Democratic lawmakers leveled a series of stunning allegations that their GOP colleagues – none of whom they named – may have conspired with rioters before they attacked the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn the election that President Donald Trump lost.
Though they offered few specifics and little evidence, their claims represent the culmination of months of warnings and frustrations over the cozy relationship between some prominent Republicans and the violent fringes, including white nationalists, animated by lies about voter fraud and a stolen election.
A week after the Capitol was stormed by a pro-Trump mob, Democrats did not directly name GOP lawmakers they suspected of being involved, citing ongoing investigations. Some suggested rioters seemed too good at navigating the building’s hallways and pointed out that there were unusually large groups of visitors the day before.
Black lawmakers, who have long warned of nationalist rhetoric from some in the GOP and the Trump administration, said they weren’t surprised that many of those who raided the Capitol belong to right-wing hate groups and waved Confederate flags. The violence left at least five people dead and dozens more arrested.
“From the highest office in the land, Donald Trump provided white supremacists, right-wing extremists, and conspiracy theorists validation and free reign to spew hatred, bigotry, and racism, and yes – commit extreme violence,” Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said in a statement Wednesday when she voted to impeach the president a second time. “Last year, he gave an order to the Proud Boys to ‘stand back and stand by,’ and that – they did.”
Other members of the Congressional Black Caucus raised the specter of being targeted during the riot. One lawmaker was missing an iPad from a discreet office. Another said the panic buttons in her office had been ripped out before the riot.
Offices throughout the Capitol were ransacked, so it is unclear whether there is other evidence that Black lawmakers were targeted.
The suspicions come as staff and lawmakers inside the Capitol were left rattled by the violence that forced them to retreat to secure locations within the building. Once the ideal of secure government, the Capitol is now a fortified complex and crime scene as authorities try to pick up the pieces of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Lawmakers who normally roamed the halls are now met with a substantial National Guard presence and metal detectors before entering the chambers.
At least one federal agency, the Inspector General of the Capitol Police, launched a wide-ranging investigation into last week’s security failures, according to a congressional aide familiar with the matter but not authorized to speak on the record. It’s unclear whether investigators will look into the potential role of insiders who may have helped the rioters.
Other agencies that have been contacted by lawmakers, including the Government Accountability Office and the two sergeants at arms, have not confirmed whether they’ve opened any formal investigations.
Some lawmakers questioned how insurgents knew where to go when they breached the building.
Maps of the layout of each floor inside the Capitol are easily located on the internet, and some mark the House speaker’s and other leaders’ offices.
Jane Campbell, president and CEO of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, said that while the bowels of the building can be confusing to navigate even for staff, the main areas penetrated on Jan. 6 are not difficult to locate.
“Once you’re in the building you could find the chambers and you could find the speaker’s office,” she said. “That’s pretty well-marked.”
Still, there is sentiment among some Democrats that their Republican colleagues in Congress played a role in the violence, at best by inciting the mob into action or, at worst, by providing them access to the building.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y, speaking in support of President Donald Trump’s impeachment Wednesday said the “accomplices” in the House to the rioters “will be held responsible.”
Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., a former U.S. Army captain, last week requested a wide-ranging investigation – that includes reviewing actions of congressional colleagues – by Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, who leads the Government Accountability Office.
In a letter co-signed by 107 House Democrats, Crow asked the agency to review the “impact of rhetoric by government and elected officials that contributed to or led to the insurrection” as well as “efforts by government and/or elected officials to limit preparation, coordination, or response, particularly regarding the use of force and arrests.”
Chuck Young, a spokesman at the Government Accountability Office, confirmed the agency received Crow’s request but said it has not launched an investigation yet. “It still needs to go through our formal review process before decisions are made,” he said in an email, noting that the GAO does not usually duplicate efforts by other investigators.
‘Suspicious’ tours before the riots
Some Democrats have raised questions about groups of visitors that came to the Capitol complex the day before the riots.
Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., along with over thirty of her fellow lawmakers, wrote to the Capitol Police and both the House and Senate Sergeants at Arms demanding investigations into colleagues she said led people through the Capitol on Jan. 5 in what she termed a “reconnaissance for the next day.”
Her request was directed by letter to the acting House sergeant at arms, acting Senate sergeant at arms and United States Capitol Police, citing “suspicious behavior and access given to visitors to the Capitol Complex” before the riot.
“This is unusual for several reasons, including the fact that access to the Capitol Complex has been restricted since public tours ended in March of last year due to the pandemic,” she wrote.
Sherrill, a Navy veteran, said that her office contacted the Sergeant at Arms before the riot to raise concerns about the tours. USA TODAY attempted to contact both Sergeants at Arms for more information about any possible investigations, but neither has replied. In multiple conversations with reporters, Sherrill has declined to name who exactly may have signed those visitors into the Capitol building.
U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-FL, said he did not see anything like what Rep. Sherrill alleged.
“Congresswoman Sherrill’s claims of a criminal conspiracy by unnamed members of Congress is startling and hard to believe,” Buchanan said. “If she has evidence that a member of Congress conducted ‘reconnaissance tours’ to help the rioters plan last week’s attack she needs to release it immediately. I saw nothing of the kind when I was on the House floor that week and would be shocked to learn it was true.”
Sherrill, in a follow-up interview with northjersey.com, part of the USA TODAY Network, maintained that “there’s no way those groups could have gotten into the Capitol without a Member of Congress or a staff member of a member of Congress,” though she declined to name individuals, citing an ongoing investigation.
She said that on a Wednesday conference call between Democratic members of Congress, some members had raised concerns that members of color had been targeted.
“The group appeared to have targeted certain members of congress, especially prominent members of color,” she said. “Some of these members relayed that they have offices that are hard to find.”
One member of the Black Caucus, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., said her office’s panic alarm system had been ripped out before the riot. “Learning that those panic buttons and panic alarms had been removed from my office was certainly unnerving,” she told CNN Thursday. “There is an investigation underway. So I can’t say more than that.”
Another member, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), said last Sunday on CNN that rioters went to his “unmarked office” in the Capitol where he does most of his work rather than his office in one of the Capitol office buildings, so to him, it “indicates that something untoward may have been going on.”
Bennie Thompson, D-MS, wrote on Facebook last week, condemning those that incited the violence. “To all those who were complicit (elected officials & cabinet members),” he said, “You all supported this foolishness for 4 years and benefited from it. You don’t get to excuse yourself now and pretend to be blameless.”
‘Looking back at little pieces’
Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa., said when Sherrill raised concerns about the tours it “rang a bell for me” because she witnessed a group of six to eight visitors on a tour in the Capitol’s tunnels ahead of the Jan. 6 riot. She couldn’t recall whether it was one or two days before.
“It was noticeable to see people getting tours from congressional aides in the Capitol because that hasn’t happened since Covid struck,” Scanlon said. “There are rules that we’re not supposed to be giving those tours and we’re not supposed to have outsiders in the Capitol now because of the danger of infection.”
Scanlon said she believes staff aides of Congress members – not lawmakers themselves – were conducting the tours but could not identify which congressional offices. She said she initially figured it must be new Congress members who were unaware of the coronavirus rules.
She said she identified the group getting the tour as Trump supporters based on their significant “red attire” and because some weren’t wearing masks and others weren’t wearing them properly.
“We know there’s a lot we’re going to learn moving forward with respect to what transpired on the 6th,” she said. “We’ll have to get to the bottom of it.”
Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va. was also one of the signatories to Sherrill’s letter. The two had been Naval Academy classmates together and had worked together on other issues. Sherrill had mentioned to Luria that “in hindsight,” there had been large tour groups going through the Capitol in the days before the riot in a time when tours were closed to the public due to COVID-19 precautions.
In the days leading up to Jan. 6, Luria had also noticed several groups of eight to 15 people walking through areas of Capitol office buildings and the underground tunnels connecting the Capitol and its surrounding office buildings. It appeared to her the groups were of Trump supporters, she said, wearing “MAGA hats and different promotional, campaign-related things” indicating their political affiliation. She did not recognize any members of Congress or staff among the groups.
At the time, she said they thought nothing of it other than the COVID-19 risk. Members and staff, however, are allowed to bring people through the Capitol complex, though the number of people is limited because of COVID-19 precautions.
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who chairs a congressional panel overseeing funding for the Capitol Police, told reporters the tour groups don’t mean that “anybody, a member of Congress was necessarily conspiring. But we should be looking into every single aspect of this.”
The Ohio Democrat noted many staff and lawmakers were still processing such a traumatic event.
“When you have a traumatic event or a big event in your life, a day or two later you start looking back at little pieces here or there that may fit into a larger puzzle that you didn’t necessarily notice in the moment or notice because nothing was going on,” he said.
Ryan said they referred the tour issue on to the Capitol Police on Jan. 7, but he and other lawmakers were “having a hell of a time getting information from the Capitol Police leadership,” calling the agency a “black box.”
The Capitol Police’s Office of the Inspector General, which is investigating the security lapses, has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Rep. André Carson, D-Ind., who also signed Sherrill’s letter, said he did not witness the tours himself but grew suspicious after watching a video of Trump supporters reciting the “Lord’s Prayer” outside the Capitol the day before the riot. He later spoke to his Democratic colleagues about the tours.
“To have some folks amongst those touring the Capitol facility, they were obviously casing our U.S. Capitol in order to cause disruption,” said Carson, a former police officer who worked in counterterrorism for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security before being elected to Congress.
“With the information I receive regularly, in terms of sources and methods and how things work, my law enforcement instincts started to connecting dots,” said Carson, a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
Like others, he could not say which Republican lawmakers might have led the tours, adding that he’s waiting to hear from investigators.
Asked whether he believes some of them could be accomplices in the attack, he said, “That would be most unfortunate. If not, certainly gullible at best.”
Carson, who is Black and Muslim, was singled out by name in a handwritten note of Lonnie Coffman, a 70-year-old from Alabama, who was charged on 17 gun and ammunition charges in connection to the riot.
“I’m certainly concerned for my family,” he said, noting he has been critical of the House Sergeant at Arms over security even before the riot. “We get death threats regularly.”
Contributing: William Westhoven of the Daily Record