WASHINGTON – As a violent mob charged through a police line on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Wednesday, thousands more behind them erupted into cheers, chanting “USA! USA!” and brandishing flags bearing President Donald Trump’s name.
Rioters, some dressed in military fatigues, scaled the historic walls of the Capitol, piercing the very heart of American democracy. Insurrectionists shouted, “Hang Mike Pence! Hang Mike Pence!” A gallows with a noose was erected on the Mall in front of the Capitol.
As shocking as those events were, evidence in the aftermath of the Capitol Hill siege indicates the nightmare that unfolded last week could have been even more horrific.
The attack, which sent lawmakers running for cover in fear for their lives, left five people dead and dozens injured. It illuminated how far supporters of Trump were willing to go to vent their anger over the president’s false claims of a stolen election.
But reams of video and eyewitness accounts reveal that at least some rioters had darker intents beyond protesting the election result and there was weaponry that could have led to far more deaths.
One highly visible rioter clad in black paramilitary-type clothing carried plastic zip-ties typically used for restraint. Other rioters were armed with guns and other weapons. Molotov cocktails were found in the area of the Capitol, and some rioters moved with what experts called near-military precision.
The chaos enveloped the Capitol minutes after Trump whipped up a crowd of supporters at a nearby rally at the White House and urged Vice President Mike Pence to intervene to try to overturn the election result – something Pence does not have the authority to do.
Todd Belt, professor of political management at George Washington University, said the rioters went on a mission to “Stop the Steal,” a tagline used by supporters of the president who believe the election was a fraud and that their plan would lead to action.
“You have people showing up with Molotov cocktails,” he said. “That’s not something you bring just in case you need it … there were some people who fully planned to go all of the way through with this.
“There could have been (more) people dead, and the Capitol could have been burnt to the ground. It could have been much, much worse.”
Something even more untoward?
Rioters forced their way inside with relative ease, attacking officers with “metal pipes, discharged chemical irritants” and other weapons, according to U.S. Capitol Police
In the wake of the attack, lawmakers and staffers recounted sheltering for hours while mobs ransacked their offices. Journalists shared accounts of being overtaken by extremists who stole or destroyed their equipment. Rioters scrawled, “Murder the media” on one of the exterior doors to the building.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., called for an investigation. Although Clyburn told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday morning that he was whisked away by the Capitol Police and never “really felt any personal danger,” he was alarmed that the insurrectionists found their way to an unmarked office he uses rather than his official office.
“They didn’t go where my name was. They went where I usually hang out,” Clyburn told CNN. “That to me indicates that something untoward may have been going on.”
Steps from disaster
In some cases, it was quick thinking by the outnumbered Capitol police that prevented rioters from reaching lawmakers inside the chambers.
An officer inside the Capitol diverted a mob of angry rioters from a wide-open entrance to the U.S. Senate floor.
As he was chased up a flight of stairs, the officer noticed the open door and first tried to block it before realizing he was alone with a throng coming after him.
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Even though the officer was armed with a baton he could have used for protection, he gently pushed the arm of the first rioter charging through the pack, a man named Doug Jensen from Des Moines, who was later arrested by the FBI on five federal charges.
Instead of finding the open Senate chambers, Jensen chased the officer, who led him in the opposite direction. The mob followed them away from the Senate floor. Video of the incident has been viewed millions of times on social media.
Many details about the police response are still emerging. In footage shot by Jon Farina for the outlet Status Coup, a police officer can be seen crushed in a door as the pro-Trump mob lays siege to the Capitol.
Guns and explosive devices
Edward Maguire, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University and associate director of the school’s Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety, said that although many in the crowd were there to peacefully protest and perhaps got carried away, it was clear that some rioters arrived with a mission for violence.
He noted the military-style precision in some of the groups’ movements.
“As tragic as it was, we could be dealing with even worse,” Maguire said. “You had people who were clearly trained, and then you had other people walking around with semiautomatics who didn’t know what they were doing.”
As Christopher Alberts of Maryland was arrested leaving the Capitol wearing a bulletproof vest, officers found a 9mm handgun with two high-capacity magazines. The arrest affidavit said he told officers it was for own personal protection and not to harm anyone.
Others had material nearby for making bombs. Investigating the explosives found at the nearby Republican and Democratic headquarters, canine units discovered a truck Lonnie Coffman had driven from Alabama. A search of his truck bed revealed an M4 carbine rifle with loaded magazines, 11 Mason jars filled with liquid and topped with a golf tee, cloth rags and lighters, all the makings for Molotov cocktails.
When Coffman returned to his truck with a .22-caliber handgun in his pocket, U.S. Capitol Police special agent Lawrence Anyaso wrote in the arrest affidavit, he told officers the jars were filled with melted styrofoam and gasoline, a combination one officer said causes flammable liquids to stick when detonated, having the same effect as napalm.
‘Tell Pelosi we’re coming for her’
In one video clip, a crowd shouted, “USA, USA” as they threw flagpoles, crutches and other items at officers as a rioter dragged an officer down the steps.
Another video, by Jayden X, showed a gray-haired woman at the front of a crowd confronting a group of Capitol Police officers. Her ponytail shaking, she screamed, “Tell [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi we’re coming for her.”
Some protesters wore bulletproof vests or other military-style gear, patches and tattoos, including insignia for extremist, far-right militia groups. Some carried loaded handguns and extra ammunition.
“Do you want your house back?” one bulletproof-vest-clad rioter shouted as he faced a crowd that included several others in vests and helmets. “Then take it.”
Some rioters shouted they wanted to go onto the House floor to watch the proceedings or speak their thoughts. Others took the opportunity through open doors to wander in and gawk at areas few others ever see. Others were intent on mayhem and even violence. They ransacked desks, broke windows and shouted threats toward Pelosi and Pence.
Threats of execution
Reuters photographer Jim Bourg tweeted that he heard the rioters “say that they hoped to find Vice President Mike Pence and execute him by hanging him from a Capitol Hill tree as a traitor. … It was a common line being repeated. Many more were just talking about how the VP should be executed.”
Cleveland Grover Meredith was charged with threatening Pelosi after driving to D.C. from Colorado. He missed the riot after experiencing troubles with his truck and trailer, according to an arrest complaint written by FBI Special Agent Donald Mockenhaupt. Meredith arrived Thursday and was later arrested at a Holiday Inn.
Officers found a Glock 19, a 9mm pistol, a Tavor X95 rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition in his truck and trailer.
In the complaint, Mockenhaupt wrote Meredith had texted a relative saying he was “thinking about heading over to Pelosi’s (expletive) speech and putting a bullet in her noggin on Live TV,” with a purple devil emoji.
In a later text conversation about Pelosi, the complaint said, Meredith wrote, “Dead Bitch Walking. I predict that within 12 days, many in our country will die.”
But he added, “LOL, jus havin fun.”
Ready for ‘armed war’
For those who study extremist groups, the riot came as no surprise.
Days before the planned pro-Trump rally in Washington, agitators on platforms such as Parler and far-right message boards called for action in the nation’s capital.
“I don’t know if the police just thought the people who claimed they were patriots would be respectful, but their plans were well-known,” said Mary McCord, legal director at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University in Washington.
The tension ratcheted up after Enrique Tarrio, leader of the Proud Boys extremist organization was arrested on Jan. 4, two days before the planned rally. Though the Proud Boys had expressed support for police officers, by Tuesday, they and other extremist groups were clashing with police on the streets of Washington.
The day before the rally, extremism reporter Tess Owen of Vice News warned that previously pro-police groups had turned on law enforcement, citing evidence such as a post on Parler saying, “Time to burn down dc police precinct.”
A criminal defense attorney from Georgia who was among the rioters warned of a civil war in his social media posts in the months leading up the attack.
McCall Calhoun, who bragged of being one of the first through the doors, wrote on Parler that “as part of the anti-communist counter revolution we’ve got to get serious about stopping them by force of arms.”
After the events at the Capitol, he said, “They learned that today when we stormed the Capitol and took it. The word is we’re all coming back armed for war.”
In an interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Calhoun defended his statements as rhetoric and not actual warnings of intended violence.
Calls for impeachment grow
Many lawmakers were furious over the assault on the Capitol and urged consequences for Trump. Two Republican senators – Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – joined Democrats in calling for the president to resign over the riot.
House Democrats drafted an article of impeachment against Trump on a charge of “incitement of insurrection,” and 195 Democrats signed on as co-sponsors.
Clyburn told CNN Sunday the House could vote on at least one article of impeachment Tuesday or Wednesday and potentially wait several months before sending the measure to the Senate to prevent any distraction from President-elect Joe Biden’s legislative agenda during his first 100 days.
“Let’s give President-elect Biden the 100 days he needs to get his agenda off and running, and maybe we’ll send the articles sometime after that,” he said.
“We came close to nearly half of the House dying on Wednesday,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., told ABC’s “This Week” Sunday.
“What happened on Wednesday was insurrection against the United States. That is what Donald J. Trump engaged in, and that is what those who stormed the Capitol participated in,” she said.
Ocasio-Cortez called for “required accountability,” arguing that without serious prosecution, “we are inviting it to happen again.”
Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard, Will Carless, Matthew Brown