Rep. Peter Welch (far right) and others duck for cover in the U.S. House gallery
Updated 8:59 p.m.
Members of Congress, including Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), were placed under lockdown on Wednesday after supporters of President Donald Trump breached barricades at the Capitol building, propelling the nation's government into a state of chaos on a day meant to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
Federal lawmakers were debating an attempt by some Republicans to overturn Trump’s election defeat when pro-Trump extremists stormed the Capitol building. Security rushed Vice President Mike Pence off of the Senate floor and placed both chambers on lockdown.
In a video posted to Twitter around 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, Welch said that Capitol police had just announced a security breach.
Fifteen minutes later, Welch posted another video saying that representatives have been told there was tear gas in the rotunda.
"We're being instructed to — each of us — get gas masks that are under our seats," he said.
Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) could not immediately be reached for comment. But around 3:20 p.m., Levi Sanders, the senator’s son, tweeted that he had just spoken “with my father and he ok in the midst of this insanity and ugliness.” And Leahy later tweeted that he was OK.
Safe with other Senators. We are eager to get back on Senate Floor when safe and resume the certification of the election. I applaud President-elect Biden’s remarks a few moments ago.
The dean of the Senate then issued a statement later Wednesday evening accusing Trump of promoting “delusional conspiracy theories” and said the rioters should be brought to justice.
“The criminals who injured people, defiled the Nation’s Capitol, and destroyed thousands of dollars’ worth of property should be prosecuted for their felonies,” Leahy said.
Around 6:30 p.m., Sanders wrote in a tweet that "Trump will go down in history as the worst and most dangerous president in history."
"The man directly responsible for the chaos of today is Donald Trump, who has made it clear that he will do anything to remain in power – including insurrection and inciting violence," Sanders wrote.
Welch spoke to reporters around 4 p.m. Wednesday from a secure location and recounted his experience. He said he first noticed something was wrong when security rushed to the front of the House chamber with a “look on their face … [that said] this was not a drill,” Welch said.
Capitol police eventually announced that the mob had breached the building. Officers ordered those still inside the chamber to lie on the ground behind their seats. “They made it clear they were preparing for potential gunshots,” Welch said.
Later, police told Welch and others to move toward the edge of the chamber but then quickly ordered them to stop — “basically, to hit the floor,” Welch said.
“I started to hear crashing sounds,” Welch said, recalling a moment when rioters attempted to breach the chamber. Photos from inside the chamber showed a tense standoff between someone trying to break through the locked doors and armed Capitol police.
The group of lawmakers eventually made a dash toward a door and managed to escape unharmed. “We're here,” Welch said, “and we're awaiting instructions.”
The breach of the Capitol building came less than two hours after Trump addressed a crowd of supporters who had gathered for a “Save America” rally. Speaking at noon against a backdrop of the White House, Trump vacillated between prepared remarks and a stream-of-consciousness deluge of lies and attacks.
“You'll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength. You have to be strong," Trump said, before demanding Congress overturn his legitimate defeat. He urged the group of thousands to march to the Capitol.
Trump bears “maximum responsibility” for Wednesday’s riot, Welch said, noting the president had warned of a “rigged election” even before ballots were cast.
“What he's done is exactly the opposite of what a responsible leader does,” Welch said.
Trump addressed his supporters in a one-minute video posted to Twitter around 4:15 p.m. that the website slapped with a “disputed” warning.
“I know your pain. I know you're hurt,” Trump says in the video. “We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election, and everyone knows it.”
“But you have to go home now,” he continued. “We have to have peace. We have to have law and order.”
Asked to respond to Trump’s message, Welch said, “I'm sorry, 'It's time to go home'? How about: ‘You should never have come.’ I mean, they’re here at his invitation. This is pretty hollow.”
Some Vermonters were on the scene in Washington, D.C. A group of Trump supporters piled onto a charter bus Tuesday night and headed south. A Facebook page titled “Vermonters for Vermont” has chronicled the trip in videos. The first, posted around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday night, showed dozens of maskless passengers chanting “four more years.”
When the cameraman asked where they were headed, one woman replied, “The belly of the beast.” Another added, "We're going to set things right."
The account shared five more videos on Wednesday. The latest, posted at 1:22 p.m., showed hundreds of rioters gathered on the Capitol lawn.
Americans were transfixed watching live images of the hardcore Trump supporters flowing into the Capitol, smashing windows, and even entering chambers and offices.
"I am horrified at the idea that these people are calling themselves Republicans,” Vermont Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) said of the people who stormed the building. “I am absolutely astounded that anyone carrying that label would become an anarchist, and I have no other word to describe these people. They are not Republicans.”
Asked about the bus trip from Vermont, he said, "I do not know whether any of the people on that bus were part of the group that broke into the Capitol. But I am discouraged that there were people leaving the state to go down and join in a misguided attempt to circumvent what has been certified as a legal election. The fact is, if any of the people that were on that bus were actually participating in the violence that occurred, I hope they don't come back on that bus because they have no right to live in Vermont."
Deb Billado, the Vermont Republican Party chair, was at Republican National Committee meetings in Florida and available for comment, according to Paul Dame, the party's political director. He called it "unfortunate" to see Trump supports rioting just six months after Republicans were unified in opposing those in Kenosha, Wis., and Portland, Ore.
"I don't see [today's riot] as fundamentally better; in fact it's worse because rather than just destroying private property, which is bad, these people have violated public space and ... the safety of the representatives of the entire American political system," Dame said. "The Vermont Republican Party still believes in law and order and peaceful civil disobedience."
Dame said the state Republican Party didn't organize the D.C. bus trip and said he hopes that when people come back, they will quarantine.
But in a statement, the chair of the Burlington GOP, Kolby LaMarche, called on Billado and state party leadership "to take immediate action and condemn these violent acts of insurrection."
"President Trump has inflicted unspeakable pains upon our nation and it is the responsibility of all Republicans to stand for the Constitution, our democracy, and the safety of all Americans by condemning the President and the actions of his disillusioned supporters," he wrote.
The state party finally released a statement attributed to Billado more than five hours after the assault began, saying that “what happened our nation’s capital” was “wrong, immoral and against the fundamental principles that we hold dear, not only as Republicans, but as Americans.”
Billado's statement said the Republican party has “consistently opposed the actions of violent mobs,” including those that took to the streets in cities across the country last summer.
“The mob that has asserted itself on our nation's Capital is of an even great [sic] concern and the Capital police ought to seek to bring criminal charges of trespass and disorderly conduct against any of the people who have taken such actions.”
“Their actions do not speak for the Vermont Republican Party and we strongly condemn any such lawlessness, regardless of their political affiliations,” Billado wrote.
She also voiced support for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who spoke out Wednesday against those who objected to certifying the election results.
“The VT Republican Party believes in local control and state's rights,” the statement read. “Overturning the election results which were certified by the individual states is perhaps the most disturbing example of federal over-reach [sic] imagined.”
Billado made no mention of President Trump.
State Senate Minority Leader Randy Brock (R/D-Franklin) told Seven Days that "what's happening at the Capitol right now is so sad.
"It's sad for our democracy and for our country. These kinds of things have no place in America, and I don't care who is responsible for it," he said. "This is an outrageous situation and it strikes at the heart of our nation. I hate the thought that the United States is devolving into a banana republic. This kind of behavior is what we expect to see in a banana republic, not in the United States of America."
Brock said he believes that Trump bears full responsibility for what's happening.
Brock's seatmate, Sen. Corey Parent (R-Franklin), wrote on Facebook that "the violent 'protestors' at the United States Capitol are not American heroes, they are not the patriots they claim to be.
"They don't love the United States Constitution as they claim," he wrote. "They are the thug followers of an authoritarian leader who has no interest in making our nation better. It's time to move forward, accept the results of a fair election and work together to heal our nation."
In a statement Wednesday afternoon, Rep. Pattie McCoy (R-Poultney), the Vermont House minority leader, called the incident a "shameful event."
"Let me be clear: this type of behavior has absolutely no place in this country, and goes against our most basic values and institutions. Elected officials who encouraged today's abhorrent events should be ashamed," she wrote. "I am embarrassed for not only our national party, but also our nation."
“Our so-called leaders in Washington have a responsibility to reign-in the recklessness that has been promoted, incited, and encouraged from among the most important offices in the nation," she continued. "This cannot be allowed to happen again."
Vermont Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe) tweeted that she was “appalled, ashamed and immensely saddened” by the situation.
"Maybe I shouldn't be surprised, but, damn it, I am,” she added. “I beg of the protesters to stand down and leave the Capitol. I beg of Donald Trump to call on them to stop. This is unacceptable. In the meantime, to all in Washington, you are in my prayers. Stay safe!”
Courtney Lamdin, Derek Brouwer and Chelsea Edgar contributed reporting.
Listen to Welch's full recounting of his experience: