Q & A

Oregon Representative Suzanne Bonamici Recalls Her Experience as Terrorists Invaded the Capitol

“We heard a couple of footsteps. I didn't look out to see who it was, I didn't want to open the door," she says. "We heard there were people firing guns into the House chamber."

By Eden Dawn January 8, 2021

Pro-Trump extremists invading the Capitol on January 6

What you already know: on Tuesday, January 6, a violent group of pro-Trump extremists invaded the Capitol building in a situation that ended with multiple deaths and unthinkable wreckage in the heart of American democracy. What you might not know: how it felt to be one of the elected lawmakers inside the building attempting to fulfill their duties before being told to get into a hiding space and stay there for hours while they watched the news in secret, hoping help would come.

We talked to Representative Suzanne Bonamici the next day about the harrowing events and why she’s vocalized her support for removing President Trump from office at once

I can't imagine the last 24 hours you've had.

Pretty challenging. ‘Terrifying’ and ‘infuriating’ I think are the two words that come to mind. 

Can you tell us a little bit about just your experience yesterday of being on the floor and what happened when you were realized that things had gotten serious? 

The Capitol Police and security advised us to get to the office early. I knew there would be people protesting. The procedure started at about one o'clock where they brought in the House and the Senate. I was actually in my office—because of COVID restrictions, they had limited the number of people who could be on the floor. So I was watching from my office and the first thing that happened is we got an alert. There’s three House office buildings, and one of the office buildings was being evacuated. That doesn't happen very often, especially when there's something going on. There might be a practice evacuation but not when there's something important going on like for the certification of the Electoral College, so I knew something was wrong. And even though that wasn't my office building, all the offices are connected by tunnels. That concerned me greatly.

So we're texting people in the other offices, ‘Hey, do you need somewhere to go?’ and ‘Where are you? What's happening?’ In the meantime, they're carrying on the discussion on the floor. They got to Arizona—it's alphabetical so it hadn't been very long—and we saw the security people were coming onto the floor, and then they took the vice president and the Speaker. Soon there were more security people and we knew there was a problem. We got an alert that there had been a breach of the security and that there were people inside the Capitol building, which is a pretty terrifying thought. Because typically when the Capitol is open, people go through metal detectors, there's security at every door, and the Capitol was closed to the public because of COVID, so we were really worried.

The next thing we know I'm in my office with one staff person, while we're getting alerts that everybody in the whole complex—all the offices and the Capitol—everybody has to close the curtains, stay away from the windows, turn the lights off, go to an inner office, and be quiet. That's a terrifying thought because you don't really know what's going on. In the meantime, we have a kind of an inner office where we thought we couldn't be seen or heard so we were watching the television and texting. And we realized that there were people in there, then a colleague texted and said shots have been fired. So we heard there were people firing guns into the House chamber. Since then I learned that everybody who was in the chamber was taken out, but then there's the gallery up above where people were spreading out because of COVID, they couldn't get out as easily. They were surrounded. So it's just a terrifying, terrifying day.

We were asking ourselves, ‘Where are the reinforcements? Where is the National Guard? Where is the law enforcement?’ A lot of people were working to keep us safe. But they were seriously outnumbered, and it took a couple of hours for the National Guard to come in from Maryland and Virginia, and then finally some additional federal support came in. So it was a hard, hard day. Then we heard that somebody had been shot and taken out. We started seeing pictures of people in the Senate chamber, in the House chamber, in people's offices destroying property, walking through the majestic Statuary Hall, stealing property, it was just awful.

And it wasn't just an attack on the people in the Capitol, it was attack on the People's House. It was attack on the country, and everybody in it, and instigated by Donald Trump for the purpose of undermining the results of a national election because he doesn't like and can't accept the results. At the end of the evening, late, we finally got a clear message: they were trying to clean up some of the damage and make sure everybody was OK and then bring back the House and the Senate to complete our work. And I think that's a really important message that we stayed strong. We had a responsibility under the Constitution to certify the Electoral College results, and we did that. We didn't get done until four o'clock in the morning, but we did our work.

While you were barricaded in, were you looking at pictures on social media in real time or the videos of people coming into the chamber? And did you hear people ever outside your office?

Yes. It was terrifying. We heard a couple of footsteps. I didn't look out to see who it was, I didn't want to open the door. I was not in a situation where I had somebody trying to get in my office, but I have a couple of good friends who were in a room off of the floor, like a little lounge, and they had chairs placed up against the door while people were trying to get in. I talked to people who were in the gallery when they were up above the House while they were trying to break down the door and shooting at the door. How terrifying. They were lying on the floor, and told to put on gas masks because there was tear gas—both from the domestic terrorists who had broken into the building and by the law enforcement trying to get to quell the riot. It could have been worse. I dread the thought of what would have happened if somebody actually had come a little earlier.

Did you wonder why the National Guard wasn't coming in, and did you feel abandoned?

Absolutely. I was very very worried about it. Where is the backup? I remember pictures of what the US Capitol looked like when the Black Lives Matter march was happening in Washington DC. They had people all the way around the Capitol, all the way around the Capitol, to protect it. We did not see that yesterday.

We saw examples of people climbing up over barriers and barricades, using shields to break windows in the Capitol and crawl in, and just being destructive and dangerous. All of this message instigated by Donald Trump. I listened to his remarks yesterday morning. And it's terrifying, and then I was waiting for the reinforcements. Now, think about the number of reinforcements that were sent to the one federal courthouse in Portland over the summer. Where were the people to come in and address this? We waited for somebody to send them out and to get Donald Trump to send a message to get these people to back off. And then when I listened to his message, it just made me want to cry. It was so supportive of the people and still in denial of the damage they were causing. 

He did say he loves them.

He told them he loved them! These are people destroying federal property, invading the People's House, shooting guns in the Capitol, and he told him that he loved them. And he repeated the lie that he won the election. Nobody wants an election that's not free and fair. We all want elections to be fair and we don't want them to be abused or misused. But there were many, many opportunities, across the country, and court after court in state after state the challenges were made and they were rejected because there was no merit to them. 

So there comes a point, where we were yesterday, where the result was inevitable. There wasn't a valid challenge there. Some people tried to make challenges, but they didn't have the support path. The message we sent at the end of the day was the people have spoken and the Electoral College results are clear. Joe Biden won the election and Kamala Harris won the election and Donald Trump did not. He's still refusing to accept that and that's really dangerous. Not only is it a dangerous, it's a tremendous lost opportunity that really hurts our country. 

It is a lost opportunity to show leadership that this is an election—somebody wins and somebody loses. And the message that was sent yesterday is somebody drunk on power who refuses to accept reality. We saw how much damage was done yesterday, I’m just concerned about the next two weeks.

Did it surprise you after all of that when you all went back to the floor to vote that the newly sworn in [Oregon's Second Congressional District] Representative Bentz then voted against certifying Pennsylvania's vote?

I’m disappointed. I served with Cliff Bentz in the Oregon legislature. He made his decision. It's certainly not one that I would. I didn’t speak to him about it. But looking at the facts and really listening to the arguments for both for Arizona and Pennsylvania—they've been litigated and litigated and vetted and rejected. I think that the message I wanted to send yesterday was the people have spoken and this is the United States of America. In Oregon, we really know how to make it work. We have a wonderful vote-by-mail system with a paper trail and bipartisan support. So the challenges were rejected, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be inaugurated and sworn in soon. But in the meantime, we're just looking into all the options we need to make sure we can keep everybody safe, between now and then.

On that, I published a piece this morning about a growing number of Oregon lawmakers calling for invoking the 25th Amendment and impeachment which I know you support and say that Donald Trump should be out of office. For those of us outside of the legislative world, can you tell us, does that have a chance and why it's important to make these choices when he's down to 13 days of his presidency? 

Well, I'll answer the second part first, why it's important: because we saw how much damage was done yesterday. In one day, with the instigation of these thousands of riotous people from across the country, basically sending them in to storm the Capitol. Sadly, I saw a video of Donald Trump and a lot of his cabinet and children watching and celebrating this. It was terrifying. So we're looking at the damage that can be done in one day. You know I heard somebody say this morning that he's blocked on Twitter, but he still has the nuclear codes. When you have somebody who is unstable and who has the potential to create that much havoc and to cause that much damage, we need to explore what the options are for keeping this country safe and secure for the next two weeks. 

So there are basically two options being discussed. Impeachment, which Donald Trump is already impeached in the House but it didn't pass in the Senate, so there are conversations going on about that. It took longer, of course, there were all the hearings and everything in the first impeachment. I think that could be expedited, but I'm not on the Judiciary Committee. But I know that there are people talking about how to examine that that is a possibility. Then there’s the 25th Amendment, which is really designed for a situation where a president is incapacitated or incapable of carrying out the duties of the president, and again in light of what we saw yesterday instigation, this is a situation where the 25th Amendment could apply.

It does require some participation by cabinet and I know people are looking at what happens because, for example, the Transportation Secretary [Elaine Chao], who you may know is Senator McConnell’s wife [and who has announced her resignation]. So if, if there are not confirmed cabinet secretaries I'm not sure what happens. The 25th Amendment is not something that's used frequently, so there's not a whole lot of precedent or knowledge about how to use it and what happens in certain circumstances. But I know there are a lot of conversations going on about that.

At the end of the process, as you likely know, the vice president of the United States is the one who presides over this Electoral College process. There were a lot of attempts by Donald Trump to try to get his vice president to actually upset the results of the Electoral College which is basically asking the vice president to undermine the election that was conducted and represents the votes of people across the country. To his credit, he did not do that. He rejected that and said he didn't have the authority to do that. It's basically a clerical responsibility or administerial responsibility that the vice president has in that process.

And does it feel different this time? As you said, Trump was impeached in the House before but it didn't go through the Senate. Being on the ground there and around everyone I'm just curious if the feeling is if there's been a sea change.

It feels different. I don’t know if you heard [the speeches give during the certification process by] Senator McConnell or Senator Romney, and Senator Graham. Even Senator Loeffler, it might be because she lost her election, but she came in and withdrew her objection. Members of Congress said, 'I was going to object, but I'm not now in light of what happened.’ It was a very traumatic thing to go through for anyone. One of my colleagues, [Colorado Representative] Jason Crow, who served in the military, said he hasn't been through anything like this since serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, it was a very traumatic event, and to know that it was instigated by the president of the United States, who's in denial about his loss, I hope that was a wake-up call to people. I really do. It's hard to imagine it not being something that changes the way people look at things. An attack on the People's House, on the people's Capitol, and on our election, which has been vetted and the outcome decided. We knew that this would end this way. With Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. We didn't realize that the road to get there yesterday was going to be so very dangerous and terrifying and traumatic.

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