How lawmakers trapped in the House stood their ground
It was shortly after rioters had breached the Capitol on Jan. 6 and the scene inside the building was chaotic.
Authorities deployed tear gas in Statuary Hall, rioters were heading to the House chamber, members were being told to put on gas masks, and the Capitol Police were clearly outnumbered.
Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), one of the dozens of lawmakers inside the House chamber, first leapt into action, helping an officer barricade the door on the House floor that leads to Statuary Hall. Texas freshman Reps. Troy Nehls, Tony Gonzales, Pat Fallon and Ronny Jackson, a Navy veteran, also soon joined Mullin in preparing to defend the chamber.
With their ties and jackets off, they were bracing for battle.
“It was really a fight or flight moment,” recalled Gonzales, a former Navy officer who helped support combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. “On day three of being elected, it is not how you plan things, but it is also kind of who you are. It’s either you either run to the fire, or you run away from it. I’ve always ran to the fire.”
It’s been two weeks since the Jan. 6 attacks on the Capitol and new details are still being revealed about the deadly insurrection that left five people dead and dozens of others injured. In a series of interviews conducted in the days following the riots, five lawmakers who were inside the House chamber recounted at length to POLITICO how they banded together against the assailants, offering an inside look into the frenzied moments that will define Washington for years to come.
As the rioters began pounding on the back door of the chamber that opened towards Statuary Hall, Mullin, a former professional mixed martial arts fighter, helped a sergeant-at-arms block the entrance with a desk.
“The idea was just to try to delay. I honestly didn’t believe we were going to keep them out of the chamber. I was 100 percent convinced that we were going to pile up at the door,” said Mullin. “It is all about time.”
Nehls (R-Texas), a former sheriff and military officer with five decades of military and law enforcement experience, ran over to Mullin, asking if he needed help.
“We have a choice. I’m with you, brother,” replied Mullin.
Mullin then broke two wooden upright hand sanitizer stations and handed a block of the wood to Nehls, giving both of them makeshift weapons.
Fallon, who followed their lead by arming himself with a makeshift weapon, said they had no idea how many people were on the other side of the door.
“We didn’t know if it’s three people 30 people or 200 people. You just don’t have any way of knowing, and not knowing was unsettling,” said Fallon, who previously served in the U.S. Air Force.
“I thought, ‘We’re going to get in a street fight on my third day in Congress because we’re going to defend this place,” Fallon added, noting that they began shoring each other up.
Suddenly they heard what sounded like gunfire and someone yelled, “Shots fired!”
Several people in the chamber jumped behind chairs and police officers drew their weapons. But Mullin, soon realizing it wasn’t gunshots, yelled: “No shots! Don’t shoot. Those weren’t shots.”
Nehls looked through a cracked door window where rioters were attempting to break in and saw a man carrying a flag on a long wooden pole that was sharpened on the end, which he believes penetrated the window and caused the sound.
“It took an enormous amount of force to shatter that glass. You can see some remnants on top of the furniture — the little white sprinkling of dust from where the glass came in,” Nehls said.
Mullin then confronted the insurrectionists on the other side of the door through the tiny holes broken in the glass: “I said, ‘Is it worth it?”
When one rioter expressed confusion, he yelled again: “You almost got shot. You almost died. Is it worth it?'”
While some of the rioters paused temporarily after hearing Mullin’s warning, it wasn’t long until an agitator in the group began shaking the door again, yelling obscenities and shouting: “This is our House. This is our House. And we’re taking our House back.'”
Mullin shot back: “This is our House, too. That is not going to happen.”
Nehls then stepped in to attempt to deescalate the tense situation.
“I told the individuals on the other side of the door that they shouldn’t be doing this. ‘This is not the way we should be handling business. This is un-American, unnecessary and dangerous.’ And there’s no reason they should be doing this,” Nehls recalled. “I said, ‘You should be embarrassed of yourselves.'”
One of the rioters remarked that Nehls was wearing a Texas face mask and yelled at him: “You should be with us! You should be with us!”
To which Nehls replied: “No, sir, I cannot support what you’re doing right now.”
At about the same time, roughly 100 feet away, an officer shot and killed 35-year-old Ashli Babbitt, a former Air Force veteran who kept trying get inside the speaker’s lobby — where several lawmakers were — despite warnings that a gun was drawn.
The speaker’s lobby where the officer fired is directly adjacent to the House floor. People inside the chamber could clearly hear the gunshot.
Mullin said the officer who fired the fatal shot later entered back into the chamber and appeared “visibly distraught.”
“I hugged him and I said, ‘Sir, you had to do what you had to do,'” Mullin said.
Mullin and others who fought off the insurrectionists say if rioters had reached more doors leading into the House chamber, rather than just the one, then the situation could have ended far differently.
“He had to take someone’s life, but in return he probably saved a whole bunch of people’s lives,” Mullin said, praising law enforcement as the heroes that day.
But Mullin also says it was then he realized members and staffers were still stuck inside the House gallery, one floor above them, as the fight to keep the rioters off the floor ensued. The evacuation of the gallery had been stalled after the glass of the door was blown out, and people a floor above were told to “take cover.”
Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), a former Army Ranger who served three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, had been watching the election certification debate from the House gallery along with other House members, staffers and a host of reporters.
Mullin said he called on Crow, a friend of his, to help evacuate the rest of the people out of the gallery.
Crow had initially assisted members around him in putting on protective hoods as the lockdown of the House floor got underway; and, when he saw Capitol Police securing the doors around the House floor, he said he realized the enormity of the danger.
“I made the decision to call my wife and tell her I loved her and tell the kids that I love them,” Crow said.
After he finished speaking with his wife, Crow says he went into “Ranger mode,” going down a checklist in his head of what needed to be done: Lock doors. Move people away from entry points. Tell people to leave behind their bags and belongings so they can flee quickly. He even remembered to comfort his colleagues.
The Colorado Democrat, who recognized that lawmakers were “high value targets,” pulled a pen from his pocket and also told his colleagues to be prepared to use theirs as weapons.
Crow, who worried about run-ins with rioters with a bunch of lawmakers, said he waited until police officers communicated over radio where the rioters were in the Capitol before the evacuation of the gallery restarted.
And when everyone else had been cleared out, Crow shouted down to Mullin and the others still on the floor that they needed to get out now so that the officers “had the chance to get out too.”
When Crow finally escaped the House chamber, he was reportedly the last lawmaker to do so. The rioters did not reach the House floor.
The rioters, whose haunting takeover on the House floors was well documented in photos and social media posts, were eventually pushed back hours after the Capitol had been under siege. And once the lockdown ended hours later, the House moved forward with its vote to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s 2020 win. Mullin and Nehls voted to object to certifying the election, while Gonzales voted to certify the results.
“For the first time in over 15 years, I was preparing to use lethal force if I needed to. And I have in the past, in my prior life, the life that I’ve long since left behind,” Crow said. “I never thought that that life, that part of me, would merge with my current life as a member of Congress in 2021 in the U.S. Capitol.”
“But it did.”