WASHINGTON – The U.S. Capitol is my second home. I have been covering the occupants of the building for an absurdly long period of time, the last 15 years spent mostly at a workspace just steps from the Senate gallery.
I knew Wednesday would not be typical in the time of COVID-19. Instead of working in my basement, I was going to the Capitol. Since COVID-19, reporters have kept their numbers down in the Capitol, with competing journalists sharing interview sound files through a cooperative pool arrangement as others work from home. When I've gone, the place has been a bit of a ghost town. But Wednesday was to be a momentous day watching the Senate debate whether to throw out the Electoral College votes of Arizona and Pennsylvania.
There would be cool moments and lots of genuine news — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., finally telling Trump of the folly of trying to get Congress to overturn the will of voters — even though the outcome was clear before the debate started.
On top of that, the Democrats had just won control of the chamber, starting whenever the two new Georgia Democrats are sworn in. This was a big day, especially for the House and Senate leadership lane, one of my specialties. But incoming Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., ducked my question about COVID-19 relief at a late-morning news conference.
If you've seen “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” you've seen my work area since a press gallery scene from the movie was filmed there more than 70 years ago. (The Senate chamber, however, was a soundstage). It overlooks the north lawn of the Capitol, where a steady march of insurgents began ominously arriving. The Senate pros who have offices near the chamber started getting nervous.
The crowd had an urgency and was moving around to the East Front where an ancient window offered a limited angle as the throng eyed three sets of steps up to the Capitol — Senate, House, and the main, middle set of stairs — which were being blocked by Capitol Police. But I know the doors are strong and I didn't worry. The building has been essentially closed to the general public for months because of the pandemic.
It was time to watch the Senate floor, off and on. Proceedings are televised, but I like to watch from the overhead gallery to see the body language and pick up things the cameras don't catch, like the rapt attention paid when McConnell upbraided Trump.
But I was at my desk when the Senate suddenly gaveled out of session. I jumped to check it out. Soon word came to huddle in the chamber. “Lock the doors,” gallery staff was instructed. That's the safe space. So it was then when maybe a dozen reporters and aides in the gallery and virtually the entire Senate huddled inside. Tight COVID-19 quarters despite the masks.
The police were in charge. “Move away from the doors,” they ordered. Staff was squeezed into a corner. High-ranking senators like Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., the incoming Senate Rules Committee chairwoman, provided an alarming update: reports of shots fired.
In the center aisle, right between McConnell and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York, stood an officer with an identifying sash. His back was to us as he faced the center Senate door. He had a large rifle, it seemed, but he was trying to hide it. Behind him were three boxes holding electoral college vote certificates.
This was an unprecedented, stunning — and untelevised — scene, a small, unaccessible nugget in history’s first draft. But there was no sense of panic.
Things elsewhere deteriorated rapidly. The officers announced an evacuation. Take the elevators to the basement, then cross underneath Constitution Avenue by tunnel to a secret location in a nearby office building, they said.
Working for The Associated Press grants me special privileges in such situations. There's a plan, put in place since the 9/11 attacks, on how to handle an off-site session of Congress. If that happened, the AP would have to be there. I headed over to the undisclosed location. In the House chamber, AP's Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Scotty Applewhite stayed put, snapping shots that landed on front pages across the country.
In the basement, I saw McConnell being hurried to the secret spot. I followed.
At the new location, we took a breath. Lots of heavily armed law enforcement officers, including from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, made us feel secure. There was an announcement that the cops were securing a path to buses that might carry us away.
It didn't happen.
Senate leaders were determined to reconvene and continue the Electoral College count. And it would happen in the very chambers that had been defiled by the mob. So we waited. They brought in food and water.
They also had CNN on to watch the melee. At one point, host Jake Tapper excoriated Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas., and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., for challenging the election results and whipping up Trump zealots with baseless, mob-motivating rhetoric. The duo, a key Democratic aide said, had to just sit there and take it.
I had a private conversation with a veteran Republican about the sorry state of affairs. The senator said he had not even talked much to his colleagues about the tectonic change coming to the Senate with the changeover to Democratic control. He was dismayed.
The mob was out of the building by then and, strangely, it almost seemed boring, waiting for the Capitol to be declared safe. But by 7:30 p.m. we were allowed back in, taking a meandering route back through the tunnel to the Capitol.
I ran into parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, a beloved figure in the tight-knit Senate family. She and her colleagues had made sure the Electoral College certificates were safe — their seizure by the mob actually would have delayed the certification of the result — and she was supervising their return to the chamber. I'm not sure if MacDonough knew by then, but her office on the first floor of the Capitol was trashed.
When we returned, a swarm of officers — SWAT-like FBI and DHS units most significantly — guaranteed everyone's safety. Sandy residue from pepper spray covered floors and surfaces.
The Daily Press Gallery where I work had not been breached.
I wrote a quick story about the Senate's dramatic debate. Short version: Trump got smoked by onetime allies like Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and veteran GOP figures, Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Mitt Romney, R-Utah. Romney savaged Hawley, who forced debates on frivolous electoral challenges that put his colleagues in a terrible position and surely added kindling to the fire.
A fellow reporter and I left well after midnight. I had parked close to the Washington home of McConnell and Elaine Chao, who resigned as secretary of transportation on Thursday.
Security was robust. It was a day I hope never to repeat.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Andrew Taylor has covered Congress since 1990, including the past 15 years for The Associated Press.