Oregon’s members of Congress expressed shock and disbelief Wednesday as a mob of violent protestors poured into the U.S. Capitol, forcing Congress and the vice president to flee.
“It’s like a third-world country,” Rep. Suzanne Bonamici told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “Someone has been shot in the Capitol. The Capitol windows have been shot out. It’s unbelievable.”
On the floor of the Senate, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley said he realized that something was badly amiss in the Capitol when a congressional staffer sprinted into the stately chamber where he and other senators were listening to floor speeches.
“No one runs in the Senate chamber,” Merkley said on a press call Wednesday. He said they then heard strange noises in the hallway.
“It was just about then that people broke into the building,” Merkley said. “We were there, trapped in that chamber.”
The Sergeant at Arms and the Capitol police told the Senators they had to vacate the room and then reversed themselves. They should stay.
Merkley and his fellow Senators squirmed as House officials tried to find the keys and lock down the room.
“It’s a strange feeling to be locked in a room that is not designed to be secure when there are angry people outside,” he said.
“Electoral college ballots rescued from the Senate floor. If our capable floor staff hadn’t grabbed them, they would have been burned by the mob.”
Eventually all seven members of Congress from Oregon, like all other senators and representatives, were declared safe. The Capitol was ultimately cleared and secured around 6 p.m. Washington, D.C. time.
The invasion of the Capitol building came as Congress began tabulating electoral college votes to formalize former Vice President Joe Biden’s election as president, a ceremony presided over by Vice President Mike Pence. Trump has falsely claimed that the election was stolen from him, a canard that courts and state election officials across the country have unambiguously refuted.
Capitol officials knew to expect protests outside, but law enforcement officers found themselves overwhelmed and unable to prevent a violent incursion by Trump extremists bent on insurrection.
“The Capitol cops were woefully unprepared,” Rep. Peter DeFazio told The Oregonian/OregonLive from his office in a building near the Capitol. He said he holds Trump responsible for the attack on the Capitol by his supporters.
“This is their attempt to invalidate the election,” he told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “We’re looking at an attempted coup being egged on by a minority of the Republican Party and Donald Trump.”
Early in the incursion, Bonamici called on President Donald Trump to act swiftly to end the assault by right-wing extremists.
“He needs to call this off right now,” she said. “He needs to speak up and tell his people to back off.”
Newly elected Rep. Cliff Bentz, the sole Republican member of Oregon’s congressional delegation, called on the pro-Trump extremists to respect law enforcement and allow Congress to deliberate. But he disputed the language his congressional colleagues used to describe Wednesday’s insurrection and declined to hold the president accountable.
“I would not describe today as ‘coup.’ I would call it a protest gone really wrong, really bad,” Bentz told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “As far as judging the president, I don’t see how that’s very productive right now”
More than 100 congressional Republicans have said they will seek to overturn Biden’s election by rejecting the electoral votes approved by states Trump lost. Bentz had said previously that he wanted an investigation into Trump’s claims – which are false – of election fraud.
But the new congressman had hedged on whether he would support other Republicans’ efforts to reject electoral votes from some states. On Wednesday, he said it is “highly likely” that he will vote to accept the electoral college tally and recognize Biden as the duly elected president.
But asked Wednesday if he believes the election was “stolen,” as Trump has alleged, Bentz equivocated.
“The word ‘stolen’ is a bit odd,” Bentz said. “I’m still working on trying to figure out whether it’s constitutional.”
Members of Congress inside the House chamber were told by police to put on gas masks after tear gas was dispersed in the Capitol Rotunda.
Rep. Kurt Schrader told The Oregonian/OregonLive Wednesday, “We thought the coronavirus was the big threat, not fellow Americans.”
The six-term Congressman was not on the House floor when Trump extremists broke into the Capitol, since coronavirus restrictions mean House members are present on the floor only in small groups at a time. He stayed put in his Capitol Hill office.
Schrader said he believes the U.S. Capitol police “messed up.”
“I’m just shocked they did not deploy tear gas as soon as this crowd got within a certain distance of the U.S. Capitol. I would have deployed that tear gas instantly, given what we’ve seen in Portland. Police should have dispersed the crowd and we would not have had this invasion of the U.S. Capitol.”
“It’s pretty horrific to think these so-called self-described patriots would invade their own Capitol and show themselves for the terrorists they really are,” Schrader said
Despite the terror and high drama created by the illegal incursion, Merkley predicted the challenges to the electoral college vote count will go nowhere.
He said Democrats need to push ahead with bold initiatives on climate change, education and the economy. Any time focused on Trump would be time wasted, he said.
“The plan was to try to install President Trump into a second term through the Congressional action rather than through the vote of the people,” Merkley said. “That is a coup.”
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Portland Democrat who also was not yet on the House floor when the insurrectionists broke into the Capitol, called the people storming the Capitol “domestic terrorists” emboldened by the president.
“It’s not acceptable for people to run riot through our Capitol,” Blumenauer said.
“I was here when we had 9/11. I’ve been here when some of our security people were killed but this is every bit as unsettling. These people forcing their way into the Capitol, breaking property. It can only be described as domestic acts of terrorism.”
“The hateful pictures of people breaking into the Capitol – this temple of democracy – is just sickening,” he said.
Late in the day, Blumenauer suggested impeaching the president again or using the 25th Amendment to the Constitution to remove him from office.
U.S. Sen Ron Wyden issued a statement condemning Wednesday’s mob violence and said elected officials share responsibility.
He called Wednesday’s attack “a direct assault on democracy, a riot by insurrectionists that caps off four years of Donald Trump fanning the flames of fanaticism. Every Republican lawmaker who supported his efforts to overturn a legitimate election shares responsibility for the violence at the heart of our democracy.”
Schrader, who represents coastal Oregon and parts of the Willamette Valley, had harsh words for President Trump.
“I’m so disappointed in the soon-to-be ex-president – how lame and self-serving his message to his so-called supporters was.
“I did my share of protests back in the day, but you don’t invade the Capitol of the United States,” he said.
By Thursday morning, Schrader said he hopes the chaos will have passed, “and we’ll put this horrible history in our American chapter behind us.”