WASHINGTON – One thought kept going through James Comer’s mind as he and other members of Congress were circling the maze of secret hallways underneath the U.S. Capitol Building last Wednesday to get away from the angry mob that had breached the entrances: “I cannot believe this is happening.”
Comer is a Tompkinsville Republican who assumed his office as Kentucky’s 1st District U.S. representative in November 2016 after winning a special election to replace outgoing Congressman Ed Whitfield, who did not run for re-election and left office early. In the last four years in Washington D.C., he never thought he would have to run and hide to stay safe inside what would typically be considered one of the more secure workplaces in the country. Recalling the experience the day afterward, he described the day as “surreal.”
Earlier in the day, President Donald Trump and several of his allies spoke at a rally at the Ellipse Grounds near the White House. Some of the rally’s attendees later made their way to the Capitol, where a large number of them forced their way past the barricades and the Capitol Police to enter the building. Comer said he was on the House floor at the time of the attack and had no idea that a crowd had stormed the Capitol as the House and Senate were in the process of debating and preparing to vote on the certification of the 2020 presidential election results. All of the sudden, chaos erupted in the chambers, Comer said.
“I was sitting on the House floor, and there were about 100 members on the House floor because of COVID; you have to social distance, so you can’t get the 435 members in,” Comer said. “I was one of the 100 on the floor, and I think I was the only one from Kentucky on the floor when all of this happened. We knew that the protesters were getting close to the Capitol, but I didn’t know they had breached the Capitol.
“We were sitting there and (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) was presiding and Rep. Paul Gosar from Arizona was speaking. I just happened to look up, and the Secret Service came and grabbed Pelosi off the podium and took her out. Of course, that was very unusual, and then the Capitol Police came in. I think the only other person in leadership that was in there was (Republican Minority Whip) Steve Scalise (of Louisiana). He was sitting in front of me because the Republicans all sit on the same side. They grabbed him and said, ‘Sir, we have to leave now.’ So I knew something bad was going on.
“About a minute later, (Secret Service agents) said, ‘Everybody sit down, be calm, don’t move.’ So we were sitting there for a couple of minutes and then all the Capitol Police stormed in from outside and blocked the doors. They started grabbing desks and anything to block the doors, and about that time, people started beating on all the doors to come in. So it was apparent that people were trying to get onto the House floor.”
The attack has so far resulted in five deaths. According to multiple reports, some of those have been from unspecified “medical emergencies,” but the first person to die was Ashli Babbit, whom NPR reported was a 35-year-old Air Force veteran from the San Diego area and was one of the people who had stormed the building. A video taken by another in the crowd soon circulated online showing Babbit being fatally shot through a doorway by a Capitol Police officer.
Comer said that after seeing news reports, he later realized he had heard that gunshot go off.
“I heard what I thought was a gunshot, but I didn’t know until later that it was a gunshot,” Comer said. “That would have been right behind where the podium is. There’s what is called the ‘Speaker’s Gallery’ behind the podium and that woman had stuck her head through the glass and was trying to get in when they shot her. I thought it was a gunshot, but there was so much noise and beating that I didn’t know for sure.”
Comer said that at that point, Capitol security had started to evacuate the room. He said the entire group of representatives who had been on the House floor followed officers down a narrow passageway that he previously had never known existed, and they encountered three people who had broken in. The officers then shouted for everyone to turn around and head back.
“This is somewhere in the basement of the Capitol,” he said. “So everyone had to turn around, and you’ve got 100 members of Congress and many of them are old and there were a couple in wheelchairs, and it was not a handicap-accessible route. The three that we saw weren’t violent and they looked like they were kind of scared, like they were running around (and got lost). They didn’t have guns or anything, but they were clearly somewhere the security never dreamed they would be.”
At that point, the House members made their way from the underground tunnels in the basement to the garage of the Rayburn House Office Building, Comer said. After some of the House members filed in, they spotted another person who had broken in. Again seemingly surprised that someone had made it to that area, the security officers evacuated the garage and directed them to the Rayburn cafeteria. Once they made it there, Comer said many of them immediately noticed there were glass windows everywhere and were concerned about the safety of the room. Officers assured them there was no one in the courtyard beyond the windows, but they soon saw someone run through the courtyard.
At that point, Comer said, the House members left the cafeteria and headed toward the Longworth House Office Building. Comer said that when they got there, House members passed through the hallway past the main front doors, where about 20 Capitol Police officers were lined up with military-style rifles pointed at the doors as the mob was trying to enter.
“We were going behind (the officers) and there were hundreds of people standing outside beating on the doors,” Comer said. “They had flagpoles that had burst through the doors like they were trying to go in there.”
The House members then reached the Ways and Means Committee Room, which is the largest committee room in the building. He said security had the room sealed all the way around and they were able to stay in there for close to four hours until the perimeter could be cleared and the representatives could safely leave.
“Remember, there were around 100 of us (who were on the House floor when the room was evacuated), so the other 335 were in their offices,” Comer said. “So the ones you saw doing TV interviews telling about it weren’t even on the House floor. They were in their offices the whole time. The ones who were there weren’t allowed to do interviews because we couldn’t say where we were.”
Although no one had much of a chance to think while they were fleeing for their safety, Comer said he did have at least one cogent thought that was going through his mind the whole time.
“I thought, ‘I cannot believe this is happening. This is not America,’” Comer said. “There were a lot of people from my congressional district that were at the rally, and I hope and pray none of them were the ones that breached the Capitol. I saw people on Facebook saying things like, ‘Oh there were only (a few people) in there and they were Antifa.’ I don’t know who the people were, but the FBI will find out who they were, and I will tell you, there were hundreds of people either in the Capitol or trying to get into the Capitol. And there were windows broken everywhere.
“There is all this beautiful, priceless artwork in the Capitol that millions of visitors from all over the world come to see every year, and they didn’t damage that. It wasn’t like what happened in Portland (Oregon over the summer) where they sprayed graffiti and stuff, but they broke windows getting in and out.”
If the rioters thought they could intimidate members of Congress into overturning the November election results, they don’t understand the role of Congress laid out in the U.S. Constitution, Comer said. The only one of Kentucky’s federal delegation to vote to object to the Electoral College results was 5th District Congressman Hal Rogers of Somerset. Comer said he had concerns about some states that changed election rules without the explicit approval of their state legislatures, but he said Congress simply does not have the power to overturn an election.
“The Constitution is clear,” he said. “The 12th Amendment says Congress’s role is to certify the ballot. All 50 states certified their election results. Not a single one of those states’ legislatures objected to the certification. The check and balance with Congress is if there is a scenario where somebody does not get to 270 electoral votes – like if there is a three or four-way race or if a state or a couple of states don’t certify their election for whatever reason.
“None of that happened, and as Republicans, we believe in states’ rights and you don’t want to set a precedent where now the Democrats control the House and the Senate and if they remain there and a Republican candidate gets more votes in the next election, they’re going to say, ‘Well, you tried to throw these states out. We’re going to throw them out and declare the Democrat the winner.’ That’s not how it works.
“Now, having said that, I do believe that in Georgia and Pennsylvania, they changed the rules in the middle of the game with absentee voting, and that creates a scenario where you could have fraud, and those changes weren’t approved by the legislatures. In Kentucky, we changed the rules, but the state legislature gave the governor and the secretary of state the authority to change those rules.”
Comer said the potential for fraud with mail-in ballots is his primary concern, and he supports the formation of a committee to examine the election and determine whether or not there were any irregularities that occurred and can be fixed before the next presidential election. He reiterated that it is the role of the states, not Congress, to certify election results, and he also noted that there were around 60 court challenges filed by the president’s attorneys that were rejected.
Many Democrats and political commentators have accused the president of inciting violence with his speech at the rally last Wednesday, as well as with his posts on social media, and Twitter and Facebook announced at the end of last week that they were suspending Trump’s accounts until at least the end of his term. Comer stopped short of blaming Trump or any other specific individual or entity for the attack on the Capitol, but said he was eager to learn more information after the incident is fully investigated.
“I think there’s plenty of blame to go around,” Comer said. “I don’t want to say exactly whose fault it was until I know exactly who it was that breached the Capitol and what their motives were. But I think there’s plenty of blame to go around and I think that once we know more ... I think that then we can better determine who’s to blame for this. Hopefully, we can come together in America and ensure that this never happens again. We stand for democracy, and that Capitol Building is a symbol of democracy all over the world, and what happened (Wednesday) was a sad day in the history of America.”