Jan. 6 under the Capitol Dome: The darkest entry yet in Clio's tablet

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They damn near lost the building.

It’s an overwrought metaphor. You’ve heard it before. The Capitol Dome, piercing the Washington, D.C., skyline, is a symbol of democracy. A beacon of freedom throughout the world.

The U.S. Capitol is that. But it’s also an office building. A museum. An art gallery. And, the U.S. Capitol is the temple where American history plays out.

It all unfolds under the Capitol Dome.

Machinations in the building are synthesized with what the rest of the country is going through at any given moment.

Debates and legislation about slavery. The first "shot" fired in the Civil War came in the Old Senate chamber as Rep. Preston Brooks, D-S.C., nearly beat to death Sen. Charles Sumner, R-Mass., with a cane.

The building has seen imbroglios over ObamaCare. Arguments about firearms. The Dred Scott and Amistad decisions unfolded in the Old Supreme Court Chamber. Votes to send men and women to war are cast in the U.S. Capitol. We inaugurate American presidents on the West Front the U.S. Capitol. And they later lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda.

The House and Senate chambers are no different than Walmart when it comes to donnybrooks about wearing masks during a pandemic. The House and Senate argued about civil rights during the 1960s. Contemporary debates about "Black Lives Matter" and police reform resonated in the chamber after police killings last spring and summer. And then the body of the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., lay in state within the Capitol walls.

As such, one of the most malevolent, toxic moments in American history unfolded at the Capitol. It’s forever stamped as a shameful date: Jan. 6, 2021.

Marauders roamed the Capitol. Trashed the Senate parliamentarian’s Office. Wielded Confederate flags in the Ohio Clock Corridor outside the Senate chamber. Ripped down the nameplate to the entrance of the office suite of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Vandalized a statue of President Zachary Taylor. Carved "Murder the Media" in a Capitol doorway. Extremists defecated in the hallways, stomped in their own feces and tracked their excrement across the encaustic, Minton tiles.

A protester carries the lectern of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi through the Roturnda of the U.S. Capitol Building after a pro-Trump mob stormed the building on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington.<br>
​​​(Getty Images)

Jan. 6, 2021, would have been historic enough on its own.

The 12th Amendment to the Constitution dictates that the House and Senate huddle in a joint session of Congress to tally the Electoral College votes. The House and Senate convene in a joint session (different from a joint meeting) only for a president's annual State of the Union address and to certify the electoral votes. So, while this quadrennial session is often a sleeper and rote in nature, it is an important event proscribed by an entire constitutional amendment. And, the 12th Amendment dictates that the vice president preside over the session.

Past incursion

Puerto Rican nationalists shot up the House chamber in 1954, wounding five Congress members. The "fourth" plane that hijackers commandeered and crashed in Pennsylvania was headed to the Capitol on 9/11. But the U.S. Capitol hadn’t faced an incursion like the one it encountered Wednesday since the British stormed the building 207 years ago.

The British routed American forces at the Battle of Bladensburg on Aug. 24, 1814, as a part of the "Chesapeake Campaign." Having quashed the fledgling U.S. military in Maryland just outside Washington, the Royal Marines marched 10 miles to the east. They sacked the Capitol and set the structure ablaze.

The inferno marked the only time since the Revolutionary War that the Capitol fell to a foreign raider.

A foreign adversary didn’t invade the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. But this date is now entered into the almanac of ignominy. A macabre shorthand which speaks in shorthand: Sept.11, 2001 and Dec. 7, 1941.

A foreign adversary didn’t invade the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. But this date is now entered into the almanac of ignominy.

But this time, the threat didn’t come from external foes.

Senate Chaplain Barry Black addressed this menace in his closing prayer when the joint session of Congress finalized the Electoral College outcome just before 4 a.m. ET on Jan. 7.

"Protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies – domestic – as well as foreign," prayed Black, flipping the cliché for emphasis.

And they damn near lost the building.

This isn’t about a "building." This is about American democracy. And if they "lost the building" Wednesday, the United States of America would have lost much more.

Capitol security failed. But would the institutions of American democracy falter as well?

Authorities are now rounding up some of the hoodlums and arresting them. When they came to the Capitol, one was in possession of explosives. Another toted Molotov cocktails. Another wielded an M4 carbine. Some had multiple handguns. Another thug brought "homemade napalm."

The continuity of American government teetered on a narrow ledge Wednesday. It wouldn’t have taken much for democracy to plunge into a crevasse of catastrophe.

The continuity of American government teetered on a narrow ledge Wednesday. It wouldn’t have taken much for democracy to plunge into a crevasse of catastrophe.

As I say, American history plays out under the Capitol Dome.

All of this, as lawmakers convened a joint session of Congress with the speaker of the House and vice president of the United States presiding.

"They could have killed us all," fumed Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "How could they (U.S. Capitol Police) have failed so miserably, 20 years after 9/11? They could have blown the building up."

We came damn close to losing it all on Jan. 6.

Yogi’s wisdom

"You can see a lot by watching," proffered baseball legend Yogi Berra. The late Hall of Famer's rhetorical tautology represents one of the important tools in a reporter’s repertoire.

Over the years, I’ve learned to "watch" things on Capitol Hill. Observing, so as to divine meaning and decode various happenings.

I frequently watch the floor directors for the speaker and majority leader in the House chamber. The floor director serves as a parliamentary sentinel for trouble. If the floor director is worked up, it’s a good bet something bad is going down.

An amendment may be about to fail. A member voted differently than was expected. There’s an unanticipated problem with a bill. They may lack the votes to pass legislation.

In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, protesters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington. (Associated Press)

In the House, I train my eyes on Keith Stern, Pelosi’s floor director.

I was downstairs in the Capitol Visitor’s Center in an auxiliary studio Fox News uses during the pandemic to cover the Electoral College certification. One of my earpieces was jacked into Fox’s New York City and Washington studios. The other earpiece was wired so I could listen to either the House or Senate floors. We set up two monitors so I could observe happenings in both the House and Senate chambers.

Not long after 2 p.m. ET Wednesday, I reported that there was a security threat inside the Capitol. I saw Stern running on my monitor as the House attempted to debate Arizona’s slate of electoral votes. Stern’s panic spelled a problem. A couple of moments later, the House abruptly recessed. But I could still hear the House floor audio in my earpiece.

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., presided over the session. Years ago, congressional security officials told me of a battle plan during a hypothetical terrorist threat during State of the Union. They would likely cut the TV feed so officials could instruct those in the chamber on what to do. Seconds later, McGovern warned lawmakers and aides to get down under their desks. The Massachusetts Democrat instructed them to grab escape hoods stowed under chairs in the chamber.

Gunfire in the Capitol

I couldn’t hear the pandemonium from the House chamber unfolding three floors above me. But it wasn’t long until I was told by multiple sources there was gunfire in the Capitol.

I used caution. Misinformation is a lava flow during a crisis. Hot. Fast. And dangerous. I finally confirmed that there was gunfire in the Capitol. But I wouldn’t see video of what transpired until a few hours later.

Misinformation is a lava flow during a crisis. Hot. Fast. And dangerous.

A clutch of demonstrators raised hell at the glass doors atop a staircase leading to the Speaker’s Lobby. The Speaker’s Lobby is a long, ornate hallway stretching immediately behind the House chamber. The thugs kicked at the doors to the Speaker’s Lobby, stabbing at it with the butt end of poles festooned with Trump flags. They shouted "Break it down!" and "F— the police!" The hooligans were getting close. If the mob broke into the Speaker’s Lobby, they were all but inside the House chamber.

A secondary door leading to the chamber is immediately inside the Lobby. Security officials shoved stacks of furniture against the doors to the Speaker’s Lobby to prevent the invaders from breaking inside. Then, a plainclothes U.S Capitol Police officer appeared inside the doorway to the Speaker’s Lobby, service weapon drawn. A woman later identified as Ashli Babbitt of California then allegedly tried to scale the doorway and vault over the transom of the Speaker’s Lobby.

Ashli Babbitt has been identified as the woman shot dead inside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. (FOX 5, Washington)

Holding his weapon steady, the officer fired a single shot.

It killed Babbitt.

In normal, pre-pandemic times, I spend hours in the Speaker’s Lobby. It’s where most reporters go to talk to lawmakers and aides when votes are called in the House. The Speaker’s Lobby hasn’t been open since March due to the pandemic. But the video from Wednesday shows the mutineers were close to busting down the doors before the officer discharged his weapon.

Hallowed venue altered

I will return to the Speaker’s Lobby through those very doors when coronavirus subsides. But this grotesque episode forever alters that hallowed venue in America’s seat of government.

American history plays out under the Capitol Dome.

An icon to that history is situated above the main entrance to Statuary Hall, the old House chamber. Perched immediately above the passageway to the Capitol Rotunda is a statue of Clio, the "Muse of History." Clio stands atop a chariot, a clock doubling as a wheel. Clio gazes down on the old House chamber, recording events which unfold in the Capitol below.

Many of the raiders who rushed the Capitol passed right under Clio as they traipsed between the Rotunda and the House chamber, skirmishing with the Capitol Police.

American history plays out under the Capitol Dome.

They damn near lost the building.

Clio witnessed it all.

The events of Jan. 6, 2021 are now etched into Clio’s tablet.

The darkest entry yet.

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