“Where are they?” a Trump supporter demanded in a crowd of dozens roaming the halls of the Capitol, bearing Trump flags and pounding on doors.
They – lawmakers, staff members and more – were hiding under tables, hunkered in lockdowns, saying prayers and seeing the fruits of the country’s divisions up close and violent.
Guns were drawn. A woman was shot and killed by police, and three others died in apparent medical emergencies. A Trump flag hung on the Capitol. The graceful Rotunda reeked of tear gas. Glass shattered.
On Wednesday, hallowed spaces of American democracy, one after another, yielded to the occupation of Congress. The pro-Trump mob took over the presiding officer’s chair in the Senate, the offices of the House speaker and the Senate dais, where one yelled, “Trump won that election.”
They mocked its leaders, posing for photos in the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, one with his feet propped on a desk in her office, another sitting in the same seat vice-president Mike Pence had occupied only moments before during the proceedings to certify the electoral college vote. That certification would eventually take place, but not until well after midnight.
There was still a heavy police presence at the Capitol on Thursday. A large US flag flew from the presidential inaugural stand that a day earlier was damaged during the siege.
Wednesday began as a day of reckoning for President Donald Trump’s futile attempt to cling to power as Congress took up the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
Trump told his morning crowd at the Ellipse near the White House that he would go with them to the Capitol, but he didn’t. Instead he sent them off with incendiary rhetoric. “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” he said.
Later, Trump, in a video posted 90 minutes after lawmakers had just been evacuated after the storming of the Capitol began, told the insurrectionists “We love you. You’re very special,” while asking them to go home.
Authorities eventually regained control as night fell. Armed officers brought in as reinforcements started using tear gas in a coordinated effort to get people moving towards the door, then combed the halls for stragglers, pushing the mob farther out onto the plaza and lawn, in clouds of tear gas, flash bangs and percussion grenades.
Video footage also showed officers letting people calmly walk out the doors of the Capitol despite the rioting. Only about a dozen arrests were made in the hours after authorities regained control. They said a woman was shot earlier as the mob tried to break through a barricaded door in the Capitol where police were armed on the other side. She was hospitalized with a gunshot wound and later died.
Early on, some inside the Capitol saw the trouble coming outside the windows. Soon after, Trump supporters clashed with police who blasted pepper spray in an attempt to hold them back. It didn’t work. Throngs of MAGA-hatted demonstrators tore down metal barricades at the bottom of the Capitol’s steps.
Later, police evacuated the chamber at 2.30pm. After making sure the hallways were clear, police escorted the members down a series of hallways and tunnels to a cafeteria. “This is how a coup is started,” Representative Jimmy Gomez later said. “This is how democracy dies.”