Rep. Bennie Thompson’s account of Capitol Hill storming and what’s next

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Among the many questions following last week’s mass break-in at the Capitol building are what went wrong with the Capitol Hill Police and whether the incident has national security implications. For what he’s planning to look at, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Mississippi Representative Bennie Thompson.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Representative Thompson, good to have you on.

Rep. Bennie Thompson: Thank you for having me.

Tom Temin: First of all, you were in the Capitol when these events unfolded. Tell us what your experience was like.

Rep. Bennie Thompson: Well, it was something I had never experienced before, obviously, simply because I was observing the counting of the electoral college ballot and the debate around it. And all of a sudden, as you know, they rushed the vice President off the speaker’s rostrum. And other people were being moved to areas, and a number of us had been seated in the gallery because of the social distancing requirements that the attending physician or the House has put in place. So all of a sudden, after that, a number of security personnel came in, a number of the doors were being shut all around the building and the main entrance to the lobby floor. They were moving in furniture as an additional blockage for the entryway. And in the midst of this, we’ve heard a shot. And as you know, subsequently, a person was shot by Capitol Police, who was trying to enter into the speaker’s lobby, and ultimately, into the area where members had been moved. So it was a harrowing experience, a lot of things that transpired. We were told to put gas mask on because tear gas had been deployed in the building. And mind you we are on the third floor of the Capitol, not the second floor, which is the entryway for members to come to the floor of the House. And obviously not the first floor of how you enter into the Capitol. Well, after about 30 minutes, we were able to be moved from the gallery. And it was only at that point that we realized that the breach had gone to the point that individuals had gotten to the third floor of the Capitol where the gallery was, but at that point, a number of the individuals who had done that had been stopped by security, they were spread eagle on the floor. And so that was the first real visual that the majority of us had as to what had occurred. And obviously, we had to be escorted down the stairs to the basement to a more secure area. For all of an hour all told, it was it was difficult. For me, my wife kept calling because she was seeing what was playing out in real time on TV. But most of us who had been observing the electoral college count really didn’t know on our own but the fact that we were so close,

Tom Temin: And how long were you under bunkered like that?

Rep. Bennie Thompson: Well, after that we spent about three hours in another location away from Capitol Hill. So this occurred from about 2 to after 6. And ultimately, we started getting word that things had more or less been mitigated to the point that additional resources had come in to help and they had cleared the building. But some cleanup had to occur before we could go back. So probably 8:30 to 9 o’clock, the speaker and majority leader in the Senate made a decision to continue, and obviously, we couldn’t let a bunch of Trumpsters come in and take over the halls of the United States Capitol and succeed. So if no more than to establish the rule of law, and that nobody can take this process over, we had to go back and, as you know, it was probably a few minutes after 3 am when we conclude it.

Tom Temin: And in that time that you are hunkered down those hours, did you at least get water in a few granola bars?

Rep. Bennie Thompson: Well, we did, but we were obviously put in a facility that we were not able to socially distance. I was concerned because some of the people in there, Chip Roy from Texas, didn’t wear a mask. And so water was brought in at some point, and minimal snacks or whatever. But most of us kust kind of stayed to ourselves. And some of us actually went to another location that was less crowded than the initial location because we were concerned that it was just too many people in this room. There were probably 200 people in a room that it had been properly distance that probably could have held 75 people. But it was the crisis of the moment, we understand that. And so it was something that, and I’ve been in Congress, this is my 14th term, that I’ve never visualized that would occur. And what had been up until that point, one of the more secure buildings in America.

Tom Temin: And when you got back to the floor of the House where the counting was going on rather, what did you find in terms of damage or wreckage or dishevelment?

Rep. Bennie Thompson: Well, we came in, here were bottles, paper, it was a mess. But when we got to the floor of the House where the counting of the electoral college, it had been cleaned a lot of it, but the physical appearance of the hallways, the rotunda and other places, and there was a significant amount of security present at that point, it was still a mess. You would think such a hallowed building, regardless to who was in disagreement, that they would not trash it. So I can’t understand why for the life of me, those individuals, just for some reason, thought they had to break into the Capitol and destroy it. I guess the oversight that we’ll do to some of this will get us to that point. But it was just absolutely horrendous what we found. And information is coming out now, and so the after action review is starting to take place, and as it proceeds, a number of things will come out.

Tom Temin: Sure. And one final question before we get to that future. When you were evacuated did someone pick up the ballots and take them that were being counted by the electoral college?

Rep. Bennie Thompson: Well, as far as I know, it was a hell of a scene at that point. I’m sure it was taken. But from my vantage point, I don’t know. It was all hands on deck to just secure the perimeter. And that probably occurred but you’re the first person that ever asked me that question. But I do know, we got back to business. And ultimately, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris received 306 electoral votes. And now for all intensive purposes, that part of the process of determining the leadership for the next four years is concluded. And so we go forward to Inauguration on January 20.

Tom Temin: And looking ahead for Congress, tell us what you expect to happen next, especially from the standpoint of Homeland Security?

Rep. Bennie Thompson: Well, first of all, let me be clear, what occurred on Wednesday was an act of domestic terrorism. It bordered on anarchy, it bordered on sedition by those individuals who promoted it. So we have individuals, regardless of what they’re trying to say, who broke the law. From an oversight perspective, there are a number of committees that will be looking at it. We have government reform and oversight. We have house administration, my committee, Homeland Security, there’s a board that oversees the Capitol Police. So that’s on the House side. We add the companion process on the Senate side. As well as those agencies, FBI, DHS, Secret Service, we will start the process of looking into what happened, and ultimately what went wrong, because under no circumstances should this breach have occurred. So we want to see why it occurred. And ultimately, the buck stops with the head of the Capitol Police, as well as the Sergeant at Arms of both House and Senate. And as you know, all those individuals either have been terminated or resigned. But that’s just the beginning. More information comes out almost every hour. We now find out that help was offered, but it was turned down and we want to know why. Because I saw the Sergeant at Arms several times and it was clear that this situation was not under control. But yet still, he was trying to manage it with existing forces, but I wouldn’t get in the middle of that, that’s his job. So now it’s Congress’s job to look at it, fix it, and to the extent practicable, make sure that if it happens again, we will have a better response plan so that we can repel any and all people who want to invade the Capitol and for whatever reason take it over.

Tom Temin: Because in Washington over the decades, as someone who’s been involved with the city my whole life. You’ve seen perimeters around the White House, around the White House complex, the Treasury, that whole part of town. The perimeter gets further further and further out. And to some degree that’s happened with the Capitol. Although until last week, you could at least sit on the bottom steps, even though no one could just walk in, because it’s not the first incident of the Capitol as we know. Do you envision some sort of White House type perimeter around the whole lot of land that is the Capitol and then it becomes something people can only see from afar?

Rep. Bennie Thompson: Well, I would hope not. And let me tell you, there has been a mystique about our democracy in the sense that we cherish who we are and what we are. It’s only when a leader like Donald Trump emerges who tarnishes that belief. And so we’ll have to look at it strictly from a security, but we also have to look at it from a historical purpose. After 9/11, we changed a lot of protocols. You can remember the time we used to get a ticket, run right down to the airplane, and get right on it. Well, 9/11, change that. So now, you need to get there, at least an hour ahead of time, you know that in order to ride the plane, we have to check your background, you have to go through TSA, you have to be screened with your luggage. And so we’ve implemented all of that after 9/11. So I think what you will see from this incident is a review of what we can do. That is one of the options. Somebody told me yesterday, I think they had the wrong perimeter barriers up. They’re the kind that you just hook together and you assume that law abiding reasonable people will understand that you’re not supposed to go through those barriers because they are put up. Well, we now know that these were not law abiding individuals because they disregarded the barriers. But we also didn’t anticipate a President who would urge them on to do it. But there was intelligence out there ever since the November election that the potential for what occurred on Wednesday existed. So I want to see as chair of the Homeland Security, what was the modeling that went into this incident from a security standpoint, and that’s what I haven’t had access to at this point. As you know, we’re still…

Tom Temin: …sort of picking up the pieces.

Rep. Bennie Thompson: Absolutely.

Tom Temin: And you mentioned that the people that came in should be considered domestic terrorists. But just to play devil’s advocate for a second, I think of domestic terrorist as someone like Timothy McVeigh, and these people could have burned or shot, but they didn’t come in with pipe bombs or torches. I mean, there was definitely damage. At what point does it simply become law enforcement, and they get whatever sentence they deserve in a court and that’s the end of it?

Rep. Bennie Thompson: Well, that’s why we have a judicial system. We’ll review to people who came in, we will look at the charges, and they will be charged accordingly. But the first thing is, as you know, as someone who’s going to the Capitol, the first thing you do when you go in the door is we make sure that you are not armed with firearms, explosives, or what have you. We don’t know what the people came in with cause they broke the law by breaching the security protocols established. And so we’ll look at it. And you can be a stupid terrorist to by saying, oh I didn’t know, that was what that was, but that’s after the fact. I can go walk up to a bank teller, and say, give me all the money you have. If they give it to me, and I walk out, I’ve just robbed the bank. I say, well I was just playing, and they gave me the money. And I’m just trying to give you an example of a crime. These individuals committed a crime. We now stopped some people who we identified from flying back out of Reagan and Dulles Airport. So once we started the process, there are some things you do if we know you violate the law, we can get you on the no fly list right off the bat. So we got a number of people on a no fly list that had to get home other than being able to fly an airplane out of the District of Columbia.

Tom Temin: But let me ask you this. Suppose those people are found to have committed say misdemeanor trespass? Just guessing. Should they then still be on the no fly list?

Rep. Bennie Thompson: It’s a violation of the law and they will have their day in court. At this point, they are charged with felonies, and that’s why having that day in court, if they say well I didn’t kick the door down, I just went in, you still broke the law. If, again, if you robbed the bank, and I’m in the car, I get charged with an accessory to that felony, which still gets you jail time and a felony. So we’ll work through that process. As you know, there were a number of public statements as to, even from the President, saying come to Washington on January 6, it’s going to be a wild time. Now you’d never expect to hear that kind of language from the President of the United States. But we did. And ultimately, he has to bear as much responsibility for what occurred as possible. And I’m one of those persons who believes that the President of the United States is not above the law. So I have signed on to the bill for his impeachment. I have signed resolutions encouraging the Article 25 process for him. You can’t just decide that I’m gonna wake up and get some people worked up, they go do all this harm, and there’s no repercussion. And just because you lost access to Twitter, you can’t post on Facebook, that pales in comparison, in my mind, to the crime committed.

Tom Temin: Well, sounds like there’s a lot of pieces to pick up here for Congress, for the courts and for I guess, maybe the American people. Mississippi Democrat, Bennie Thompson is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. We’re glad you made it through okay, and thanks for joining me.

Rep. Bennie Thompson: Well, I thank you for having me. And let me assure to your listening public that we will review everything that went on to the extent that we identify as many people. I got emails this morning with pictures of people saying he is what his person lives, and we just forward it on to the FBI. So the public is helping us, and with that kind of help, in time, we will fix the problem to the point that we hope by fixing it, it will never happen again.

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