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Kuster recounts an unnerving day

  • Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., second from left, is among the legislators who were asked to wear gas masks while sheltering in the House gallery as protesters try to break into the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. Andrew Harnik / AP

Monitor staff
Published: 1/6/2021 6:37:09 PM

Annie Kuster was on the balcony of the House when the Capitol building was breached Wednesday. Everything afterward happened quickly.

The New Hampshire Democratic congresswoman watched as security services whisked away House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn down below. She looked on as Capitol Hill police began locking down the House chambers, door by door.

Then a police officer handed her a gas mask.

“We heard that the crowd of protesters was in the Rotunda,” she said in an interview with the Monitor Wednesday evening, speaking of the atrium just outside the House and Senate chambers. “Which was not far from where we were.”

The next few minutes were a scramble. Hearing noises downstairs, Kuster and others began crawling toward the exit, racing to get their gas masks on and ducking between rows of seats and under railings. She stayed crouched down, in case anyone fired automatic weapons upstairs.

As she exited, she took a last look back at the House floor below. A group of building staff was moving a couch in front of a door.

“I think shortly after I left was when the shots were fired through that door,” she said.

The unnerving chain of events were part of a chaotic afternoon in Washington, D.C., Wednesday afternoon, as lawmakers attempted to certify the result of the November election and extremist Trump supporters broke into the building to disrupt the proceedings.

By 6 p.m., one woman inside the Capitol had died of gunshot wounds, and the building had been declared secured by security services.

And by then, all four members of the New Hampshire congressional delegation had announced they were safe from the violence, hunkered down and awaiting instruction from law enforcement.

“My staff and I are safe – we are now sheltering in place and will continue to follow law enforcement’s guidance,” Hassan wrote in a tweet ahead of the end of violence. “Thank you to the Capitol Police for working to keep us all safe.”

“We are heeding the safety guidance from Capitol Police,” Shaheen added.

For Kuster, the evacuation from the balcony was one of a number of unnerving moments.

It started even before she had entered the chamber. For days, Capitol Police had warned lawmakers of potential security threats driven by plots of violence on social media ahead of Jan. 6, which had been touted by Trump, and told to take the underground tunnels between buildings as much as possible. But Kuster had seen many political protests before, and she had faith in police and security services. She had watched the growing presence of tourists in Washington with red Trump hats through the week, but everyone had appeared peaceful.

That feeling changed early Wednesday afternoon.

Walking to her office building around 1 p.m., Kuster was stopped by police and told to take a different route. A large police presence had gathered outside the Republican National Committee building; Kuster thought she saw a bomb squad. Later, Washington law enforcement officials would announce that a pipe bomb had been found and deactivated outside the building.

In a brush of irony, Kuster was filming a video about free speech at the time. She shook off the police encounter, entered through the alternative entrance and took the tunnel to the House chamber.

As the vote certification process began, Kuster watched from the balcony as House representatives lodged an objection over the state of Arizona. That’s when the House and Senate separated. By then, lawmakers were eyeing news reports on their phones that the protests outside were getting belligerent. But there was no indication the excitement would breach the building walls.

“We started hearing that things were out of hand,” she said. “. . . But even at that point we thought that there would just be more security than there was.”

When the shouting intensified outside and then moved into the building, Kuster and others grew more alarmed. That’s when Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn were abruptly ushered out.

By the end of afternoon, Kuster was huddled in a secure location with both Republican and Democratic representatives, waiting for hours until security gave the all clear. Some of those representatives had voted to object to the election results. “So it’s been an interesting afternoon,” she quipped.

She spoke to the Monitor around 7:30, still sheltering in that location. By 8 p.m., Pelosi had called back the House proceedings.

Even as they complied with lockdown, lawmakers of both parties vowed to carry on business.

Hassan added that the violent interruption would not stop the House and Senate from certifying the results of the November presidential election – which both chambers were in the process of doing when the intruders first arrived.

“This insurrection will not deter Congress from certifying the election – our democracy depends on it,” she wrote on Twitter.

Shaheen echoed the sentiment. “We will not be stopped from doing our constitutional duty,” she said.

Rep. Chris Pappas addressed his followers directly.

“Evacuated our office and was told by Capitol police outside to get as far away from the complex as I safely could,” he said. “The atmosphere outside the Capitol is highly, highly charged, and we all know exactly why. I hope to get back as soon as I can to confirm the election results.”

For Kuster, the return to business Wednesday night was an important symbol for a rattled nation. And it helped solidify conversations between Republican and Democratic representatives during the lockdown.

Members of both parties had been horrified by the violence and agreed that the conversation needed to change. At one point Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, called her during the afternoon to make sure she was safe.

“The most important thing about the whole day is that we resume our constitutional obligations to reaffirm this election so that we can proceed with the peaceful transfer of power to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris,” she said. “. . . Peaceful transfer of power is the hallmark of democracy. It’s the hallmark of democracy.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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