BY VALERIE GONZALEZ AND NAXIELY LOPEZ-PUENTE
Three local congressmen described the tense moments they lived through Wednesday as a mob stormed through police and briefly took control of the Capitol.
U.S. Reps. Vicente Gonzalez, Filemon Vela and Henry Cuellar were inside the House Chamber at the time Congress met to certify the Electoral College votes when thousands of supporters of President Trump stormed the Capitol leading some to breach the chamber in protest of the election results.
Chaos descended with Capitol police drawing weapons within the proceedings and space considered sacrosanct, with federal lawmakers taking cover and being escorted out. Among them was Gonzalez, D-McAllen, who often announced he was safe via Twitter and at one point asked followers to “pray for our democracy.”
Valley congressmen documented the tense events that ensued by communicating with news media and posting to social media.
Cuellar, D-Laredo, said lawmakers were going state by state as they certified the Electoral College votes which would certify President-elect Joe Biden’s victory when tensions mounted inside and outside.
Frustrated by the events and concerned with the historic attack on democracy unfolding before him, Cuellar on Wednesday blamed President Trump, who has challenged Biden’s election victory while launching a campaign of legal actions, lawsuits and pleadings to overturn the results based on unfounded claims of “rigging.”
Some Republicans, such as U.S. Ted Cruz of Texas, who promised to raise objections in support of Trump’s claims made good on that promise Wednesday as the proceedings reached Arizona — a state where Republican Gov. Doug Ducey said, “Joe Biden did win Arizona.”
Before the breach, Cruz stood on the Senate floor asking his colleagues to support his request to have “an Electoral Commission conduct an emergency audit to examine voter fraud allegations,” according to a post shared on his Twitter account.
Moments later, protesters fought through police lines and spilled into the buildings as members of Congress were plunged into a “crisis,” as Vela, D-Brownsville, called it.
Congressman Gonzalez said he arrived at about 1 p.m. to cast his vote and found it difficult to get inside the building because of the large crowds. He was redirected twice, and at one point, he decided to take off his tie and a pin that identifies him as a member of Congress for safety precautions.
“It felt pretty tense,” he said, noting there were more than 2,000 people present.
Once inside, he went into the gallery where the day’s events would unfold.
“I’m in the gallery and I hear some screaming outside, and I’m thinking, ‘What’s going on?’ And then five minutes later, they come in and take Pelosi, because they’re like, ‘Hey, the Capitol has been breached’ and they take her out.”
Gonzalez said he spoke to a security guard inside the chambers and asked if the protestors were armed. The guard said he couldn’t tell.
Soon after, they were instructed to take a gas mask from under their seats, assemble it and put it on. Those masks, however, were difficult to deploy, so Gonzalez started helping other members.
“Then I hear a pop pop pop pop sound, you know, like four gunshots, and everybody gets to the ground, and they’re like ‘get down!’ and everybody gets down,” he said. “It’s crazy. It’s like something out of a movie.”
Vela said members of Congress were then ushered to other secure rooms.
“Members are spread out everywhere. Members…” Vela paused and included himself, “we’re all in different places. We’re all calling each (other) and texting each other just to make sure everybody is OK.”
Gonzalez said he and others in his group turned to a higher power.
“We prayed together,” he said. “It was a somber moment. There was no animosity. Not what you would have expected after that very divisive few hours that we had in the chamber.”
Vela and Gonzalez have offices at the Cannon House Office Building, which Vela said was the first building to be shut down after a confrontation between protesters and police.
Cuellar said he was in good spirits but monitoring the situation closely with his staff during the lockdown.
“There’s thousands of people,” he said looking out his window. “This is what President Trump has done. I hope he’s happy with all this stuff.”
Vela lamented the implications of Wednesday’s events and placed some of the blame on Cruz, as many did on social media that evening.
“It’s a sad statement about where this democracy is and it lies right at the hands of the president of the United States and, from the standpoint of Texas, Sen. Cruz, because Sen. Cruz decided he was going to object to this electoral vote count,” Vela said.
About 25 minutes after Cruz posted his objections on Twitter, he posted a plea to stop the violence.
“Violence is always unacceptable. Even when passions run high,” the tweet read.
Former congressman Beto O’Rourke — who ran an unsuccessful Senate bid against Cruz — retweeted the post and wrote, “It is your self serving attempt at sedition that has helped to inspire these terrorists and their attempted coup.”
Cruz called the “sedition” allegation “false & reckless” in response.
PLEDGE TO DEMOCRACY
Lawmakers emerged from lockdown and prepared to continue the certification process after the Capitol was cleared Wednesday evening.
The constitution instructs them to complete the process on a deadline.
“Congress shall be in session on the sixth day of January succeeding every meeting of the electors. The Senate and House of Representatives shall meet in the Hall of the House of Representatives at the hour of 1 o’clock in the afternoon on that day, and the President of the Senate shall be their presiding officer,” the constitution instructs.
“As bad as today has been, I’m confident that as soon as tonight, things will be back to sorta normal,” Vela said before Congress reconvened, adding that he planned to cast his vote.
“We’re not going to let anybody derail democracy, and we are going to certify the votes,” Cuellar said, pledging to do the same.
He prodded future action and said, “Our current president incited the storming of the United States Capitol. He must be held accountable for the actions that occurred today.”
Historians will have to settle later on the precise term to label Wednesday’s events, which left one person dead, undetermined property damage, and interrupted both houses attempting to certify Electoral College votes.
Biden described it as an insurrection. News media soon followed, as did statesmen on both sides of the aisle when Congress reconvened.
Twitter labeled President Trump’s actions on their social media as “violations,” while many on both sides of the aisle characterized them as inciteful.
In a one-minute video, Trump called the election “fraudulent” and “stolen” and told protestors he loved them, but to “go home now.”
Moments later, Twitter took down the post and locked the president’s account for 12 hours.
The tweet read: “As a result of the unprecedented and ongoing violent situation in Washington, D.C., we have required the removal of three @realDonaldTrump Tweets that were posted earlier today for repeated and severe violations of our Civic Integrity policy.”
As Cuellar waited in his D.C. office to vote on the Pennsylvania objections to the certification of Electoral College votes he reflected on the “surreal” unraveling at the Capitol near midnight.
“They broke through doors. They broke through windows,” Cuellar said, referring to the mob that descended upon the Capitol grounds in the afternoon to disrupt the constitutionally mandated process.
“You see those images across the world where somebody might storm a presidential palace or a legislative building, but this is not supposed to be happening in the United States,” he said.
Four hours after the disruption, after the Capitol was cleared, the Senate reconvened.
“Today was a dark day in the history of the United States Capitol,” Vice President Mike Pence said as he delivered opening remarks before the chamber. “To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today, you did not win. Violence never wins. Freedom wins, and this is still the people’s house.”
The House of Representatives resumed an hour after the Senate.
“We will not be diverted from our duty,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said as she spoke before the process resumed in the House. “We know that we’re in difficult times, but little could we have imagined the assault that was made on our democracy today.”
Members of Congress spoke among themselves and considered the aftermath — four people dead, dozens of arrests, unassessed property damage and a shaken sense of security.
“This raises a lot of questions,” Cuellar said. “Some of us were talking a while ago while we were on the floor, ‘How could these people have breached the Capitol the way they did? How come certain doors busted? How come certain windows busted? Isn’t there supposed to be a little bit more security to that?’”
Votes to certify the election results were moving swiftly, though objections delayed the process.
Arizona’s objections were unsuccessful in the Senate with only six yeas; in the House the yeas were outnumbered 121 to 303.
Pennsylvania secured a representative from both houses. Lawmakers whose states were not represented were told to return to their offices until the debate concluded and they’re called up to vote in groups that allow for proper social distancing.
Cuellar will be voting along party lines against the objection.
As he sat in his office watching his colleagues consider the objections raised in Pennsylvania on a monitor, he looked further, past the conclusion of the Electoral College certification.
“Donald Trump should be held responsible,” Cuellar said in his continued blame of the president.
“If somebody is talking about an impeachment, it’s not going to happen in two weeks,” he said referring to Biden’s inauguration, scheduled for Jan. 20. “By that time there’s going to be a new president sworn in.”