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'Distressing and emotional': Senators relive horror of riot

Posted February 11, 2021 10:08 a.m. EST
Updated February 11, 2021 10:19 a.m. EST

— For 90 tense minutes, members of the Senate relived the horror.

They had seen much of the video of the insurrection before, but not like this — on screens near their desks, screams and anguish echoing across the chamber, with Democratic prosecutors explaining in detail how close they came to danger on Jan. 6 and how much worse it could have been.

If any senators were tempted to avoid images of the violence at the Capitol, or bury memories of fleeing the violent mob of Donald Trump's supporters, they were not able to do so any longer.

“We lived this once and that was awful,” said Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, recalling how she felt when she evacuated with her colleagues. “And we’re now we’re living with a more comprehensive timeline.”

While videos of the siege have been circulating since the day of the riot, the graphic compilation provided a more complete narrative, with a chilling focus on the rioters' methodical search for lawmakers.

The new evidence presented Wednesday included grainy Capitol surveillance video, never seen publicly before, that showed senators running to safety after they exited the chamber and as the police held rioters back down a main hallway on the first floor of the Capitol. Separate security videos showed Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer quickly turned around by police as they unknowingly headed toward unsafe locations and Vice President Mike Pence rapidly evacuating the Senate chamber as insurrectionists chanted for his death outside.

The rioters were “58 steps” from senators, impeachment manager Eric Swalwell told them.

Romney said he was brought to tears. The video was “overwhelmingly distressing and emotional,” he said afterward.

The presentation ended with a video of a police officer, Daniel Hodges of Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department, yelling in pain as he was crushed between two doors on the Capitol’s West front. His anguished screams filled the quiet, cavernous chamber as if he were right there in the room.

Senators were silent afterward, some sitting quietly and alone, as if to process it all. Lead impeachment manager Jamie Raskin, sitting at the front of the room, put his head in his hands.

“It was extremely quiet,” said Maine Sen. Susan Collins, describing the atmosphere. “You could hear a pin drop.”

House Democrats, prosecuting the Republican former president for “incitement of insurrection” at his historic second impeachment trial, tried to make it as difficult as possible for any senators to play down the violence — and by extension, Trump’s role in it — by showing the violence from multiple camera angles. They spent the morning replaying Trump’s words to his supporters ahead of the riots — including telling them to “fight like hell” to overturn his defeat — and built up, almost cinematically, to the unrelenting timeline of the violence.

It is unclear if the Democrats' presentation will change any votes, as Trump is still expected to be acquitted in the end. But senators were clearly rattled by what they saw.

Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who has sat remarkably still and unmoving through the trial, uncharacteristically propped himself up in his seat, leaning forward as the prosecutors showed images of the rioters breaking through the outside perimeter and Capitol Police yelling “No! No! No!” as they were overrun. Utah Sen. Mike Lee moved his chair so he was fully facing the screen, furiously scribbling notes. Others opted to just listen as the angry screams of the rioters reverberated around the chamber.

Democrats said they were sad and frustrated by it all.

“How can you watch this and not vote to convict?” asked Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware as he stepped outside for a break after the presentation.

Many Republicans did watch it but made clear their stance. Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, who was speaking on the Senate floor at the moment it was evacuated, was visibly shaken by the video and said the presentation was “painful,” but he doesn’t think Trump incited the riot. Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who read what appeared to be a magazine or a document as some of the video played, said minutes afterward that the trial was a “waste of time.”

“Listen, you’ve got to weigh all of the information together,” said Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley as he left the chamber.

One senator appeared to not watch. Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a fierce opponent of Trump’s impeachment, turned away from the screen next to him and scribbled on a notepad, sometimes with his hand on his forehead, as if to shield himself. He walked out of the room in the middle of the presentation, as impeachment manager Stacey Plaskett detailed the threats to Pence’s life.

But most watched it all.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said watching the video “reignited my anger — a lot of anger."

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who is retiring from the Senate and has said he’s undecided on whether to convict Trump, said the Senate was reliving a horrible day. “That’s not easy," he said.

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