01.06.22

Remarks On The Anniversary Of The Jan. 6 Attack On The Capitol

. . . . Senate Floor

These are among the most somber and sorrowful remarks that I have had to make as President Pro Tempore and in my several decades of service in this body. 

What an unthinkable event it is that we are marking today.  An attempted coup incited not against a president, but by a president, who promoted and still promotes a litany of lies, to overturn the results of an election in order for him to hold on to power that he no longer possesses.  We are in the business of words, but there are none to adequately capture the damage that he and his henchmen have done and are doing to our country.

I am certain that no one serving here ever thought that such an attack on our democracy, by a violent insurrectionist mob that stormed the Capitol, the very citadel of our democracy, could ever happen in our beloved country, the world’s most enduring democracy.

This very chamber where we are gathered was breached and desecrated, as was the rest of the Capitol.

This morning in my capacity as President Pro Tem, I called the Senate into session.  As I looked around the Chamber, so many memories came to my mind.  I first saw this Senate Chamber as a teenager visiting from our home in Montpelier, Vermont, with my parents coming to this Capitol, and then later as a Georgetown Law student I would sit in the visitors’ gallery and just watch.

I saw the Members of the Senate in both parties speaking to the conscience of our nation and trying to protect our Constitution.

In 1975 I came onto the Floor of the Senate as the junior most member.  I was in awe of the Senate then, and never expected to become the Dean of the Senate.  A year ago I sat on the Floor of the Senate as Vice President Pence was announcing the certification of ballots, and I saw him doing this in a straightforward and honest way, even though he knew that at the end of the count he would soon no longer be vice president, nor would Donald Trump still be president.

We were all in the Senate paying attention when suddenly officers came rushing onto the Floor and took the vice president off the dais and out the door.  Chuck Grassley, the then President Pro Tem, went to the dais and prepared to recess the Senate.

Most of us were wondering what was happening, until I looked a few feet away from me and saw a man wearing a vest that said police and carrying a submachine gun.  I had never seen anything like this in the U.S. Senate.

The police rushed us through a back door to the basement of the Capitol and shuttled us off to a secure location.  I was still trying to sort through my mind what was happening.  Officers were going through the halls, and one officer came along and said, "We're going to watch out for you, Shamrock."  So many memories flooded back because Shamrock was the police codename for me when I was a recipient of a deadly anthrax letter addressed to me that killed and maimed others.

Ahead of me I could see the brave Parliamentarians and others who had grabbed the cases with the certification of ballots, and they also grabbed the ivory gavel, which I used today to call the Senate into session. 

When we were in the secure room, we were starting to see the television and seeing a mob – Americans who turned into a mob and turned their back on our Constitutional history.  They were rejecting everything that made America great, ignoring our laws, our customs and most of all ignoring our history.  The destruction in the rampage was something you would see in a movie – I never expected to see it in the Capitol, a building that has always been a symbol of our democracy.

A suggestion was made that we use our authority under the law to vote and make the secure room the Senate Chamber.  I said that we should not be hiding here.  Instead when it is safe to go back to the Senate, we should go back there, all of us, and have the American people see us there.

It may take an hour, it may take ten hours, but we should be there carrying out the Constitution, and saying no criminals can destroy our history, our Constitution, our America.  I was relieved when virtually all of the Republicans and Democrats who were in that room stood and said loudly that they agreed with me, and that we would wait until we went back.

I was standing next to the Parliamentarian and the leather boxes carrying the certification of election.  We both looked at them, and I'm sure we were both thinking the same thing -- we will protect our Constitution, we will protect the Senate, we will protect America.

To the credit of the Members of the Senate and the House, we reconvened after the siege and fulfilled our Constitutional duty to certify the confirmed results of the election, results that every state and federal court has upheld in the face of blatantly frivolous challenges.

My thoughts today are not only about how fragile our democracy is, but about the heroes of that day: the Capitol Police officers – some of whom lost their lives or suffered grievous and enduring injuries -- and those who joined in the Capitol’s defense, especially from the Metropolitan Police Department.

That day one year ago today was such a sad and wrenching day.  So disturbing was it to see such hatred and anger, to see the Confederate battle flag paraded in the Capitol -- where it never was brought even during the Civil War -- and to see Nazi emblems and other symbols of hate and violence carried by those in the mob.  And it was so horrifying to see our brave police officers -- many of them war veterans who defended America in Iraq and Afghanistan -- not just disregarded and disrespected, but brutally attacked, even by the wielding of poles bearing the American flag, used as bludgeons and spears. 

In the aftermath, National Guard contingents from several of our states were called in to protect the Capitol.  I visited with members of the Vermont National Guard.  I know that many other Senators did the same with their states’ Guard troops.

In the moment, that night, and the next day, Senators on both sides of the aisle called this out for the travesty that it was.  But amnesia has set in since then in some quarters.  There has been a concerted effort to downplay or grossly mischaracterize the terrible events of that day by some Members in both Chambers of Congress.  It was not, as has been said, ‘just another day in January.’  What an insult to those who lost their lives, and to those who suffered injuries from which they still struggle to recover.

The question begs and answers itself:  What are we in the Senate here for, if not to defend our Republic and our Constitution?

There is a clear need for justice, and the courts are doing their essential work.  There is a clear need to know the truth, and even some of the former president’s closest supporters are heeding their duty to respond to the bipartisan Congressional investigation into what happened that day.  There will be a clear need to learn the lessons, to safeguard and strengthen our democracy, to protect those who serve and protect the Capitol and those of us who work here. 

The courts are dealing with these crimes, but it is detestable how so many were so callously used as cannon fodder.  Their actions were wrong, but many believed they were acting as patriots.  The former president told them so, and egged them on, and they believed him.  Meanwhile he and so many of his cronies, unlike many of his followers who stormed the Capitol, have paid no price for their roles.  They must be held accountable for planning and promoting this travesty, and, in his case, doing nothing to stop the assault, even when appealed to, repeatedly, by his closest advisors.

As The New York Times has observed, our nation faces an existential threat from a movement that is openly contemptuous of democracy and has shown a willingness to use violence to achieve its ends.  No self-governing society can survive such a threat by denying that it exists.  To deny is to be complicit.

But more than anything else, today is a day to remember, to feel sorrow that our nation ever suffered such violence and division, to mourn those who died and were injured, to mark the day as History will:  The first time in 244 years that our exceptional country was almost prevented from carrying out a peaceful transfer of power, a sacred principle and tradition of which we have taken pride, and taken for granted, throughout our entire lives, and that we have held up as an example to people everywhere.

Our job in Congress is different than the prosecutors’ roles.  Democracy needs a foundation, and that foundation is nothing less than the truth.  It has been said that trust in the rule of law is built in drops and lost in buckets.  Our job is fundamental, to defend and advance the truth, and to protect the rule of law itself.

 

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