Todd J. Gillman The Dallas Morning News
WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, joined a federal lawsuit Wednesday accusing Donald Trump of inciting the Jan. 6 riot — recounting her terror as attackers laid siege to the House chamber and telling the court she was left with “violent nightmares” and difficulty sleeping.
The lawsuit accuses Trump, his lawyer Rudolph Giuliani and far-right militia groups of violating the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, a rarely invoked law enacted to curb political violence and protect the rights of freed slaves after the Civil War.
The NAACP filed the lawsuit in mid-February on behalf of Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chair of the House Homeland Security Committee.
Escobar and nine other House members, all Democrats, joined the effort in federal district court in Washington, each recounting the fearful hours of Jan. 6, when an angry mob stormed the Capitol in an effort to halt Congress’ formal approval of President Joe Biden’s electoral victory.
The lawsuit asks for a jury to decide any damage award.
The Texan was seated in the front row of the House Gallery, overlooking the floor, when the attack began.
She watched with growing concern as Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House leaders were whisked away.
Family members started texting to ask if she was safe, well before lawmakers were told the Capitol was under attack. Officers shut the chamber doors and people outside the chamber shouted and banged on the doors.
“Her heart began racing as she realized she might be trapped in the House Gallery, unable to protect herself from what sounded like an angry mob,” the lawsuit asserts. “Her fears were heightened” when Capitol Police, who had urged lawmakers to retrieve gas masks from under their chairs, told them that tear gas had been released in Statuary Hall, just outside the chamber, “and she realized she did not know how to properly wear the gas mask provided her.”
One door wasn’t blocked or guarded, and she feared that rioters might reach that before she could escape.
Photos of those harrowing moments show lawmakers hiding behind the balcony wall during the attack.
Escobar ducked for cover several times as she made her way to the far side of the gallery, and once there, officers told lawmakers to lie on the floor.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, recalled staying on the floor for nearly a half hour. “Her last view of the House floor was of several law enforcement officers standing with their firearms drawn towards the door to the House chamber” — one of the now iconic scenes from that day.
Escobar said she could see rioters through the broken glass of the door, as the officers pointing guns from behind a makeshift barricaded.
She heard a gunshot and “feared that an officer has been shot and that the mob had entered the Speaker’s Lobby.” (An officer shot and killed rioter Ashli Babbitt as she tried to climb into the anteroom just off the House floor.)
At this point, Escobar felt her life could be in imminent danger. She pleaded with a nearby officer not to let anyone into the Gallery.
Eventually, she and other lawmakers were led to safety in the Longworth House Office Building, connected by tunnel to the Capitol, though even there, sheltered from the attack for several hours, she felt unsafe because many GOP colleagues refused to wear masks despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“Rep. Escobar struggled to fall asleep that night” and for weeks afterward, and sought counseling “as a direct result of these events.”
Others told the federal court of similar emotional trauma, and a reminder of their mortality.
Rep. Barbara Lee of California, 74 at the time, told the court the episode prompted her to finalize plans for her estate.
Tennessee Rep. Steven Cohen has been thinking since the attack on where he wants to be buried. He hid in his office for more than two hours, in the dark, hoping the rioters wouldn’t realize he was there, a baseball bat in hand in case they found him. Like Escobar, he said he’s had trouble sleeping. He also told the court that he is now jumpy at loud noises and has developed digestive problems.
The lawmakers’ 67-page filing puts blame for all of this — the assault on democracy and the very personal impacts — on Trump.
It notes that he “actively and enthusiastically supported armed protesters who used threats and, at times, violence in the pursuit of their political and social agendas.” At one point he referred to supporters who threatened violence to resist COVID-19 restrictions as the “Trump Army.” He called Georgia’s top election official an “enemy of the people” for rejecting unfounded allegations that the election was tainted by fraud.
The filing alleges that the Proud Boys, a right-wing militia, “created chaos and mayhem” at the Capitol at the direction of Trump and Giuliani, weakening police defenses at the Capitol in time for a mob stirred to violence by the president to swarm.
Trump, Giuliani and two right wing groups involved in the riot, Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, have not filed a response in court.