Chaos in the Capitol

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Chaos in the Capitol

A day of insurrection in Washington, D.C., echoed through Tennessee politics, as Joe Biden was named the next president of the United States.

by scott barker and jesse fox mayshark • Janury 7, 2021


tennessee officials took to social media to both condemn violence and celebrate protesters on Wednesday.

In 1999, U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett was in the Tennessee state Senate when then-Gov. Don Sundquist called a special session to push for a state income tax. The proposal, which failed, drew widespread opposition, some of which manifested as protesters roving through the hallways of the state Capitol Building.

Even after an invasion by pro-Trump rioters, most Tennessee Republicans in Congress stood by their objections to the election results.

“I remember them banging, ‘Let us in, Let us in,’” Burchett said yesterday in a phone interview from his office in the Longworth office building in Washington, D.C.

He was reminded of that Nashville experience Wednesday afternoon when he was obliged to flee the floor of the House of Representatives along with the rest of his colleagues as rioters supporting President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn November’s presidential election stormed into the nation's legislative seat of government.

With his eyes still stinging a little from tear gas in the Capitol rotunda, Burchett strongly condemned the crowd of Trump supporters who marched on the building after being urged to contest the election results by Trump himself.

“They’re just criminals,” Burchett said. “People out there that were protesting, waving their flags, yelling in bullhorns — completely legit. Once they get across that fence, they’re just criminals.”

The invasion of the Capitol came as Congress was meeting in joint session to certify the results of the Nov. 3 presidential election, typically a routine exercise. But between the chaos of the afternoon and a series of objections by Republicans in the evening, the process did not wrap up until after 3:30 a.m.

Even as Washington, D.C., police and National Guard members were clearing the grounds of the Capitol Wednesday afternoon, Burchett stood by objections he had registered to counting electoral votes in a handful of states that swung from Trump to President-elect Joe Biden in the Nov. 3 election. 

Burchett said those states had improperly made changes to their voting processes in the lead-up to the election — an argument that has been repeatedly thrown out of multiple state and federal courts.

“It needs to stop,” Burchett said of the voting changes. “It’s disenfranchising people, and we need to address their concerns in a public forum.”

Burchett’s position was broadly shared across Tennessee’s congressional Republicans on Wednesday, as they condemned the rioters but showed continued deference to Trump’s complaints of vote fraud — or at least, to their constituents’ belief in Trump’s claims.

Mixed Messages

Sen. Bill Hagerty, in just his fourth day on the job after being sworn in on Sunday, approvingly retweeted a photo of the large crowd of pro-Trump protesters at the rally where the president addressed them.

Among this crowd are Tennesseans who traveled across the country to support President @realDonaldTrump,” Hagerty wrote.

Trump, of course, ended that rally by urging his supporters to march on the Capitol, where some of them stormed the doors and briefly occupied the Senate chamber and some House offices.

As all of that unfolded, Hagerty tweeted, “I have always believed in peaceful protesting. What is happening at the U.S. Capitol right now is not peaceful, this is violence. I condemn it in the strongest terms. We are a nation of laws and this must stop.”

His Senate colleague Marsha Blackburn likewise characterized the incursion as “despicable and unacceptable.” 

Blackburn and Hagerty were two of a dozen senators who filed objections to the electoral votes submitted by Arizona, which came early in Wednesday’s alphabetical process. The debate over that state was still ongoing when the Trump-flag-waving crowds overran the building. Blackburn and Hagerty both won office on fervent pro-Trump platforms and have tied themselves to him politically.

But when Congress finally returned to session at 8 p.m. after the Capitol had been cleared by police, neither Tennessee senator ended up voting to disallow the state’s votes. They also did not join a later effort to protest Pennsylvania’s votes.

Republicans in the House of Representatives did not show the same squeamishness about continuing to support Trump’s cause. In the House vote to disqualify Arizona’s votes — which failed in both the House and Senate — six out of seven Tennessee Republicans voted in favor: Burchett, Scott Desjarlais, Chuck Fleischmann, Mark Green, Diana Harshberger and John Rose. 

Republican David Kustoff of Germantown joined Democrats Jim Cooper and Steve Cohen in opposing the Arizona objection. Cooper blistered Trump online, tweeting, “I supported impeachment before and agree we need it now more than ever.”

The New York Times reported that as protesters were outside the House chamber, Cohen yelled out to Republicans: “Call Trump, tell him to call off his revolutionary guards.”

A later objection to Pennsylvania’s electoral votes also failed around 3 a.m., after extensive debate. Blackburn and Hagerty did not support it, but all of Tennessee’s House Republicans did.

Tennessee Voices

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon and Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs — a Democrat and Republican, respectively — both spoke out against Wednesday’s violence.

What unfolded in Washington D.C. today was not a protest,” Kincannon tweeted. “This was a violent, outrageous attack on our democracy.  I condemn it unequivocally.”

Jacobs wrote, “What is happening at the capital today is absolutely despicable and shameful.”

State GOP leaders condemned the rioters who vandalized the nation’s Capitol building.

“The violence happening in our nation’s capitol is inexcusable and an affront to our founding principles and freedoms,” Gov. Bill Lee tweeted.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, whose district includes a portion of Knox County, wrote in a Tweet that the certification of a new president is a “sacred process” for the republic. “The orderly and peaceful transfer of power is a hallmark of our nation’s democracy,” he wrote. “Any attempt to stop or subvert that process by force is unacceptable.” 

Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden said in a statement that Wednesday was an emotional day for Trump supporters. “We have the right to be heard, but not to the point of violence and destruction,” he said. 

“The Republican Party is the party that supports law enforcement, rights, and the rule of law, and not defunding the police,” Golden continued. “Today’s perpetrators will be brought to justice and the truth will come to light. For now, let’s act responsibly, pray for our country and our leaders, and get ready to Make America Great Again.”

Knox County Democratic Party Chair Matt Shears, however, placed the blame for inciting the rioters squarely on the GOP and denounced numerous Republicans for their actions leading up to yesterday’s events.

“Our local and state Republican Elected Officials are complicit in today’s seditious actions & insurrection in Washington DC,” he wrote in a statement. “For weeks, Marsha Blackburn, Bill Hagerty, Tim Burchett, and TN State Legislators have been sowing disinformation, peddling lies about our election system, and fomenting the ingredients for domestic terrorism.” 

Shears singled out state Reps. Jason Zachary, Michele Carringer, Dave Wright, and state Sen. Becky Massey for signing a letter seeking to throw out votes in other states. He blasted Attorney General Herbert Slatery III for supporting a Texas lawsuit seeking to nullify the vote in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. 

“The Republican Party does not believe in democracy and they do not respect the Constitution,” Shears wrote.

Former Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican often critical of Trump, tweeted his own warning to his party: “The American people are witnessing the true character of Donald Trump today and the culmination of his actions. I hope those aiding and abetting him in Congress will rethink their approach, with the understanding that if they do not, they will own this with him.”

On the Floor

When the mob came to the doors of the House chamber, Burchett said there were cracking noises that sounded like gunfire, and a House security officer yelled “Shots fired!” as House members huddled on the floor at their desks.

Burchett said he thinks the sound was actually someone breaking windows in the doors with a metal pipe. (A woman was shot during the melee elsewhere in the building, reportedly by police. She died Wednesday night.) As House members were urged out of the chamber, Burchett said he helped others exit. He said he thinks he was the last representative to leave the floor.

Asked if those who invaded the building — whom he characterized as “thugs” — should be arrested, Burchett said, “Absolutely. Arrest them and charge them with whatever they can do. They’re just criminals. They’re not freedom fighters.”

It was on that same floor more than 12 hours later that Vice President Mike Pence announced — at 3:41 a.m. — the final outcome of the electoral tally: 306 for Biden and Harris, 229 for Trump and Pence.

CORRECTION: Rep. Cooper's first name has been corrected to Jim, not John. John is his brother, the mayor of Nashville. We do know the difference between them, it was just a late night.