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‘It was like looking at evil’: The Capitol attack through the eyes of the Massachusetts delegation

People sheltered in the House gallery as rioters tried to break into the House Chamber at the US Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.
People sheltered in the House gallery as rioters tried to break into the House Chamber at the US Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — On the day Congress was set to count the electoral votes certifying President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, Representative Seth Moulton was one of the first members of the Massachusetts delegation to arrive at his office on Capitol Hill.

From his office window at about 7:30 a.m. last Wednesday, the Marine veteran uneasily watched a small, “ragtag” group of Capitol Police officers get briefed on the day’s events. Meanwhile, in her own office in a nearby building later that morning, Representative Lori Trahan unpacked crackers, grapes, and other snacks as she and two staff members prepared to hunker down for a long and contentious day ahead.

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As supporters of President Trump descended upon downtown, Representative Jim McGovern walked to the Capitol alone. “I told my staff to stay home,” he said, worried after reading about the online threats of violence.

They were following the instructions from Capitol Police: Arrive early, remain indoors, and use the underground network of tunnels to move throughout the Capitol complex. Those basic guidelines offered a hint of danger from the Trump rally outside of the White House, but no sense of anything like the deadly attack that was to come.

On the House floor, one of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s aides asked Representative Jim McGovern to take over in the speaker’s chair. He figured she just needed to take some calls in her office. “I don’t think she even knew what was about to happen because she left her phone there,” he said.
On the House floor, one of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s aides asked Representative Jim McGovern to take over in the speaker’s chair. He figured she just needed to take some calls in her office. “I don’t think she even knew what was about to happen because she left her phone there,” he said.Stefani Reynolds/Getty

For days, Massachusetts lawmakers said, they and their colleagues had received assurances from police that security would be tight and that they would be shielded from the masses as Trump continued to spout lies and conspiracies, refusing to concede his loss in November. But incited by Trump’s words, the rally morphed into a protest that escalated into an armed insurrection to overturn the election, rattling the world and now embroiling lawmakers in efforts to try to remove Trump from office in his final days.

The traumatic events of a day now etched in history are the backdrop for Wednesday’s House impeachment vote.

Those early hours a week ago were ominous yet quiet.

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After a workout at a gym in the Capitol Complex, Moulton watched the group of officers before heading out to meet a friend for breakfast off grounds. “They had no riot gear,” he said. “It seemed like they were preparing for something very routine.”

That’s what Representative Stephen Lynch was expecting as he fielded questions from reporters in the lobby outside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office.

“Living four days a week in D.C. over the last 20 years, you see a lot of protests,” Lynch said. “There’s a certain rhythm to the district. So I wasn’t alarmed.”

But Representative Ayanna Pressley had two reasons to be afraid: She has alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that puts her in the high-risk category for coronavirus, and she is one of four Democratic representatives in a group self-dubbed “The Squad,” which has drawn ire and racist attacks from Trump and his supporters.

Because of multiple death threats over the past two years, running through safety drills and threat scenarios has become routine at Pressley’s office, said Sarah Groh, her chief of staff. Groh, Pressley, and her husband had planned to wait in Pressley’s D.C. apartment until later in the afternoon. That changed as the House sergeant-at-arms pressured lawmakers to come sooner, warning the crowds could get too thick to safely escort them in.

“I was deeply concerned,” Groh said of going to the Capitol complex. “It felt like the heat was being turned up in terms of the rhetoric and Trump’s aims to incite violence.”

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At Representative Ayanna Pressley’s office, safety drills have been common because of her position. As the threat became clear Wednesday, staffers barricaded the entrance of her office.
At Representative Ayanna Pressley’s office, safety drills have been common because of her position. As the threat became clear Wednesday, staffers barricaded the entrance of her office.TOM WILLIAMS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Most members could pinpoint the time when the roar of protesters outside grew louder: It was as the president wrapped up his speech on a makeshift stage between the White House and the Washington Memorial. The long diatribe had included a litany of false election claims, attacks on political enemies, and pleas to supporters to “walk down to the Capitol.”

As protesters streamed toward Capitol Hill, Moulton’s special assistant, Billy Hennessy, kept a window open. He poked his head out every so often to watch the group massing outside the Capitol. Soon, he saw some Trump supporters fleeing with blood on their faces.

“I was hearing a lot of cheers, a lot of screaming, a lot of chanting,” he said. “And it went from chanting and screaming to gas canisters being shot and exploding to what sounded like bullets being fired all within a matter of 20 to 30 minutes.”

Pro-Trump protesters stormed the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, on the same day as a joint session of Congress met to certify the electoral votes from the 2020 presidential election.
Pro-Trump protesters stormed the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, on the same day as a joint session of Congress met to certify the electoral votes from the 2020 presidential election. ERIN SCHAFF/NYT

On the House floor, one of Pelosi’s aides asked McGovern to take over in the speaker’s chair. He figured she just needed to take some calls in her office.

“I don’t think she even knew what was about to happen because she left her phone there,” he said. But after a few minutes McGovern was forced to adjourn the House when it became clear Pelosi wasn’t going back to her office but was being evacuated.

He was soon relaying information from officers to those in the chamber about how to put on gas masks and safely exit the room. The House chaplain uttered some prayerful words, as he and others tried to keep people calm.

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One of the last of roughly 50 members swept out of the House chamber, McGovern saw rioters had shattered windows in the adjacent lobby and were banging on the doors.

“It was like looking at evil,” the Worcester Democrat said.

In videos since released, McGovern is seen just moments before one of the rioters, Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt, 35, attempts to jump in through a broken window and is fatally shot by police. McGovern said he probably heard those shots, but didn’t register them in the din of shouts from protesters and commands from officers as he escaped down a marble staircase.

“It was a horrific day,” McGovern said. “I just assumed that the noise we were hearing outside the chamber was just a handful of people. I couldn’t imagine that entire mob could gain access to the Capitol.”

Capitol Police with guns drawn stood near a barricaded door as rioters tried to break into the House Chamber at the US Capitol on Jan. 6.
Capitol Police with guns drawn stood near a barricaded door as rioters tried to break into the House Chamber at the US Capitol on Jan. 6.Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

As people rushed out of other buildings on the Capitol grounds, staffers in Pressley’s office barricaded the entrance with furniture and water jugs that had piled up during the pandemic. Groh pulled out gas masks and looked for the special panic buttons in the office.

“Every panic button in my office had been torn out — the whole unit,” she said, though they could come up with no rationale as to why. She had used them before and hadn’t switched offices since then. As they were escorted to several different secure locations, Groh and Pressley and her husband tried to remain calm and vigilant — not only of rioters but of officers they did not know or trust, she said.

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In her office in another building, Trahan bolted the doors as she toggled between feeling sad and outraged. As she and her staffers watched the mob on television, Trahan said, she remembered how her husband and two daughters had stood on the same steps of the Capitol just days before. She was relieved her family had gone back to Massachusetts.

“You feel like a sitting duck, you feel vulnerable,” Trahan said of the hours sheltering in place with little to no information from Capitol Police.

“You feel like a sitting duck, you feel vulnerable,” Massachusetts Democratic state Representative Lori Trahan said of the hours sheltering in place with little to no information from Capitol Police.
“You feel like a sitting duck, you feel vulnerable,” Massachusetts Democratic state Representative Lori Trahan said of the hours sheltering in place with little to no information from Capitol Police.Steven Senne/Associated Press

Lynch eventually made the quick walk back to his apartment after sheltering for some time at one of the Capitol buildings.

Representative William Keating hustled back to his office from the underground Capitol tunnels when he heard security officers were rushing evacuees to his building.

A former prosecutor who had previously served on the Homeland Security committee, he had walked the grounds with Capitol Police the evening before to learn more about their plans. He received assurances that security would be tight and their perimeter would be wide enough to keep protesters away from the building.

”I was given some confidence by the discussions I had, which I think was sincere from the front line people that they had this under check,” he said. But as rioters stormed in Wednesday, it became “very clear that the planning was an abysmal failure.”

Back in his office, Moulton did a couple of media interviews.

Supporters of President Trump sat at desks in the office suite of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi after breaching the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021.
Supporters of President Trump sat at desks in the office suite of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi after breaching the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

“This is the kind of violence, this is the kind of terrorism that I expected to see in Iraq as a United States Marine, not here in Washington, D.C., not an attempted coup on our own country,” he told WBUR.

At one point, Moulton called a friend in the FBI and urged him to get his unit to the Capitol, but it would be hours before they would be given the green light. Moulton and Hennessy were taken to the secret location where other House members were sheltering.

It was there that Trahan learned about the acts of bravery during the attack: the combat veterans like Representative Ruben Gallegos of Arizona, who had helped elderly and scared members put on their gas masks as they fled. It was there that Pressley and other colleagues started drafting articles of impeachment. And it was there that resolve grew among members to return and finish the vote count.

“The experiences of Wednesday were harrowing and unfortunately very familiar in the deepest and most ancestral way,” Pressley told Joy Reid on MSNBC. “And so of course I’m fearful, but that fear is not new.”

Massachusetts Representative Seth Moulton told WBUR that "this is the kind of terrorism that I expected to see in Iraq as a United States Marine, not here in Washington, D.C., not an attempted coup on our own country."
Massachusetts Representative Seth Moulton told WBUR that "this is the kind of terrorism that I expected to see in Iraq as a United States Marine, not here in Washington, D.C., not an attempted coup on our own country."Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

On the Senate floor later that night, Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke of the failed presidential runs she and her colleagues had experienced.

”We didn’t throw temper tantrums,” she said of their election losses. “We didn’t feed poisonous propaganda to our supporters. We didn’t urge people to march on state capitals or to descend on Washington. We accepted the will of the voters.”

In the days since, some members of the Massachusetts delegation said they have received more threats from Trump supporters, and many are concerned about violence breaking out on or before Inauguration Day next week. All have ramped up their calls for investigations into the security breakdowns and accountability against Trump and the Republican lawmakers who they said fanned the flames of hate and white supremacy.

Keating, who was one of the last House Democrats from Massachusetts to sign on to impeachment against Trump in 2019, said this time it is “clear cut.”

On a phone call, he laid out the facts in the dry manner of a prosecutor: “We are members of Congress — we are human, but importantly, we are instruments of the government doing our jobs, and this was an attempt to stop that from happening.”

Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Reach Jazmine Ulloa at jazmine.ulloa@globe.com or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa. Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.