Whipped up by President Donald Trump, a MAGA mob violently broke into the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday afternoon, taking over hallways and offices and forcing Congress to evacuate in an extraordinary disruption of the peaceful transfer of power marked by gunfire, broken windows, clashes with police, and four deaths.
Hours after the early afternoon breach, as rioters remained in the building, Trump posted a flaccid tweet and a video message that asked rioters to go home but validated their fact-free fury.
“This was a fraudulent election but we can’t play into the hands of these people,” he said. “We have to have peace, so go home, we love you, you’re very special.”
By nightfall, members of the House and Senate—who were meeting to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory—had evacuated, cops were moving to retake the building, and crowds began to disperse amid bouts of teargas.
One woman was shot dead, at least six people were hospitalized, and the FBI said it was responding to “reports of suspicious devices.” Citing sources, CNN reported that two suspected pipe bombs were rendered safe by law enforcement. D.C. police announced that in addition to the slain woman, three others died in medical emergencies, the AP reported.
“Utter chaos. This is what a coup looks like,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) told The Daily Beast, texting from his office in the Longworth House Office Building.
Around 2 p.m., members of Vice President Mike Pence’s Secret Service detail started getting antsy, whispering to each other and peering out the windows just off the Senate floor at the growing masses outside. That’s when loud bangs started popping outside—reverberating through the historic landmark, with at least six officers having to get their eyes flushed because they had no gas masks.
On an email listserv for the congressional press corps, journalists soon reported they had been on the floor, hiding as gunshots were fired. While live-streaming from inside the House side of the Capitol, PBS reporter Lisa Desjardins showed protesters opening every door in the hallway, walking in and out of rooms like that of the House Appropriations Committee.
At one point, reporters inside filmed the mob banging on the doors and police with guns drawn. Lawmakers donned gas masks and some prayed together, NBC’s Haley Talbot reported.
Outside the Capitol, demonstrators were seen clashing with U.S. Capitol Police and overcoming barricades. Thousands of Trump supporters cheered at the news that others had breached the building. “That’s so exciting,” said one woman who declined to give her name. “We should all go in, get them, and teach them a lesson.”
“Whose house? Our house!” protesters chanted, as they marched.
Police from several states were called in to help, including from New Jersey, Montgomery County in Maryland, and Virginia.
Unlike in June, when the Justice Department under then-Attorney General Bill Barr ringed federal buildings with unidentified police personnel against mostly peaceful Black Lives Matter protests, it was unclear who is in charge of the response to the MAGA violence and what they intend to do.
The chief spokesperson for the Pentagon, Jonathan Hoffman, said in a statement that the Justice Department was in charge. But the Justice Department stopped short of confirming that Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen was in command, saying he was “coordinating with our law enforcement partners to add additional Federal law enforcement support to the Capitol Grounds.”
The FBI’s Washington Field Office said it had “responded to reports of suspicious devices,” but didn’t elaborate. An FBI spokesperson said agents have “been deployed to assist our U.S. Capitol Police partners as requested in protection of federal property and public safety.”
A significant number of Washington, D.C. National Guard forces were set to be activated in a law-enforcement capacity, The Daily Beast confirmed. Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller said in a statement, “We have fully activated the D.C. National Guard to assist federal and local law enforcement as they work to peacefully address the situation... Our people are sworn to defend the Constitution and our democratic form of government and they will act accordingly.”
University of North Carolina emeritus professor Richard Kohn, the foremost American scholar of civilian-military relations, said the chaos showed that “obviously the executive branch is in the hands of the guy who wanted this to happen.”
The military should do “nothing,” Kohn urged, while the D.C. National Guard should “assemble, clear the Capitol grounds, ensure the Capitol Police can get inside, and the D.C. police should be arresting people.” Kohn added that a grand jury should be convened to indict Trump “with incitement to riot… it’s astonishing but not surprising.”
Members of Congress described confusion and terror, amid mixed reports of suspicious devices and the sound of gunshots.
Rep. Peter Meijer (R-MI), said that he and his staff were “sheltering in place” in their office while other buildings were being evacuated, thanking the police for keeping them safe.
On the Senate side, HuffPost's Igor Bobic said protesters had made it into an empty Senate chamber, which had been evacuated minutes earlier.
"Trump won that election!" one shouted, according to Bobic.
Police, meanwhile, eventually began to use some kind of gas in an attempt to disperse the crowd.
“We’ve got ’em on the run if we push forward!” a man with a megaphone said, as thousands of Trump supporters streamed in from the president’s speech earlier Wednesday.
Multiple officers appeared to be injured during the clashes. One reporter on the ground described the scene of thousands of “Stop the Steal” protesters overpowering federal law enforcement as “the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Eventually, with thousands of protesters still attempting to force their way into the buildings, the Capitol Police announced that the entire plaza had been placed in lockdown.
“All buildings within the Capitol Complex, Capitol: External security threat, no entry or exit is permitted, stay away from exterior windows, doors. If outside, seek cover,” the message read.
Around 3 p.m., a House aide told The Daily Beast, “All the members who were on the floor got out and are in an undisclosed location on the complex.” By 3:45 p.m., police had begun reasserting control over the Capitol entrance, pushing protesters off one of the stairs.
Still, hours later, the scene near the Trump International Hotel was chaotic enough that at least one individual was stabbed and hospitalized, according to D.C. Metro police. A spokesperson said there was no immediate suspect info.
By 8:30 p.m., with the Senate back in session to certify the next president and the streets relatively calm, something resembling normal took hold in D.C. Four Metro P.D. squad cars pulled up near the Trump Hotel, grabbing a passing man with a protest sign and making him lay him facedown on the ground.
Most of the people left on the street were journalists or cops. Eerie acoustic guitar music emanated from a white tent pitched on Pennsylvania and 4th.
Closer to the Capitol, lines of armored MPD cops blocked off the path to the building. A protester with a megaphone mocked them.
“George Soros paid me $500. That’s why I’m here” one said.
“Shame on you!” another man screamed at the police. “When I lose my voice, I got my harmonica!”
The police don’t respond to the non-sequitur. The man was one of a few-dozen protestors lingering near the Capitol building, outnumbered by police. There was around one member of the media for each protester.
If some semblance of order had been restored, the implications for democracy were still dire.
“This is unbelievable. Actually, it’s not unbelievable. It’s totally predictable,” said Rosa Brooks, the Georgetown University professor and co-founder of the Transition Integrity Project, which conducted war games to sketch out how a contested election result might play out. “I still hope and trust it’s not going to be a successful coup attempt.”
—With reporting by Erin Banco, Noah Shachtman, and Matt Laslo