Tia Mitchell, the Washington correspondent for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was sitting in the U.S. House chamber Wednesday afternoon watching lawmakers debate an objection to Arizona’s Electoral College votes when a group of rioters breached the Capitol.
Tensions ran high as the mob, which was protesting President Donald Trump’s election loss, entered the Capitol Rotunda, the ornate temple to American exceptionalism that’s steps from both the House and Senate chambers.
Both chambers were locked down by the U.S. Capitol Police. House leaders attempted to keep debate over the Electoral College going, but eventually “things started getting chaotic,” Mitchell said.
“Tempers started to flare,” she said.
Several of the lawmakers locked inside the House chamber began to snipe at one another in frustration.
Mitchell heard some Republicans shout about hypocrisy from Democrats who had campaigned to defund the police but now wanted protection from law enforcement. Some Democrats started to blame Republicans for the rioters, saying Trump helped whip up the violence and disobedience during a speech earlier in the day, while other Democrats cautioned that such outbursts were not helpful.
Shortly thereafter, officers escorted senior party leaders out of the House chamber, including Vice President Mike Pence and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Law enforcement then evacuated most of the 150 or so lawmakers who were on the House floor to a secure location.
Capitol Police locked down the chamber once again, leaving roughly 50 lawmakers and members of the press who had been socially distancing in the third-floor visitor galleries to shelter in place, Mitchell said.
Among the remaining lawmakers was U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, his spokesman confirmed.
Capitol Police began distributing gas masks after tear gas was dispensed in the Rotunda, Mitchell said.
As the rioters approached an anteroom off the House floor, police barricaded the doors from the inside with large wooden furniture and drew their guns. Officers directed the bystanders to crouch down below their seats and stay put.
Mitchell said she could hear banging on the doors and a loud pop from outside the room.
Eventually, the rioters were subdued and police cleared an evacuation route. The remaining members of Congress were escorted to a safe location, while the press corps was led out of the Capitol.
When the press was escorted outside the building, all Mitchell could hear was the “whir of the gas masks.”
Other media outlets reported that some rioters did eventually enter the House and Senate chambers. One person took to the Senate dais to declare his support for Trump, while another was photographed stealing a podium. At least one person was sent to the hospital with a critical wound to the neck, The Associated Press reported.
The chaotic scene came hours after Trump urged his supporters to go to the Capitol to voice their opposition to the Electoral College certification vote. As the images of the break-in began circulating on social media, the president urged the protesters to stay peaceful.
“I am asking for everyone at the U.S. Capitol to remain peaceful. No violence!” Trump tweeted. “Remember, WE are the Party of Law & Order — respect the Law and our great men and women in Blue.”