Democrats point fingers on whether Capitol rioters had inside help
A growing number of Democrats are raising concerns about pro-Trump groups spotted inside the Capitol complex in the days before a mob invaded the building last week in what was a stunning failure of intelligence and police planning.
Many Democrats were shocked that people in the mob were able to find offices of top Democratic leaders, including an unmarked, third-floor office used by House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest-ranking Black lawmaker in Congress.
“The perpetrators, the terrorists, were able to find locations in the Capitol that I probably could not find,” Rep. Kim Schrier (D-Wash.) said Thursday in an interview with the news outlet Cheddar.
It’s unclear whether people marauding through the Capitol found offices simply by walking around and randomly opening doors, or if there was more planning involved.
Some Democrats are pointing to tours of the Capitol and constituent visits to nearby House and Senate office buildings. They question whether any of those visits were used to scope out the sprawling Capitol complex ahead of the violent attack on the building.
Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.), who served as a Navy helicopter pilot and a federal prosecutor before joining Congress, on Wednesday brought together nearly three dozen House Democrats to sign a letter urging investigators to scour any visitor log books or video footage for possible links to the breach that resulted in five deaths, including the killing of a Capitol Police officer.
She likened Capitol tours she witnessed on Jan. 5 to “reconnaissance.”
“To see these groups around the Capitol complex was really striking,” Sherrill told MSNBC. “And it was so odd to see them that my chief of staff called the sergeant-at-arms to say, ‘What is going on?’ ”
A few Democrats have said there may have been “co-conspirators” within the Capitol building helping those involved in the mob. Fears about such a situation have also been amplified by reports that dozens of people on a federal terrorist database were in Washington, D.C., the day of the attack.
Schrier told Cheddar that the rioters “clearly had assistance” and that “some of my colleagues may have been co-conspirators.”
Schrier’s office said the lawmaker was referencing public reports when she said rioters appeared to have access to locations of the Capitol she could not find. The office did not respond when asked to clarify what the congresswoman meant by “co-conspirators,” and whether she held open the possibility that members or staff helped insurrectionists carry out the breach.
But the chorus of calls for an investigation into the Jan. 5 tours forced Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to weigh in on the matter Friday as she faced reporters in the Capitol.
“If it is found that members of Congress were accomplices to this insurrection, if they aided and abetted the crime,” a somber Pelosi said, “there may have to be actions taken beyond the Congress, in terms of prosecution for that.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has called for a bipartisan fact-finding commission to investigate the attack, an aide said in response to questions from The Hill.
The aide did not offer a response to the charge by some Democrats that unnamed House Republicans might have been co-conspirators.
Democrats making the charge have offered no evidence that any lawmakers helped coordinate the attack.
The FBI did not respond when asked if investigators are looking into whether anyone on the “inside” — including members of Congress or staff — are being looked at for their role in the Jan. 6 Capitol breach or if Capitol tours in particular are figuring as part of the FBI’s broader probe.
Since last spring, public access to the Capitol building and the nearby office buildings has been severely restricted due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Public tours of the Capitol building, as well as private tours led by lawmakers, have been suspended. People who have “official business” at the office buildings can still enter them, however.
The office buildings are all connected to the U.S. Capitol through a tunnel system. A local subway is used by members, staff, journalists and other visitors to travel around the complex.
During the mob attack, it appeared those breaching the Capitol, however, were doing so by breaking through doors and windows of the building, not by using the tunnel system.
The warning from Sherrill’s office was just one of several alarms that Democratic lawmakers sounded to Capitol security personnel in the days leading up to the Jan. 6 attack.
The Hill has learned that on Dec. 30, Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) spoke on the phone with a Capitol Police captain, warning that the online and social media chatter she was seeing was so violent that she feared Trump supporters would try to storm the Capitol and “kill half of Congress” along with Vice President Pence. She urged police to harden security around the building, as did Financial Services Chair Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) in a phone call a day later with then-Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund.
Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.), who signed on to the Sherrill letter, said that on Jan. 5 she saw two groups of Trump supporters in the Rayburn building. That legislative office building, located next to the Capitol, houses nearly 170 members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The visiting groups’ members, she said, were bedecked in Trump gear: Trump campaign shirts, red-white-and-blue scarves with Trump’s name on it and numerous “Make America Great Again” baseball caps that, collectively, resembled “a beehive of red hats.”
“It shocked me to see that because nobody was supposed to be in those buildings,” Torres told The Hill on Thursday. “And certainly not in that area, the sub-basement, where you have access to the garage. You know, it goes right into where members and staff park.”
Among one unescorted group that Torres saw were visitors who were using their phones to shoot what appeared to be a video panning across a row of members’ offices, including one visitor who “walked right up to a member’s nameplate.”
Torres said she felt uncomfortable approaching the group, so she’s unsure if the nameplate identified a Republican or Democratic members’ office.
She said she believed “absolutely” that the assault could have been assisted by sitting members of Congress.
Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), another signatory to Sherrill’s letter, also recalled seeing what appeared to be pro-Trump groups inside the Capitol complex despite the public health restrictions on visitors. The days leading up to the Wednesday breach left him with an “unsettled feeling,” he said.
“Some of the new and existing members of Congress had some of these people coming in, escorting them into offices and wandering the hallways. And it was uncomfortable,” Kildee told progressive Michael Moore on the activist’s podcast. “Monday, Tuesday, the red hats, I saw them in the building.”
The Hill asked Kildee which building the congressman spotted the groups in, but his office declined to provide specifics beyond saying the groups were seen in the “Capitol complex.”
Some Democrats aren’t pointing the finger directly at GOP lawmakers, but suggest people within the Capitol might have assisted some rioters in some way.
Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) told The Hill that numerous people told her that rioters were aided to some degree by congressional personnel, perhaps even given access to “come in ahead of time and case the building.”
“To me, if any member, any staff member, any member of the Capitol Police was involved in this, they need to be brought to the full extent of the law, but also the ethics,” said Bass, the immediate past chair of the Black Caucus, referring to a possible Ethics Committee investigation. “And it might be that a member is expelled, it might be that a member is arrested, it might be that a staff member is arrested or fired.”
“But whatever it is,” she continued, “if there was involvement, it should be pursued to the maximum.”