On Jan. 6, Rep. Andy Levin ’83 (D-MI) was in his Washington office at the Cannon House Office Building — preparing to speak against Republicans’ attempt to overturn Michigan’s presidential election results — when he heard a knock at the door. A Capitol Police officer stepped in and told everyone to evacuate. For Levin and his fellow lawmakers on Capitol Hill, the remainder of that day passed by in a state of chaos, confusion and, for some, danger.
Earlier that afternoon, after months of making baseless claims of election fraud and trying to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, President Donald Trump used incendiary language at a rally near the White House and encouraged his supporters to march to the Capitol Building. They did, overwhelming security forces and storming the building in a violent siege that ultimately resulted in five deaths. As a result of Trump’s role in inciting the insurrection, the House voted to impeach him for an unprecedented second time on Jan. 13.
The Record spoke with Williams alums who work on Capitol Hill, including U.S. Representatives Levin and Don Beyer ’72 (D-VA), about their experiences during the storming of the Capitol, their views on subsequent impeachment proceedings and their visions for the future of American democracy. Alums whom the Record interviewed saw the president as squarely responsible for inciting the siege. For several, the siege was also a violent reminder that Republican attempts to overturn the election results came with dangerous consequences for American democracy.
“I didn’t even take my laptop,” Levin said.
That was how quickly his office was instructed to evacuate. He went through a tunnel to the Longworth House Office Building — another Congressional office building, all of which are connected to each other and the Capitol by underground tunnels — where he ate the only meal he would have that day.
Levin is no stranger to political violence, having witnessed firsthand the first attempt at a democratic election in Haiti in 1987, as well as the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Chengdu, China, which faced a violent government crackdown. “I’ve tasted a lot of tear gas in my life,” he said.
But a mob invading the heart of his own nation’s capital was still alarming. “I just never dreamed that I would see an armed insurrection against democracy in our Capitol Building,” Levin said.
In the Longworth Building, located across the street from the mob and its destruction, Levin spent an extended period of time sheltering with colleagues in their offices, including U.S. Reps. Deb Haaland (D-NM) and Elissa Slotkin (D-MI).
“We [Slotkin and Levin] were there together for hours, and [Slotkin] had pulled out our gas masks,” Levin said. “We were not to open the door. We were supposed to be quiet. We were supposed to keep our lights off.” They were also told not to reveal their locations to anyone online. According to Levin, it was difficult to hide quietly while also trying to communicate to constituents, family, friends, supporters and journalists what was happening.
Evidence of violence was apparent as they walked to the House Chamber in the aftermath of the chaos, Levin said. Ashli Babbitt, a rioter who attempted to break into the Chamber through a broken window, had been fatally shot by Capitol Police hours earlier in the Speaker’s Lobby. There was “blood on the floor and broken glass,” Levin said.
Beyer also sheltered in place in the Longworth Building throughout the duration of the siege. “I brought a book but never got to it,” Beyer said. He was kept busy, what with “being glued to the television set and everything that was happening 100 yards away, and keeping up on all the emails and the text messages as basically every family member and a significant percentage of my constituents were contacting me in real time to figure out what was happening.”
Beyer was initially alarmed by the size of the crowd gathered at Trump’s rally but said he became “really worried when [Trump] said, ‘Let’s all march up to the Capitol.’” When rioters started clashing with the police, Beyer said he saw the situation become even more dire.
The Jan. 6 attack holds particular weight for Beyer because one of his constituents was killed by the pro-Trump mob. Brian Sicknick, a Capitol Police officer, died after the mob struck his head with a fire extinguisher. Beyer said he had corresponded with Sicknick regularly and described his killing as “unconscionable.”
In his public statement on Sicknick’s death, Beyer wrote, “I mourn his loss, and send my deepest condolences to his family. His murder multiplies the pain of this dark moment for our nation, and those who brought about this awful crime must be prosecuted and brought to justice.”
Although the day’s casualties were devastating in their own right, the halls of the Capitol were actually far emptier than normal when the mob broke in, possibly sparing further bloodshed. Normally, the building would be full of congressional staff and aides, but the pandemic has pushed most staff to work remotely.
Nick Bath ’97, the health policy director for Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), would normally be in the Capitol building, but he was working from home when the siege occurred. The destruction felt personal to him, he said. “It’s a very intimate feeling… [The Capitol is] a place where I’ve worked and gone to the same cafeteria in the same office for 15 years.”
“The best analogy I would have is if … Williams and Sage and Science Center were suddenly just occupied,” he said.
Ryan Eagan ’13, a legislative aide for Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY), said he felt incredulous when the mob first started gathering. As he watched events unfold on the news while working from home, curiosity turned to horror at the failures of the Capitol’s security forces.
“The first question that came to mind was, ‘How could they let this happen?’” Eagan said. “How could they not plan in advance for this better?”
Sen. Chris Murphy ’96 (D-CT) has been contemplating the same question as the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Legislative Branch, which oversees the Capitol Police. In a public statement, he addressed the apparent inability of the Capitol Police to defend the Capitol from “invasion and insurrection,” calling the significant response time it took for the D.C. National Guard to arrive “unacceptable.”
With Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and President Pro Tempore Chuck Grassley inside the building — the first, second and third in the line of succession — the ease with which rioters breached Capitol security was especially concerning, according to Murphy.
“We need to take a look at radical reform in the way that the Capitol is protected,” Murphy said in his statement. “In part because I don’t think this insurgency is over… There will be many other moments at which either the White House or the Capitol complex is at risk. Never again can it take four hours for the military to come to the defense of the Capitol or the White House.”
Murphy’s office did not respond to a Record request for comment.
As of Thursday, the FBI has made over 100 arrests in connection with the siege. “The consequences are going to vary from whether they were simply trespassing, or did they steal things, but you want the most severe consequences for those who actively hurt Capitol Police officers,” Beyer said, referencing a security briefing he had received the night before he spoke with the Record.
While participants in the siege have begun to face serious repercussions, they are not the only actors that bear responsibility for the attack, according to Eagan. “How could some of these Republican elected officials give these protesters the thumbs-up and encourage them?” he asked.
Levin also placed blame on the Republican leaders who sought to nullify the results of a democratic election, saying he considers them “almost more culpable” for the day’s violence than the mob. When asked what consequences might be appropriate for his Republican colleagues, he said he still considers all options to be on the table. However, he will not be signing on to Rep. Cori Bush’s (D-MO) resolution to expel all members of the House who voted to challenge the Electoral College results, finding the resolution not to have been “appropriately crafted” for the task at hand.
Whichever action Levin comes to support, he said that the preservation of America’s democratic process will remain his top priority. The refusal of some Republicans to accept the election results, he said, is not just an “argument between Democrats and Republicans about policy or procedure. This is a question of people pursuing a course [of action] that means the end of our 232-year experiment with democratic self-governance if they had their way, and they should be held to account.”
Beyer and Levin, along with U.S. Representative Ed Case ’75 (D-HI), voted on Jan. 13 to impeach Trump, citing the need to hold the president to account for his role in fomenting the insurrection.
“Without accountability, there will be no unity, and without truth, there will be no healing,” Levin said.
Beyer noted that a simple motion to censure Trump would likely have received the most bipartisan support. The problem was that “there [would have been] no real consequence for President Trump’s call to insurrection by doing that,” Beyer said.
“Many of us felt that you can’t unite the nation if you’re just going to look the other way when somebody does something like this,” Beyer continued. “If you don’t impeach the president for this, when would you ever impeach?”
On Wednesday, the House ultimately voted 232 to 197 to impeach Trump, making him the first president in American history to be impeached twice. Ten Republicans joined the Democratic majority to vote in favor of impeachment.
“I really respect the Liz Cheneys and the Tom Rices and the John Katkos who are willing to put their lives and careers on the line,” Beyer said, citing the example of one of his friends, a former Republican lawmaker, who received death threats for saying in November that Trump should accept the election results. “It’s never fun when your colleagues are getting death threats.”
The “ripping sound” inside the GOP portends a reckoning for the party, Bath noted. “I think it’s a question of how they’re going to come out the other side,” he said. “That will determine whether we can work together in a productive way or whether Trump will continue to exert a toxic effect on the process.”
“[Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell] has a chance to make a play to move the party back to being about policy at all, instead of Trump’s personality and the politics of grievance, which is so incredibly divisive,” Levin said.
Shifting the political conversation away from Trump will take efforts outside of Washington, according to Levin. “We have a really significant educational job to do,” Levin said of the millions of Americans who, following Trump’s election result disinformation campaign, have lost trust in demonstrably free and fair elections.
His vision for this educational campaign involves local Republican clerks, who carried out the election in their districts, speaking to the people at large about the rigorous checks involved in the electoral process. “There’s an answer to every one of those conspiracy theories,” he said.
Reflections on past, present and future
“I think the way I look at the last couple of weeks — even though they’ve been really traumatic and difficult — is actually a triumph of our democracy, albeit with serious flaws,” Bath said. To him, the repercussions of the insurrection and Trump’s subsequent impeachment are evidence of the “death spasms of a far-right aberrant movement in American politics.”
Looking ahead, the road is still far from smooth, considering the worsening state of the pandemic in particular. “Governing is sometimes incredibly frustrating, way slower than you want it to be and sometimes one step forward and two steps back,” Bath reflected. “It’s not as interesting as a QAnon Twitter thread.”
But it’s not about being interesting, Bath said. To him, governing is about helping people find gainful employment, feed their families and afford necessary medical care. “That’s what the American people voted for,” Bath added. “So I’m optimistic about it. I think it proves the resilience of our structure rather than its vulnerability.”
With continued political uncertainty on the horizon for weeks, months or even years to come, Beyer pointed out the silver lining of the past four years. “Maybe the most positive thing to come out of the Trump administration has been a surge in public engagement by so many new Americans,” Beyer said. “We’ve come together in many, many different ways to try to save our democracy.”