.

“Today was a massive security breach,” Himes said in a phone interview from the locked room. “I’ve always assumed there was a button somewhere that they could press and the Capitol would be kind of sealed off. Well I guess that’s not true.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Congress had begun a formal process to certify the 2020 Electoral College votes, when thousands of people proceeded from a rally held by President Donald Trump near the White House to the U.S. Capitol. The crowd overpowered U.S. Capitol Police, pounded on windows and doors and succeeded in entering the building.

They paraded with flags, vandalized property and obtained access to the House and Senate chambers as well as lawmakers’ offices.

Himes, D-4, and DeLauro, D-3, were in the House chamber around 2 p.m. when the commotion began. A limited group of lawmakers were present in the chamber to maintain social distancing, while other representatives remained in their offices.

Suddenly, the energy in the chamber shifted. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. was whisked away, along with other top House leaders, Himes recounted.

“They locked up the doors and a lieutenant came in and said, ‘There are gas masks under your seats. Please get them out. We’re using tear gas in the rotunda,’” Himes said.

The group of lawmakers and press were then directed to move around the upper level gallery of the House toward a door on the other side of the chamber. Down below, Capitol Police moved furniture to blockade doors.

Rioters broke the glass on the windows of doors leading into the chamber. DeLauro, still in the chamber, heard a gun shot.

“That’s when the Capitol Police officers told us all to hit the floor,” DeLauro said in an interview. “So we lay there between the rows of seats, just lying on the floor. They just told us to stay there.”

Himes remembers this part differently — he doesn’t recall hearing a shot while they were in the House chamber. But he remembers hiding on the floor between the seats of the gallery.

The officers surrounding the lawmakers drew their guns and pointed them down at the main level of the House chamber below where the rioters banged for entry, Himes said. About four minutes later, they moved Himes, DeLauro and the other lawmakers out of the chamber.

They passed a group of protesters lying on the floor at Capitol Police gunpoint and hurried down a back stairwell, Himes said.

Police then ushered the lawmakers through tunnels in the U.S. Capitol complex to a conference room in a secure location. Soon afterward U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2, was brought to the location from his office by Capitol Police, Himes said.

U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1, was one of the lawmakers who was in his office when the rioters invaded the complex. He watched from his office across the park from the Capitol as the mob swelled around the building, broke the lines of Capitol Police and forced their way into the white marble building. For hours, he stayed locked in his office with two staffers, watching.

“I had a bird’s eye view,” he said in an interview. “I could observe everything. I was appalled at what was going on and could see that the Capitol Police were getting overwhelmed.”

On the opposite end of the Capitol, law enforcement fought to protect members of the U.S. Senate, as they did with House members.

As the mob breached the building, police locked about 200 senators, staff and press inside the Senate chamber, among them U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

An officer with an orange police sash across his torso stood on the floor with what appeared to be a semi-automatic weapon, positioning himself between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. Capitol Police ordered the senators to stand away from the doors. At one point Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., looked at her phone and yelled to the group “Shots fired.” D.C. Police later confirmed a woman was shot in the Capitol.

After 15 tense minutes, police ordered an evacuation of the Senate chamber and rushed senators, staff and media to a secure location.

“It was pretty disconcerting and dismaying,” Blumenthal said in an interview. “The potential for physical violence was very real. We were warned specifically to move quickly without panic.”

As they hustled away, Senate parliamentary staff grabbed hold of the large mahogany boxes containing the electoral college certificates, preserving the key election documents that were at the center of the violent discord.

Blumenthal and other senators moved to a separate, secure location to wait out the unfolding chaos. The mob fought with officers, hung Trump flags on statues and sat at lawmakers’ desks with their feet up.

Police said the person who was shot, a woman, had died. She was not identified.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., tweeted at 4:48 p.m. “I am ok. My staff is ok. This is an insurrection. And President Donald Trump bears responsibility. It will not stop us from doing the work of democracy. It will not stop the transfer of power. Those responsible will be held accountable.”

Blumenthal said he was “sickened” by the “anarchist mobs.”

“It’s not a protest. It’s armed insurrection,” he said. “This is an assault on the heart of our democracy incited and fueled by the President of the United States and his enablers.”

U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5, tweeted to affirm her own safety around 6 p.m. Wednesday.

For hours, lawmakers waited in lock-down. Himes, DeLauro and Courtney’s group, holding in a conference room, were provided a box of Goldfish and some bottled water for sustenance. A Boston Globe reporter held in lock-down with other lawmakers said they were given dinner trays with polenta and Brussels sprouts.

Many lawmakers wore masks in the close quarters, but some did not. Social distancing was not really possible, Himes observed, bolstering an additional fear that the mob attack would contribute to the spread of coronavirus at the U.S. Capitol.

At about 5:50 p.m., an official made an announcement to Himes, DeLauro and Courtney’s group of huddling lawmakers: the U.S. Capitol was finally secure.

DeLauro called the day’s events “jarring.”

“This president put everyone here in harm’s way, very seriously,” she said.

Trump issued a video statement Wednesday afternoon calling on the rioters and protesters to go home, but telling them he loved them and the election was fraudulent and unfairly stolen from him and them.

“These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously and viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly and unfairly treated for so long,” Trump later tweeted at the rioters, a message that was later removed from the platform. “Go home with love and in peace. Remember this day forever!”

Despite the unprecedented attack, Congress decided it would resume the work of certifying the election results when it was safe to do so. Vice President Mike Pence, McConnell and Schumer all condemned the violence of the day with firm language when the Senate reconvened around 8:15 p.m.

“To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today, you did not win,” Pence said, breaking with Trump. “Violence never wins.”

Connecticut Democrats said they were determined to finish the business of concluding the 2020 election Wednesday night and bringing an end to the Trump presidency. Larson described lawmakers Wednesday night as “anxious” to wrap up the certification.

Himes said House members in his locked-down conference room applauded when they were informed of the decision.

When representatives returned to the House chamber around 9 p.m., the wreckage of riot was cleaned up inside it — except in one place. The glass panes of one of the chamber doors were smashed, where people tried to force their way into the hall.

“I’m going to ask that this window not be repaired,” Himes said on Twitter, “to remind posterity of the consequences of misrule and demagoguery.”

emilie.munson@hearstdc.com; Twitter: @emiliemunson