Wednesday morning, when U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum walked into her office at the Rayburn House Office Building, located just south of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., she was surprised at a “light” security presence.
But she expected more police to arrive later to handle the thousands of pro-Trump supporters who had gathered in the nation’s capital to protest the certification of Joe Biden’s electoral college victory.
The St. Paul congresswoman, who was elected to the U.S. House 20 years ago, could hear the growing crowd as she went to grab lunch. Shortly afterward, she heard people had breached the protective fencing that surrounds the Capitol.
“We saw them on the (Capitol) steps, which we knew was not good,” McCollum said.
A congressional fellow had just started working in McCollum’s office on Tuesday, so McCollum decided to take the fellow through the Capitol’s tunnel system to get her away from the complex and home safely. Before they could get out, though, they were stopped by security forces locking down the Capitol.
“I needed to find a place to shelter in the Senate side, because the Capitol rotunda had been breached and [rioters] were trying to get into the Senate and the House chambers,” McCollum said. “How our security ever allowed it to get that far is something that’s going to take a real hard review. We can’t allow this to happen again.”
As of 4 p.m. Wednesday, McCollum was still sheltering in an undisclosed Senate office building, she said in a phone interview with MinnPost, offering a window into an unprecedented day in which pro-Trump rioters — egged on by remarks from the president himself — overran Capitol police and stormed the nation’s legislative chambers.
“I’ll be here until I get the all-clear,” said McCollum, “but I’m safe right now.”
Four people are dead related to the melee: a woman was shot by Capitol police in the midst of the chaos, three died after medical emergencies, and more than a dozen police were injured, NPR reported. The National Guard, state and federal police were called in to control the situation and the Capitol was secured before 5 p.m. Minnesota time.
McCollum said she never entered House chambers, where law enforcement brandished guns at rioters attempting to walk on to the House floor. She had planned to vote an hour or so before the sergeant of arms alerted people to growing problems at the Capitol.
McCollum wasn’t the only member of Congress from Minnesota to report a harrowing experience Wednesday.
As the Capitol was breached, Rep. Dean Phillips of the 3rd Congressional District tweeted that Congress members were being asked to take cover on the House floor and ready their gas masks. He was evacuated with others to a safe location. Phillips reportedly shouted “This is because of you!” at Republican lawmakers as the chamber’s doors were being shut.
Phillips’ spokesman Bryan Doyle said it was decided Tuesday that all of Phillips’ staff would work from home on Wednesday for their safety; on Monday, the House sergeant at arms’ office sent notice to Capitol staffers to expect demonstrations and street closures during the Wednesday joint session confirming electoral college votes.
Eighth Congressional District Rep. Pete Stauber told Dan Wolfe of Duluth TV station KBJR that he was sheltering in a Capitol office and could hear flash bangs both inside and outside the building. Stauber told Wolfe he felt safe but asked for prayers for those at the Capitol and for the nation. “We as a nation are better than this,” he said.
It wasn’t immediately clear where all members of Minnesota’s delegation were when the Capitol was overtaken. Because of COVID-19, the sergeant at arms had urged members to stay in their offices unless speaking or called to vote.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar was one of the last senators to speak during the certification debate before the chambers were evacuated. Rebutting Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who called for a commission to examine the election for fraud and irregularities over 10 days, Klobuchar noted Jan. 6 is not “typically a day of historical significance for our country.”
“For centuries this day is simply the day we receive each state’s certified electoral votes and it has come and gone without much fanfare,” she said on the Senate floor.
But she implored lawmakers to be “coup fighters” and finalize Biden’s election.
“Our cause, despite our political differences, is to preserve our American democracy, to preserve our republic,” Klobuchar said. “Because as someone once said long ago: It’s a republic, if you can keep it,” echoing a phrase purported to have originated with Benjamin Franklin.
Congress did reconvene in the evening and voted to confirm Biden’s victory. Newly elected GOP Rep. Michelle Fischbach of the 7th Congressional District and Republican Rep. Jim Hagedorn of the 1st Congressional District voted to sustain objections to election results in Pennsylvania and Arizona. All Democrats from Minnesota voted to reject the objections, as did Republicans Stauber and 6th Congressional District Rep. Tom Emmer.
In a statement issued as Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, Fischbach said “there must be a proper investigation to consider” the many claims of irregularities and voter fraud. (Those allegations of fraud have been widely debunked, including by Trump’s Department of Justice.) Hagedorn said he disagreed with how state officials amended election laws or voting procedures in some states, which he said “called into question the integrity of the 2020 presidential election.”
Both lawmakers condemned the violence at the Capitol.
Emmer, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Congress does not have authority “to discard an individual slate of electors certified by a state’s legislature in accordance with their constitution.”
After the votes, around 2:30 a.m., Klobuchar was tasked with announcing the final results on the Senate floor: “The report we make is that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be the president and the vice president according to the ballots that have been given to us.”
Despite the chaos, McCollum said it was the right move to return for a vote. She blamed Trump for instigating the riot and criticized Republican leaders for not doing more to stop the president’s inflammatory lies about the 2020 election.
“Our democracy and our constitution have been under attack by this president for four years and we need to fulfill our duty and that is to certify this election which was righteously won by President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris,” McCollum said.