Politics

“We Were Invited by the President of the United States”

I was inside the Capitol riot. But this week’s haunting new footage has revealed to me what really happened that day.

A GIF of rioters breaking into the Capitol.
Photo illustration by Slate. Video by Thomson Reuters.

On Jan. 6, I arrived at the Capitol building a little after 3 p.m. I was at the Ellipse park earlier talking to attendees at Donald Trump’s final rally as president, and I had walked with the former president’s followers after he instructed them to march up Pennsylvania Avenue to “stop the steal.” My cellphone wasn’t working. I had little information to go off of beyond what was happening right in front of me. I wasn’t aware that the Capitol had been breached until after I heard Trump supporters near me celebrating it. I wrote about what I saw inside—aggressors and some violence against journalists, yes, but also people smoking weed with their friends. Happy. Taking selfies. In denial about what they’d done.

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It was only after I left the Capitol, a couple hours later, that I got my cell service back—and learned someone had been shot and killed steps from where I’d just walked inside the Capitol.

Since that day just more than a month ago, I’ve regularly revisited the photos and videos I took. Every time, I see something new. On the first day of the impeachment trial, I looked through them once more, simultaneously listening to the narration from California Rep. Eric Swalwell. As he recounted how the day unfolded, play by play, I noticed something I hadn’t before. In the corner of one of my photographs, just after I followed insurrectionists inside into the rotunda, a man in a red MAGA hat was presenting his prize: a shard from a nameplate for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. I must have missed it before, and I certainly didn’t notice it as it happened right in front of me that day. I crossed paths with a man who had possibly just looted Pelosi’s office, presumably near where many of her staffers had barricaded themselves inside for five hours. I had no idea.

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The author's photo, which appears to include a looted nameplate for Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The author’s photo, which appears to include a looted nameplate for Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Aymann Ismail.

Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin had kicked off the impeachment trial with a video including clips shot mostly by the rioters themselves. It’s cut to show the chronological progression from Trump’s final speech as president to the riot that followed. “We will stop the steal,” Trump is shown telling the enormous rally. “We won this election, and we won it in a landslide. This was not a close election,” he assured them. “After this, we’re going to walk down—and I’ll be there with you—we’re going to walk down to the Capitol.”

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The video cuts to another shot simultaneously by someone inside the crowd. Rallygoers are heard responding to Trump by chanting “Take the Capitol!” “We are going to the Capitol, where our problems are,” another says. “It’s that way.”

These videos have proved the disturbing sensation of the trial, the main thing that has broken through to the public. For me, they’re a culmination of a month of learning more and more about the mortal danger that was actually all around me that day. This was true with the Wall Street Journal and New York Times’ video investigations, and the bombshell clip the New Yorker published in which a rioter rifled through congressional documents while arguing, “Cruz would want us to do this.”  But the new footage shown at the trial, in its totality, left me stunned.

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“We need fresh patriots at the front,” one rioter says in the footage, calling for reinforcements to fight the Capitol Police. There was more: The bodycam footage from the police officer who was knocked down and stomped by the mob. The rioters ravaging through Pelosi’s office while yelling, “WHERE ARE YOU NANCY?” just seven minutes after the speaker’s staff barricaded themselves inside.

We’re only now learning how close many in Congress came to facing the mob. Along with other clips presented to the Senate, we saw a security clip showing Sen. Mitt Romney coming within eyeshot of rioters. Just months ago, after voting to convict Trump during the first impeachment, the senator from Utah was accosted at an airport by Trump supporters, who chanted “traitor.” The question of what would have happened if Eugene Goodman, the officer who famously led the mob away from the Senate chamber, hadn’t led Romney away as well has haunted the week. We also saw footage that showed former Vice President Mike Pence evacuating with his wife and children, as they too came within feet of the mob. The timestamps on all of this footage showed me some of this was happening while I was there, and how close I came to being in real danger myself. And the impeachment managers’ presentation showed us all how this event only narrowly escaped turning into a bloodbath. It’s now told the real story of what happened that day, without much room for dispute.

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Still, many Republican representatives ignored the presentation, reportedly looking away from the videos, even doodling. Fox News eventually cut away early and resumed its opinion-driven programming. Tucker Carlson told his audience of the presentation, “They’re flat-out lying. There’s no question about it.” To many Republicans, it’s not real. And it likely won’t be enough to convict Trump.

But Raskin shared what Trump tweeted in the early evening of Jan. 6: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever.” Here, Trump unambiguously sends two messages: one to the mob that just hours before injured more than a hundred police officers, one of whom would die later that night. And another message to his opponents, warning them: This is what happens when they don’t do what he demands.

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If one of the real objectives of this trial was to sell the American people on what really happened that day—not necessarily to convince Republican senators who are still heeding Trump’s warning—the searing new footage may prove to be successful. Watching it, and its shrewd framing by Raskin, the connection between the murderous riot and Trump’s “big lie” is undeniable. The footage we have now shows how the rioters were motivated, and what many of them intended to do. “We were invited by the president of the United States!” rioters are heard shouting in one video that I find myself returning to. The trial may end in apparent failure, but its impact will linger. And if anyone still has doubts after the Democrats’ presentations this week, I invite them to scour my own photos and videos with me. The truth is there, in plain sight.

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