On Wednesday morning, politicians, staffers and journalists went to the U.S. Capitol expecting a hectic day.
Congress was set to convene a joint session to certify Joe Biden as the next president, a process that would be drawn out unnecessarily by Republicans pushing to throw out votes for some of the states President Donald Trump lost. Reporters were already bracing for some madness, anticipating fiery floor speeches, frustrated lawmakers and probably some ranting from the president.
Then everything went sideways.
After Trump addressed a crowd of his supporters and called for them to confront lawmakers about the purportedly stolen election, a mob descended on the U.S. Capitol and forced its way inside. Once there, they smashed windows, rummaged through offices and entered restricted and sacrosanct spaces, like the Senate floor. They threatened police and journalists. Ultimately, five people, including a police officer, died.
When could you first tell something big was happening?
Fuller: I expected there would be some security breaches and lockdowns throughout the day. Early in the certification proceedings, we got alerts about locking down the Madison Building [which houses part of the Library of Congress] and evacuating the Cannon House Office Building. But about 20 or 30 minutes into debate on certifying Arizona’s votes, a gallery staffer told me they were probably going to lock us in the chamber soon and that I should probably go to the bathroom now.
As soon as I got back, I saw Capitol Police rushing around the gallery locking the doors. They seemed to have a real intensity about the situation that was unnerving. I have always figured — and always told my mom — that the House chamber is one of the safest places you can be. But I gathered pretty quickly by the seriousness of the police that we had a real situation on our hands.
It was kind of like one of those moments in a zombie movie where they’re right on the other side of the door. Matt Fuller
Bobic: Initially, I dismissed the growing crowds outside the Capitol as just another demonstration. It’s been a turbulent year and Capitol Police easily managed prior protests in front of the building. A loud security alert that echoed through the Senate Press Gallery, warning us to stay away from windows and doors, changed my state of alarm.
What did you see first?
Fuller: At some point, the House recessed briefly. It wasn’t really clear what was going on, but they gaveled back in, and the guidance we were getting was that, yes, the chamber would be locked down, but the House would continue with debate. That only lasted a few minutes. When the House recessed again, floor staffers quickly advised members that they needed to take the so-called escape hoods — a kind of plastic bubble bag with an air purifier attached — out from underneath their chairs.
In more than 10 years in the Capitol, I’d never even seen the escape hoods. So members are kind of rushing around, opening packages, and suddenly, there’s this banging at the front doors to the chamber. It was kind of like one of those moments in a zombie movie where they’re right on the other side of the door.
Bobic: I was outside the Senate chamber, which is located on the second floor of the building, when I heard shouting. I immediately ran down the stairs to the first floor, where the commotion was coming from, and pulled out my camera and started recording. When I reached the first floor and turned a corner, I encountered a lone Capitol Police officer trying to hold back a group of approximately 20 rioters from making their way up the stairs to the Senate chamber, where senators were debating an objection to Biden’s electoral win in Arizona. He waved his nightstick in the air but was unable to stop them from advancing. They chased the officer, and me behind him with my camera, back up the stairs to the second floor, just steps away from the doors of the Senate. He yelled for backup into his radio and was eventually met by other police officers in the hallway outside the chamber. The rioters carried Confederate flags and shouted, “This is our America.”
You both captured images from within the chambers of rioters. Can you tell us more about what you saw?
Fuller: So something the Capitol takes very seriously is not allowing pictures or videos from the gallery. It’s one of those rules that can really get you in trouble, even suspended from the Capitol, if you break it. So even though there’s a ton of action going on, my last instinct is to pull out my phone and snap a picture.
The protesters are continuing to bang on the door. And members are just sort of scattering. They had taken Speaker Pelosi away after the House first recessed. That might have been the reason they recessed in the first place — to get her out. But the protesters are banging on the doors, and suddenly, we start seeing that they’re evacuating some members. I was in one of the furthest corners from where they were leading people out, and it was kind of unclear whether we were all evacuating, or whether they were just going to get some members off the floor. Members are frantically trying to get their escape hoods out of the packaging, which was a lot more difficult and confusing than you think.
One member, Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who is a former Marine, starts telling members that they need to breathe when they have the “gas mask” on. He’s standing on top of a chair just directing people around. We’re being told that they’ve deployed tear gas, so we’ll need the gas masks if we evacuate. And floor staff are telling members that they may need to get down beneath their chairs. When they said that, I knew this could go really wrong. In my mind, the only reason members would be getting down is to take cover from the protesters, and to get out of Capitol Police’s line of fire.
So the chamber is very slowly evacuating. And the gallery up above is even slower. Protesters really hadn’t breached the third floor yet, which is where we were. So we’re in the chamber for quite a while, maybe 10 or so minutes from when they first reached the doors, before they start moving the gallery out. We heard a loud bang and I heard a cop say, “Shots fired!” So this is when we really started getting out. I’m evacuating when suddenly the glass on the chamber doors smashes out. A cop near me yells “Gun!” and tells us to get down, and I thought they were shooting out the glass. Turns out they were just punching it out with a hammer or something.
So I’m sort of stuck in this no man’s land between where they’re evacuating us and the line of sight directly in front of the door. At this time, we’re all operating on the assumption that [the rioters] have guns and could fire at us. A few reporters and myself are crouched down behind the gallery desks, but I can see that they’re talking to the protesters through the glass, which seemed incredibly brave, if not reckless. Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) is trying to reason with them through the door. It was at this moment when I decided to hell with the ban on pictures, I’m pulling out my phone to capture this.
We were crouched down for a while there, and most of the floor had evacuated. So when the galleries really started clearing out, we decided we would move too. We made our way over some railings in the gallery, and were led out a side door in the gallery. I won’t say where we went from there, but we took a route in the Capitol that I had never seen before.
Bobic: I was attempting to find a safe place to hide on the third floor of the Capitol when I ran into dozens of rioters forcing their way into the Senate chamber’s public galleries, the rows of seats where guests and tourists normally sit and watch floor proceedings from above. I followed the rioters into the gallery behind them and took photos as they descended down the stairs into the empty chamber. They were jubilant and in awe that they had actually made their way inside, remarking to one another how “cool” the room looked. One man actually jumped from the ledge of the public galleries to the well of the Senate below, a distance of some 20 feet. He walked past the rows of chairs reserved for senators and up to the dais, where Vice President Mike Pence was presiding only minutes before, sat in his chair, and pumped his fists in the air, shouting, “Trump won that election!” His friend on the third-floor gallery told him to repeat the pose so he could take a photo. There were no police officers present in the chamber at the time.
Did you witness any violence firsthand?
Fuller: The only real violence I saw was some glass shattering and protesters banging on the door. All we knew at the time was that there had been shots fired, and Capitol Police have their guns drawn. I heard gunshots — which are presumably all from the Capitol Police, though we still don’t have answers about that or some bullet holes on the House side — and I think I heard a flash bang. My experience was very different from Igor’s because I never really saw the protesters in the Capitol.
Bobic: On the second floor, outside the Senate chamber, I witnessed several Capitol Police officers who were dazed and covered in dust, coughing and unable to walk. I assumed they were covered in remnants of tear gas or pepper spray that was set off at one point in the Ohio Clock Corridor, an ornate hallway near the Senate doors. From a second floor window, I could see several rioters commandeer a movable scaffolding that is typically used to wash windows. They rode the scaffolding up to the second floor of the building, near Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s suite of offices, got out and stepped on to a wide ledge of the building. They tried to break through the windows repeatedly with some sort of tube, but were unable to do so.
As journalists, what was it like to see things like “Murder the media” scrawled onto the Capitol? Did you feel you were in danger?
Fuller: I know there’s an intense hatred of the media. A lot of these people believe we’re the enemy, because that’s what the right and the president who they love is telling them. A lot more of these people are just told that we’re biased, working for the Democrats, because that’s a convenient fiction for Republican leaders. I feel sorry for a lot of these people. And I’m sorry that they hate me so much. I get up and try to tell the truth as best and as honestly as I can every day.
Bobic: The scariest part of my day was holding up my phone to record the scenes and locking eyes with rioters, not knowing what their reaction would be. I obviously didn’t look like one of them ― I was in a suit and had a badge around my neck ― so I assumed they knew who I was. A tremendous New York Times photographer was assaulted by several rioters at another part of the building, so I was extremely lucky to make it out unharmed.
How do you think this is going to affect covering Capitol Hill?
Fuller: This is a question I’m genuinely scared of. Every time there’s a security breach, or a protester masquerading as a reporter, they lock down our access more. I think Capitol Hill is the best covered institution in the world, and it’s not because there are reporters everywhere and every one of them could break news at any time; it’s because of our access. We have the ability to approach members, ask them questions, pretty much go wherever they go. I’m really scared that’s dying. I don’t know how free and open the Capitol grounds will be. I don’t know if they’re going to establish additional areas where the public can’t go. But the media is the public. We’re there for the people. And while they clearly have security concerns that they need to address, I hope it doesn’t come at the expense of journalists trying to do their jobs, trying to hold politicians accountable.
Bobic: I share Matt’s concerns about access. I’ve seen some Capitol Police officers manhandle reporters in the middle of doing their job during busy news days more often than the soft-handed treatment most rioters received, so I’m expecting a security crackdown.