WASHINGTON — The shuffling in the Senate press gallery started a little after majority leader Mitch McConnell finished his scathing rebuke of President Trump’s baseless election fraud claims.
The faint chants from pro-Trump protesters outside were getting louder as more people streamed to the front of the Capitol building on Wednesday and Congress began the process of counting the electoral votes that would make Joe Biden the next president. Senate press staff said they had a plan to lock the gallery doors on the third floor should the security situation outside escalate.
It was all “just in case,” all very hypothetical.
Then, a warning from a crackly Capitol radio reverberated across the room alerting us to get away from the windows and doors. There were reports of shots fired, and a reporter burst into the room shouting that Vice President Mike Pence, presiding over the vote counting, had been evacuated.
It was suddenly clear this unusual day at the Capitol was about to get even more so. The place was under siege.
As Senate press staff scrambled to close the doors of the gallery, they gave us a choice: In or out. I grabbed my phone, a notepad, and a pencil and followed the few other reporters left in the room as we made our choice — out.
Some of us attempted to walk down the stairs but rioters, mostly men in fleece jackets, Trump gear, and knit caps, were already making their way up. They were shouting “this is our Congress” and “we have a right to be here.”
So back up the stairs we went and through a hallway that separates the House and Senate chambers. I peered over a balcony to the second floor and saw a dense crowd of protesters was pressed against the Capitol’s front doors.
They shouted and shoved and banged the windows, as boisterous chants of “USA” echoed against the marble walls.
I thought about how I had spent the morning at the Trump rally behind the White House. It had been a jaunt through an alternate right-wing reality, where people were spouting conspiracy theories and false claims about a rigged election, preaching against communism and abortion and likening Trump to Jesus Christ.
I thought about McConnell’s words on the Senate floor just moments before — ”The voters, the courts, and the states have all spoken. They’ve all spoken. If we overrule them it would damage our republic forever” — and how his statement seemed to be too little, too late.
Soon, a guard was telling us the rioters had breached the third floor near where we stood and told us to find a place to hide. But there was no room to hide in, so we wandered from hallway to hallway until we found our way back to the Senate gallery and another reporter let us in. We grabbed our things, as security officers swept us alongside senators to a secure undisclosed location.
McConnell lumbered just inches in front of me, walking with the help of a security officer.
Another Capitol security officer who greeted us had scratches and a bit of blood on his forehead. He eased the tension with dark humor about how he had been doused with pepper spray. He wasn’t sure if the rioters inside had assault weapons, but he said they had plenty of bear spray, pepper spray — and “lots of sharp objects.”
As we waited inside our location, we could hear senators next door and were given dinner on small Styrofoam trays: Brussels sprouts, chicken, and mashed potatoes. Every once in a while, a couple of Capitol security police and armed federal police officers and FBI agents in fatigues passed by carrying riot gear.
And here we stayed until the early evening, finally getting released around 7 p.m. as lawmakers emerged. I heard a New York Times reporter asked Missouri Republican Senator Roy Blunt what he wanted to hear from Trump Wednesday night.
“I don’t want to hear anything,” he said.