Capitol Riot A Distant Memory In The Senate: Seems 'As If It Never Happened'

While the House is uglier and more rancorous, senators say they’ve felt little change in the one year since the attack.

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WASHINGTON — The hallway where an angry mob of rioters first broke into the U.S. Capitol looks exactly as it did before the attack.

The shards of broken glass that once littered the marble floor are long gone. The reinforced doors that were smashed through have been replaced. A blood-stained bust that witnessed Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman bravely confront the mob has been restored, its face smeared with red no more. The mayhem is but a memory.

There’s nothing to greet visitors, either: No plaque marks Jan. 6, 2021, one of the darkest days in U.S. history.

But the scars of that day are evident in other ways, especially in the House of Representatives, where members are facing an avalanche of threats at home and even from fellow colleagues at the Capitol. They’re spending more on personal security than ever. The metal detectors that were installed at entrances to the House floor following the attack are still standing, a glaring reminder of the poisonous atmosphere that has pervaded over the past year.

“The tone gets, you know, tougher and tougher. It is a pretty toxic place. I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who has served in Congress for 35 years, noted in a CNN interview last week.

One Year After The Attack

In recent months, a GOP lawmaker posted an animated video showing him killing a Democratic congresswoman, and he was later censured over it. Another GOP lawmaker got into a screaming match with the same Democrat on the steps of the Capitol, as well as a separate feud with a GOP colleague. Democrats are also pushing to strip a separate GOP member of her committee assignments after she called a Muslim congresswoman a terrorist.

Threats made to members of Congress are up threefold this year, according to the Capitol Police. Although some of the rancor predated Jan. 6, there’s no doubt the events have made it worse.

Things in the Senate haven’t been nearly as acrimonious. Interviews with over two dozen lawmakers and aides shed light on a working environment that seems more secure, but one where day-to-day life feels pretty much the same as before, not counting the trauma experienced by those who were in the building as the screaming mob advanced into the building.

“It seems like it’s as if it never happened,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said, recalling the hundreds of National Guard troops and barbed wire fencing posted at the Capitol following the attack.

Some lawmakers are grappling with whether to attend commemoration events planned on Capitol Hill for the one-year anniversary. On the one hand, members of Congress feel their presence can help send a message about being undeterred. But others, like Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), feel the day is “too freighted with anxiety and anger” for any kind of formal events.

Supporters of Donald Trump stream into a hallway on the ground floor of the U.S Capitol on January 6, 2021. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)
Supporters of Donald Trump stream into a hallway on the ground floor of the U.S Capitol on January 6, 2021. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)
Brent Stirton via Getty Images

Not much has changed politically, either.

Republicans are still afraid to criticize Donald Trump even though he is no longer in office, and even though he incited the mob to march on Congress, where they and their staff work, in the first place. When pressed, they shift the conversation toward more favorable ground: Joe Biden and his policies.

Nevertheless, Trump continues to falsely characterize the harrowing events as a harmless protest that featured nothing more than patriotic Americans who rose up against the results of the 2020 presidential election. Some of his allies in Congress have echoed those efforts, endorsing quixotic attempts to “audit” the 2020 results more than a year after the election.

Very few Republicans are actively pushing back on that kind of talk. The ones who are have been ostracized by their party.

“I am very aware and still disappointed at what I see colleagues who went through the same thing,” Murkowski said, before pausing briefly. “And yet it seems as if the further they get from that, it just didn’t seem to have any impact.”

“Or perhaps the facts look a little bit different than what they did at the time. That’s always been discouraging to me,” she lamented.

“It seems like it’s as if it never happened.”

- Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)

The rhetoric from GOP leaders denouncing Trump was strongest after the attack but soon wilted. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) rarely says his name anymore, deflecting questions about his influence over the party or the insults he hurls at McConnell himself. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has largely made up with Trump since calling him responsible in the days following the attack. He seems unwilling to anger him because it would likely hurt his chances of becoming speaker.

“The people moved very quickly back to the posture they had prior,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who along with Murkowski voted to convict Trump over the attack, told HuffPost. “Those who decided to buy into the stolen election dishonesty helped fuel the anger that led to the insurrection of January 6. It’s something that will be part of their personal legacy but I don’t see a political price being paid.”

If anything, parts of the GOP embraced Trump even more. Their campaign arm, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is using his likeness to raise funds. GOP candidates across the country are echoing his false claims of voter fraud, in what has become a litmus test for the 2022 midterm elections.

For The Objectors, Life Went On

The seven Republican senators who objected to Biden’s victory shortly after the Jan. 6 attack say they don’t feel any remorse over their votes despite the fact that most claims of voter fraud have been discredited. Some still refuse to acknowledge Biden was legitimately elected president.

“I don’t think we’ll ever really know because there wasn’t enough investigation. I just hope it doesn’t happen again,” Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) told HuffPost when asked if he thought Biden was elected fair and square.

“The process is here where you can object to something whether it’s something like that, or a bill, or a nomination. That’s what makes this country run,” the former college football coach explained.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), another objector, said that what happened on Jan. 6 was “not lawful.” But he, too, shrugged off criticism of his vote challenging the 2020 election results.

“If they want to be mad for the way I vote, then that’s their right,” Kennedy said of his critics. “Everybody wants to be loved but I recognize that that’s impossible when you do what you think is right. When somebody says, ‘How do you sleep at night knowing some people don’t like you?’ my answer is, ‘With the fan on.’”

A member of the U.S. Capitol Police rushes a lawmaker out of the House Chamber as rioters try to enter the floor and obstruct the certification of Joe Biden's 2020 presidential win.
A member of the U.S. Capitol Police rushes a lawmaker out of the House Chamber as rioters try to enter the floor and obstruct the certification of Joe Biden's 2020 presidential win.
Drew Angerer via Getty Images

Other objectors with presidential ambitions, like Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Josh Hawley (Mo.), have only increased their standing within the Republican Party. Both senators continued to raise their profile by blocking confirmation of dozens of Biden’s foreign policy nominees this year.

“I hope to never, ever see a riot here ever again,” said Hawley, who raised his fist in solidarity with Trump supporters gathered outside the Capitol building before they stormed the building.

Bipartisanship Alive, Not Necessarily Well

There’s little evidence that Jan. 6 and where various members came down on impeaching Trump and investigating the attack afterward has seriously affected working relationships in the Senate.

Kennedy, for example, recently teamed up with voting rights advocate Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) on legislation designed to ensure veterans have timely access to health care, and on a bill honoring the Freedom Riders. Warnock also joined Cruz, who lodged the first objection to Biden’s victory, in an effort to improve the infrastructure of their neighboring states.

“I work every day with people who refused to authorize an investigation of an armed insurrection at our nation’s Capitol that ended up in the deaths of people who were defending us.”

- Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

These kinds of quiet partnerships occur all the time in the Senate, especially on issues where there is little disagreement. What made these notable is that they involved senators diametrically opposed on an issue deeply intertwined with the Jan. 6 attack: voting.

In an interview with HuffPost, Warnock said he wouldn’t let the Jan. 6 fallout affect his relationship with members on the opposite aisle, even if some of those members opposed certifying the votes of millions of Americans based on bogus allegations of fraud.

“I’m willing to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to do whatever I can for the American people,” Warnock said. “I’ll continue working with my colleagues. I hope they work with us on voting rights.”

But other Democrats said that the GOP’s unwillingness to hold accountable those who contributed to the election falsehoods made it more difficult to get things done in a bipartisan way.

“I’ve pretty much given up on that,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (Hawaii) said. “I just want the Democrats to lift the filibuster in order to pass voting protection laws. That to me is the most important thing we can do right now.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) agreed.

“I work every day with people who refused to authorize an investigation of an armed insurrection at our nation’s Capitol that ended up in the deaths of people who were defending us. That’s a kind of a disagreement that goes beyond policies or home-state interests,” she said.

House Probe Hitting Its Limits

The bipartisan House select committee probing the attack has had some success so far, but it faces much resistance.

The panel has stepped up efforts seeking to reveal exactly what Trump said and did in the hours that outnumbered Capitol Police officers battled hundreds of his supporters, calling for testimony from lawmakers and former Trump administration officials involved in Trump’s effort to discredit the 2020 election. It also released new text messages sent to former Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows on the day of the attack from Fox News personalities, pleading with him to get Trump to urge his supporters to leave the building.

Their work even has McConnell paying attention. The Kentucky Republican, who opposed forming a bipartisan commission of experts to investigate the attack, effectively killing it, expressed interest in what else the panel will uncover.

Rep. Liz Cheney, (R-Wyo.) flanked by other members of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S Capitol, has been ostracized by her party for speaking out against Trump's election denialism.
Rep. Liz Cheney, (R-Wyo.) flanked by other members of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S Capitol, has been ostracized by her party for speaking out against Trump's election denialism.
OLIVIER DOULIERY via Getty Images

There has been frustration that the committee isn’t moving fast enough, however. Republicans will likely retake control of the House in November, giving them the power to wind down or quash the investigation entirely. Efforts to compel testimony or documents are being slowed in court by Trump and relevant witnesses in the meantime.

“I don’t know the direction that the committee is headed, but they give me hope when I see subpoena after subpoena being issued. It shows me they will stop at nothing to obtain the truth,” said Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn.

More than 130 Capitol Police officers have retired or resigned over the past year, partly due to low morale and burnout following the Jan. 6 insurrection, according to the inspector general for Capitol Police. About 140 officers were injured during the riot and five have died since then.

One tangible reform lawmakers have undertaken since Jan. 6 has been to allow the Capitol Police chief to unilaterally call in the National Guard for assistance when needed in the future. A congressional review found the lack of authority to request assistance was a key factor in the delayed response by the National Guard during the attack. However, there are still unanswered questions about the role the Pentagon played in sending troops to the Capitol. The deployment came far too late, and some see politics as the reason why.

The Next Jan. 6

The attack on the Capitol may be in the rearview mirror, but it may not have been the last attempt at overthrowing democracy. Trump allies are positioning themselves for jobs at election boards across the country, especially in states that helped decide the 2020 election: Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Democrats worry the Trump wing of the Republican Party is actively laying the groundwork to succeed in 2024 where he failed in 2021 — by reversing or calling into question elections in the states before the results can even be certified in Congress.

“What has been the result of this democracy on fire? What happened here in the Capitol? That canister of bear spray has been replaced by bill after bill after bill,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said in a recent speech on the Senate floor, referring to state-level GOP efforts to roll back pandemic voting accommodations and, in some cases, restrict voting access even further.

“Those flagpoles that were used to poke and jab at our brave officers that are here to defend us, resulting in several of their deaths, that’s been replaced by repeated efforts to lie about the results of the election. What has happened to our democracy?” she added.

Those fears aren’t shared by GOP lawmakers, whose party incidentally has also benefited from higher voter participation in recent elections. In New Jersey and Virginia, for example, people turned out to vote in record numbers and Republicans made impressive gains in both states.

Asked recently by HuffPost if he’s worried about the potential of future violence given Trump’s efforts to install loyalists to election posts across the country, McConnell ducked the question at his year-end press conference in December.

He answered by attacking Biden’s proposed social spending and climate legislation, the Build Back Better Act, which has taken up the majority of oxygen on Capitol Hill.

“What I’m worried about right now is hopefully seeing the end of Democrats’ reckless tax and spending spree,” he said.

Then he moved on to other topics.

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