Mitch McConnell froze when a Capitol Police officer rushed into the Senate chamber carrying a semiautomatic weapon. The majority leader had been so engrossed in the Electoral College debate happening before him that he hadn’t realized anything was amiss—until pandemonium erupted.
Mere moments before, Mike Pence’s Secret Service detail had subtly entered the room and beckoned the vice president away from the dais where he was overseeing proceedings, a rarity for agents who usually loitered outside the doors. A hum spread through the chamber as staff shut down the debate, whispering to senators that “protesters are in the building.”
“This is a security situation,” a security officer said into the microphone on the dais. “We’re asking that everyone remain in the chamber. It’s the safest place.”
Suddenly, armed guards were racing to McConnell, hurriedly escorting him out of the room. With no access to a cellphone or television—neither was allowed in the Senate—McConnell had no idea what was happening, but he certainly had a guess. During a brief break in the January 6 Electoral College proceedings, he had caught a few televised snippets of Donald Trump’s speech at the Ellipse. The outgoing president, who had been spewing falsehoods that the election had been stolen from him, was spinning up his supporters, encouraging the thousands who had come to Washington to take their protest to the Capitol.
Earlier that afternoon, McConnell had once again implored his GOP colleagues to stand down in objecting to the Electoral College. From a lectern in the Senate chamber, he noted that there was no proof of fraud on the level Trump was alleging. And he argued that “if this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral.”
Outside, unbeknownst to McConnell, at least 10,000 Trump supporters were besieging the Capitol. Agitators had broken through a series of flimsy bike racks marking the Capitol’s outer perimeter and begun scaling the sides of the Capitol building, chanting, “We want Trump! We want Trump!”
Capitol Police tried to push them back with riot shields, dispensing tear gas into the crowd. But they were quickly overwhelmed by the swelling mob, which turned their flagpoles—bearing a mix of Confederate, American, Trump, and “Don’t Tread on Me” banners—into makeshift lances and spears.
McConnell’s detail whisked him down to the Capitol basement and through the snakelike tunnels that weaved through the complex. As his staff updated him on the unraveling situation, officers hurried him away to an underground parking garage and shoved him in a car to get him off the property. As McConnell’s SUV pulled away from the Capitol grounds, his aides pulled up pictures and videos on their phones to show their boss the chaos outside.
McConnell was dumbfounded. For the first time in more than two centuries, the Capitol was under siege.
In a small private room off the side of the Senate chamber, Pence was refusing to evacuate. Despite the rioters coursing through the hallways outside, when his Secret Service detail told him it was time, he said no. A few minutes later, Secret Service agents tried again. Once again, Pence refused. “The last thing I want is for these people to see a motorcade fleeing the scene,” he said. “That is not an image we want. I’m not leaving.”
As Pence resisted his Capitol evacuation on January 6, Trump continued to taunt him on Twitter. “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify,” he wrote. “USA demands the truth!”
Two minutes later, Pence’s Secret Service agents stopped giving him a say in the matter. Pointing to the glass panels on the chamber door, they told the vice president they could not protect him or his family there.
“We need to go!” a Secret Service agent said.
The officers managed to get Pence as far as the basement garage of the Capitol before the vice president began protesting his evacuation again. His security detail implored him to at least sit inside the armored limousine they had standing by. Again, Pence adamantly refused.
Standing in the parking garage, Pence turned to his longtime chief of staff, Marc Short, to devise a plan. Trump, by design or by circumstance, wasn’t responding to the chaos unfolding above their heads inside the Capitol. Someone needed to act presidentially and end this madness.
“Get Kevin McCarthy on the phone,” Pence instructed. Short pulled up his cell and pressed the call button.
McCarthy, for his part, was on the phone with Trump. He screamed into the receiver at the president as his detail spirited him away from the Capitol, where protesters had overrun his office. Bombs had been discovered at the Republican and Democratic National Committees, the House minority leader told Trump. Someone had been shot.
“You’ve got to tell these people to stop,” he said.
Trump wasn’t interested. “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” he replied blithely.
When Trump told McCarthy that the rioters must “like Trump more than you do,” the GOP leader fumed. How many times had he bent over backwards to protect the president? How many times had he buried his head in the sand when he knew the president’s actions were wrong? Trump owed him—and all House Republicans—an intervention to stop the attack. Their lives were on the line.
“Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?” McCarthy yelled. Trump told McCarthy that antifa was behind the violence, not his own supporters. McCarthy was aghast.
“They’re your people,” McCarthy said, noting that Trump supporters were at that very moment climbing through his office window. “Call them off!”
As his car sped away from the Capitol, McCarthy tried to come up with a plan. He called the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, begging him to get to the White House and make Trump put an end to the violence. McCarthy began to think about trying to reach Trump via television. Maybe if he took to the networks, he could break through by calling the president out publicly.
Before McCarthy could do anything, his phone rang. It was Pence. McCarthy told the vice president what Trump had just said to him.
This is the story of Republican leaders’ rude awakening on January 6, as they realized that despite their past loyalty to Trump, their party leader would do nothing to save them. GOP leaders had spent four years defending Trump through an impeachment and an endless stream of scandals. But on the day they needed him most, the president did nothing to help even his loyal rank and file escape violence.
Although Republicans have since rallied behind the former president, that day, the chasm between GOP leaders and Trump could not have been wider. From their lockdown off campus, in a series of previously unreported meetings, McConnell and other GOP leaders would turn to their Democratic counterparts for assistance in browbeating the Pentagon to move the National Guard to send armed troops to the Hill. Together, the bipartisan leaders of Congress, agreed in their conviction that Trump was stonewalling if not outright maneuvering against them, joined forces to do what the president would not: Save the Capitol.
At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Trump sat in a dining room abutting the Oval Office, watching television coverage of his devotees storming the Capitol. Multiple aides were rushing in and out, begging him to make a public statement calling for peace. “This is out of control,” Pence’s national security adviser, Keith Kellogg, told Trump, imploring him to send a white flag via Twitter. His daughter Ivanka also kept running in and out of the room, pleading with her father to call off the riot. “Let it go,” she pleaded with her dad, referring to the election.
Even Trump’s son Donald Jr., who had urged Trump’s followers to “fight” at the rally that morning, had been alarmed by the chaotic scene at the Capitol. From the airport, before he departed town, he had tweeted, “This is wrong and not who we are. Be peaceful.” He also texted White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, imploring him to get his dad to stop the violence.
“He’s got to condemn this shit ASAP,” he texted. “We need an Oval Office address. He has to lead now. It has gone too far and gotten out of hand.”
Don Jr. wasn’t the only one appealing to Meadows. Fox News personalities such as Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity begged the White House chief of staff to get the president to call off the crowds. Down the hall, Meadows’s staff warned him that Trump’s supporters “are going to kill people.”
Shortly after 2:30 p.m., Trump begrudgingly issued a tweet calling on his supporters to “please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement.” As far as Trump was concerned, the riot was Congress’s problem, he told his aides. It was their job to defend the Capitol, he said, not his. Perversely, the riot had actually buoyed Trump’s hopes that he might be able to strong-arm his way to overturning the election. When the chaos started to unfold, he began calling his GOP allies in Congress—not to check on their well-being, but to make sure they didn’t lose their nerve about objecting to the election results.
Across the Capitol campus, in a large Senate conference room guarded by cops, tensions were reaching a boiling point. The typically even-keeled Mitt Romney was lambasting Josh Hawley, blaming him for triggering the riot by endorsing Trump’s outlandish election objections. Lindsey Graham, Trump’s closest ally in the chamber, flew into a fit of rage at the “yahoos” who had invaded the Hill and screamed at the Senate sergeant-at-arms, who was hiding in the safe room with them.
“What the hell are you doing here? Go take back the Senate!” Graham barked at the chamber’s top security official. “You’ve got guns … Use them!”
Graham only grew angrier upon hearing a rumor that started circulating among Trump allies in the room: that the president was refusing to send in troops to help secure the Capitol. From their lockdown, he tried to call Trump to get clarity. When the president didn’t answer, Graham phoned Ivanka, asking her whether her dad was intentionally keeping the National Guard from responding to the crisis. He couldn’t see any other reason it was taking so long for reinforcements to arrive.
Ivanka assured Graham that this wasn’t the case, but Graham was still furious at Trump’s nonchalant response to hundreds of his followers laying waste to the Capitol. He pressed Ivanka to get her dad to do more. He then called Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, and threatened that Republicans would forcibly remove Trump from office using the Twenty-Fifth Amendment if the president continued to do nothing. Lisa Murkowski was equally shaken as she waited out the violence. The Alaska Republican had been in her private hideaway office in the Senate basement when the riot had begun. All of a sudden, she had heard someone stumbling into the bathroom next to her office and heaving into the toilet. Peeking outside, she saw a bathroom door open and a police officer washing his face in the sink.
“Can I help you?” she asked, surprised. “Are you okay?”
The officer had paused and looked up at her, his eyes red and swollen nearly shut from what appeared to be tear gas.
“No, I’m okay,” he said almost frantically, racing out of the bathroom. “No, I’ve got to get out there. They need my help.”
As she waited out the violence, hoping the marauders wouldn’t find her, Murkowski could still hear the police officer’s retching, playing like a track on repeat, over and over in her head.
A couple of miles away, at a military installation along the Anacostia River, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer were trying to figure out what was going on with the National Guard. The speaker and the minority leader had been evacuated to Fort McNair, along with the other most senior lawmakers in Congress from both parties. Since the moment they’d arrived, they had turned their holding room into a command center for their desperate operation to save the Capitol.
Sitting around a large break room with a leather couch so worn that it was held together with red duct tape, Pelosi and Schumer tried to make sense of the unfolding situation. Pelosi had been ushered away so quickly that she’d left her cellphone on the House chamber dais. Schumer had his antiquated flip phone out and was calling his rank-and-file members and aides, asking for updates. Every few minutes, their Capitol security details hovering in the hall would race into the room with a bit of news. Lawmakers in both chambers had been led to secret holding rooms in the congressional office buildings, though there was no telling if the mob would follow and find them. There were reports that some of the rioters were armed. And a group of Pelosi’s aides had barricaded themselves in a conference room, hiding under a table as rioters yelled, “Where’s Nancy?” and tried to kick down the doors. One of Steny Hoyer’s top aides was calling him frantically, insisting that the leaders clear the Capitol.
A large projection screen had been lowered and tuned to CNN. The leaders gaped as, for the first time, they took in the full scene outside the Capitol. It looked like a war zone—with Congress on the losing side. Outnumbered cops clashed with protesters. Rioters were breaking down doors and shattering windows. Police were getting sprayed with tear gas.
“This is all Trump’s fault!” Hoyer cried out helplessly, to no one in particular. Pelosi agreed. The man who started all of this, she reminded them grimly, still had control of the nation’s nuclear codes.
“I can’t believe this,” she said indignantly. “Have you ever seen anything like this?”
Elsewhere in D.C., the head of the National Guard had put armed troops on buses as soon as the Capitol Police chief alerted him to the riot underway at the Capitol. But he had still not received required orders from the Pentagon to deploy them. Troops in Virginia and Maryland were ready to move, the Democratic leaders were hearing—yet they too had not received the green light.
At 3:19 p.m., just over an hour after the Capitol was breached, the Democratic leaders connected via phone with top Pentagon brass and demanded answers. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy insisted that his superior, Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, had already approved mobilization of armed National Guard units. But seven minutes later, the besieged House sergeant-at-arms told them the opposite: He was still hearing from D.C. Guard leaders that no such order had been given.
Hoyer was getting a similar message from Larry Hogan, the governor of Maryland, who had 1,000 National Guard troops on standby, ready to move. In a frantic phone call, Hoyer tried to explain to Hogan that the Pentagon had given those troops permission to mobilize—the top Army brass had just told Schumer so. But Hogan protested.
“Steny, I’m telling you, I don’t care what Chuck says,” the governor said. “I’ve been told by the Department of Defense that we don’t have authorization.”
The Democratic leaders looked at one another, alarmed. What the hell was really going on? They asked each other the unthinkable: Could the problem be Trump? Was it possible that the president of the United States was telling the military to stand down—or worse, helping to orchestrate the attack?
Down the hall, Kevin McCarthy was working other channels. Pacing the conference room where GOP leaders were sequestered at Fort McNair, he screamed at Dan Scavino, a top White House aide who often handled Trump’s Twitter account. The tweet Trump had put out around 2:30 p.m. calling for calm was not good enough, McCarthy insisted. They had to do more to stop the violence.
“Trump has got to say: ‘This has to stop,’” McCarthy growled into the phone. “He’s the only one who can do it!”
In the GOP room, McConnell; his No. 2, John Thune; House Minority Whip Steve Scalise; and other GOP lawmakers were also on the phones trying to figure out what was happening. It was clear that McCarthy’s appeals to Trump were falling flat. They would need to find a way to work around the president—the man they had collectively defended for four years—if they wanted to get the National Guard to the Capitol.
The GOP leaders, however, could not figure out who was in charge. They kept returning to basic questions: Who had the authority to order in the troops? Was it the Army secretary? Was it the acting defense secretary? Did they need Trump’s approval?
Since he had arrived at Fort McNair, McCarthy had ordered his aides to get him on as many television networks as possible. He kept darting in and out of the room to take their calls, hoping Trump would be watching one of the channels he was speaking on.
“This is so un-American,” McCarthy said in a Fox News appearance at 3:05 p.m., attempting to shame Trump into acting. “I could not be sadder or more disappointed with the way our country looks at this very moment.”
At one point between television hits, McCarthy announced to the room that he had finally won a concession from the White House: Trump, after much begging, had begrudgingly agreed to record a video calling for calm. The news, however, was not particularly reassuring to the Republicans in the room. The president was entirely unpredictable. Would such a video help—or make it worse? they asked each other. And what of the Guard?
Off in the corner, Scalise was scrolling through Twitter on his iPad, looking at images of the Capitol. One photo in particular made him stop short: a rioter rappelling down the wall of the Senate chamber and onto the rostrum where Mike Pence had been presiding. Scalise held his device out so McConnell could see.
“Look, they’re in the Senate chamber,” he said.
McConnell’s face paled.
Since the evacuation, McConnell had been torn between feelings of disbelief and irrepressible anger toward Trump for fomenting the assault. The Capitol had been his home for decades. The members and the staff who worked there might as well have been his family. Yet the president had put them all in mortal danger. McConnell’s aides had been texting his chief of staff, who had accompanied him to Fort McNair, about the situation at the Capitol as it grew more precarious. Rioters were banging on their office doors, claiming to be Capitol Police officers to try to gain entry. Others were scaling the scaffolding outside their windows, trying to peer inside. In the hallway outside their barricaded doors, staffers could hear a woman praying loudly that “the evil of Congress be brought to an end.”
McConnell knew that his aides had been coordinating with Schumer’s office from their lockdown, working their Rolodexes to summon help from the federal agencies. They had been calling and sending cellphone pictures of the chaos to anyone and everyone they knew at the Pentagon and Justice Department. They’d even roused former Attorney General Bill Barr and his chief of staff to use internal channels.
“We are so overrun, we are locked in the leader’s suite,” McConnell’s counsel Andrew Ferguson had whispered to Barr’s former chief from his hiding place, keeping his voice down so as not to be heard by rioters. “We need help. If you don’t start sending men, people might die.”
McConnell knew that appealing to Trump directly would be a waste of time. He hadn’t spoken with the president since December 15, the day McConnell publicly congratulated Joe Biden for winning the election. Trump had called him afterward in a rage, hurling insults and expletives. “The problem you have is the Electoral College is the final word,” McConnell had told him calmly. “It’s over.”
McConnell didn’t bother calling Trump again. Even on the morning of January 6, he purposefully ignored a phone call from the president, believing he could no longer be reasoned with. So when the Capitol came under attack, McConnell focused on getting in touch with military leaders, leaving it to his chief of staff to communicate with Meadows to enlist the White House’s help to quell the riot—if they would help at all.
An FBI SWAT team had arrived at the Capitol campus just as the leaders of Congress were being escorted into Fort McNair. But McConnell knew they would need more manpower to stop the rampage. It was why he called the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, to implore him to help dispatch the Guard. But as far as McConnell could tell, the Guard still wasn’t moving.
As the duty officers at Fort McNair tried in vain to hook up a television so the Republicans could watch the latest scenes of destruction at the Capitol, McConnell huddled with his staff around a telephone, trying to reach the Pentagon. “I have the majority leader on the line,” McConnell’s aide announced, trying to connect her boss with Acting Defense Secretary Miller. They were promptly put on hold, infuriating GOP lawmakers in the room who couldn’t understand why the Pentagon was dodging their inquiries.
Around 3:40 p.m., an hour and a half after the breach occurred, McConnell’s patience gave out. He stormed out of the room and crossed the hall to find Pelosi, Schumer, and Hoyer. “What are you hearing?” McConnell asked his Democratic counterparts as the other GOP leaders followed him into the room. “Do you know what the holdup is with the Guard?”
They didn’t know any more than he did. At a loss, Pelosi and Schumer had just signed off on a joint statement demanding that Trump call for an end to the violence. Everyone knew it was little more than a gesture. It was time to bring the combined weight of all four congressional leaders to bear on the administration.
“Get Miller on the phone,” someone barked.
As aides worked to set up the call, the Republicans who had just entered the room stared at the CNN footage on the projector screen. It was the first time they’d witnessed the enormity of the scenes at the Capitol on anything larger than their phone or tablet screens. The footage rolling in was shocking: Rioters, having ransacked the building, were now taking selfies and cheering. They were stealing historic artifacts as keepsakes; one even carried away the speaker’s lectern, waving with glee at the camera. On one end of the Capitol, protesters were storming the Senate chamber and rummaging through senators’ desks. On the other, insurrectionists were doing the same in Pelosi’s office.
“That’s my desk!” one Pelosi aide blurted out when an image of a man sitting in her chair with his feet propped up by her computer flashed on the screen. “They’re going through my desk!”
Hoyer, still furious, started lecturing Scalise that the riot was the GOP’s fault for enabling Trump.
“This isn’t the time for that,” Scalise retorted. “Right now, we need to get the chamber back, secured and open.”
McConnell, Schumer, and the other lawmakers, meanwhile, stood by awaiting the call. Amid the chaos of the afternoon, two special elections in Georgia had been officially called for the Democratic candidates. That meant Schumer’s party would be taking control of all of Washington—and he would soon be taking McConnell’s job. McConnell had already congratulated Schumer on his forthcoming promotion.
A few minutes later, huddled around a cellphone, the leaders jointly excoriated Miller for his snail-like response to what had all the markings of a coup at the Capitol. It was perhaps the first time since Trump took office that the congressional leaders had presented such a united front. Why hadn’t troops been sent in already? they demanded to know. Where was the National Guard?
“Tell POTUS to tweet, ‘Everyone should leave,’” Schumer insisted, yelling into the device over speakerphone.
“Get help in ASAP,” McConnell said firmly. “We want the Capitol back.”
Miller stammered that Pentagon leaders needed to formulate a “plan” before they moved troops.
“Look, we’re trying,” Miller said. “We’re looking at how to do this.”
His vague answer did not suffice. There was no time to waste, the leaders insisted, as they pressed him to say how soon armed troops would arrive. After demurring several times, Miller finally gave them a partial answer: It could take four hours to get the National Guard to the Capitol, and up until midnight until the building could be cleared.
At that, Schumer lost it.
“If the Pentagon were under attack, it wouldn’t take you four hours to formulate a plan!” he roared. “We need help now!”
Scalise pressed Miller to tell them how many troops they could expect to arrive. When again the secretary declined to answer, Pelosi exploded.
“Mr. Secretary, Steve Scalise just asked you a question, and you’re not answering it,” she said. “What’s the answer to that question?”
But Miller simply dodged again, murmuring that they were trying their best.
That the most powerful nation in the world didn’t have a plan in place to protect its own Capitol from attack was unthinkable to the leaders. And the fact that Miller was refusing to give clear answers appalled them. There was only one other person in Washington who might have more sway than they did. Hanging up on Miller, they reached out to their last hope: It was time to call Pence.
In the parking garage in the basement of the Capitol, Pence listened as the congressional leaders beseeched him to help dispatch troops to the Capitol. As vice president, he had no authority to assume Trump’s powers as commander in chief and give orders to the secretary of defense. But he couldn’t understand why the Guard wasn’t already on its way. Something had to be done.
“I’m going to get off this call and call them, then call you right back,” Pence told the lawmakers, hanging up to dial Miller and Milley.
Next to him, Pence’s brother, Greg, and his chief of staff, Marc Short, were still seething at how cavalierly Trump had abandoned them. They had read the president’s most recent Twitter attack against Pence on their phones in the Senate basement, fuming that in the heat of the riot, the president had chosen to stir up more vitriol about the vice president instead of calling to check on him. Trump’s conspiratorial advisers were also emailing Pence’s team, telling them that the riot was their fault for not helping overturn the election. It was outrageous.
The vice president, however, didn’t have time to dwell on the slights. When they’d first arrived in the garage, he had phoned McCarthy and McConnell, then Schumer and Pelosi, to make sure they all were safe. He didn’t bother dialing Trump. Short, however, angrily called Meadows to tell the White House that they were okay. And in case he or anyone else was wondering, Short added, “we are all planning to go back to the Capitol to certify the election tonight.”
Meadows didn’t object. “That’s probably best,” he replied.
At the White House, aides were gradually giving up hope that the president would do anything useful to restore order at the Capitol, though by mid-afternoon, the pressure on Trump to act was relentless. Republican lawmakers; longtime Trump allies, including Barr and former Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney; and conservative influencers such as Ann Coulter reamed him publicly. Even former President George W. Bush had issued a reprimand. Trump ignored all of them.
As they worked the phones, Pence’s staff heard that a high-level meeting had been convened at the White House to
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