Three weeks after the 46th U.S. president took office, the 45th president is on trial by the U.S. Senate. President Biden took the oath of office in a ghost town. He delivered his inaugural address to a crowd of hundreds, not hundreds of thousands, after a campaign that divided Americans more than any election since 1860.
Even before the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by Donald Trump supporters -- before the Nov. 3 election itself -- a shocking percentage of Americans (23%) asserted that political violence might be justified if the outcome didn’t go their way. As a candidate, Biden expressed apprehension about where such thinking might lead, and in his inaugural address he defined in a single word the trait Americans must summon to meet the challenges of the moment: “unity.”
A noble sentiment, one perhaps undermined by the insistence of congressional leaders in Biden’s own party to impeach an outgoing president. But to understand how we might escape this cycle of provocation and retaliation, it is crucial to know how we arrived at this impasse. This is the first article in a series intended to do just that.
In support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to impeach President Trump as he was heading out the door, it was widely asserted that the only previous time the U.S. Capitol came under attack was when the British torched it in 1814. This is historically inaccurate. The Jan. 6 assault was at least the fifth instance in Pelosi’s lifetime that Congress was targeted. This doesn’t include the attempted mass shooting of Republican members of Congress on a Virginia baseball diamond by a left-wing activist. And it doesn’t count the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Bombs were detonated there in 1971 and 1983 (and in 1915, before Pelosi was born) but produced no casualties. A more serious attack came on March 1, 1954, when four Puerto Rican nationalists suddenly unfurled a Puerto Rican flag in the House gallery shouting, “Viva Puerto Rico libre!” as they opened fire on the members below with pistols smuggled into the chamber. Nancy Pelosi was a freshman at an all-girls Catholic high school at the time. Her father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., was mayor of Baltimore, but he had previously served four terms in Congress -- and had many friends in the House. The closest was probably Rep. George H. Fallon, a fellow Catholic Democrat from Baltimore with whom D’Alesandro had ridden the train between Baltimore and Washington.
Fallon was one of the five members wounded in the House that day. In 1998, a paranoid schizophrenic who had threatened to kill Bill Clinton armed himself and drove to the Capitol where he fatally shot uniformed officer Jacob Chestnut, then chased a female tourist into a back entrance to House Majority Whip Tom Delay’s office. U.S. Capitol Police Special Agent John Gibson engaged the attacker and was also killed.
On June 14, 2017, Capitol Police again foiled a would-be potential murderer at an Alexandria, Va., baseball field where 24 Republican lawmakers were practicing. Two congressional aides and two Capitol Hill police officers were injured, along with Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, a member of the GOP leadership, whose wounds were the most serious.
In the aftermath, Congress closed ranks. Nancy Pelosi, in particular, rose to the occasion. After House Speaker Paul Ryan told the hushed chamber, “An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us,” the minority leader took the lectern. “To my colleagues, you're going to hear me say something you've never heard me say before: I identify myself with the remarks of the speaker,” she said. “They were beautiful remarks.”
Pelosi noted that she and Scalise have an Italian American connection and that she was praying for him. As her colleagues on both sides listened somberly, Pelosi continued: “You may not know this, my colleagues, but every time I pray, which is very frequently, and certainly every Sunday, I pray for all of you. All of you, together.”
She added that in the face of America’s coarsening political discourse she had recently prayed for the physical safety of colleagues -- and herself. “I’m a political target and therefore the target of more threats than anyone, other than the president of the United States, Barack Obama,” she said. “And so I prayed for Barack Obama. Now I continue to pray for him. And pray for Donald Trump, that his presidency will be successful and that his family will be safe.”
Included in this extraordinary soliloquy was Pelosi’s praise for officers Chestnut and Gibson. Although she can be intensely partisan, members who served in the House with Pelosi on 9/11 were not surprised. She was then the ranking Democratic member on the House Intelligence Committee and Pelosi was sure-footed, calm, and reassuring. Speaking in the Rotunda with other leaders, she praised her GOP colleagues and George W. Bush.
The previous day, two hijacked passenger airliners had brought down the World Trade Center while a third had been crashed into the Pentagon. A fourth plane, which went down in a Pennsylvania field, was headed toward Washington, D.C. It was never determined exactly where that fourth plane was going. The 9/11 Commission surmised that its target was either the White House or the U.S. Capitol, but didn’t go further. To Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of that day’s mass murder, the White House was a more iconic symbol of American power, although the Capitol would have been easier to hit. In any event, those who worked at the Capitol complex tended to think they were the intended victims; those who worked in the White House complex assumed it was them. But the Secret Service took no chances.
As the World Trade Center towers collapsed and Department of Defense employees evacuated a burning Pentagon, President Bush was rushed from a Florida elementary school to Air Force One, which circled above the Gulf of Mexico before heading toward Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, La. At the White House, Vice President Dick Cheney was in his office when his Secret Service detail rushed in.
“Mr. Vice President,” said Special Agent Jimmy Scott, “we’ve got to leave now!” Cheney revealed in his autobiography that before he had a chance to say a word, Scott “moved behind my desk, put one hand on my belt and another on my shoulder, and propelled me out of my office.”
Cheney was joined in an underground bunker known as the Presidential Emergency Operations Center by his wife, Lynne, and top government officials, including Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, who ordered all planes in the U.S. grounded. At 10:15 that morning, Cheney was informed that a jetliner, believed to have been hijacked, was headed for Washington, and was only 80 miles away. Cheney authorized an order for the U.S. military to take down the plane by force.
Two F-16s were scrambled into the air and screamed at nearly Mach 2 over the nation’s capital, heading northwest. By that time United Airlines Flight 93, the plane with so many brave passengers, had crashed into a western Pennsylvania field. Cheney didn’t know that. He also didn’t learn for hours that UA Flight 93 wasn’t shot down on his orders. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the ensuing U.S. invasion of Iraq -- effectuated with Cheney’s encouragement -- it became fashionable in certain Washington social circles to ask, “What happened to Dick Cheney?”
Former Illinois congressman Bob Michel said he couldn’t square his image of the Wyoming congressman he’d handpicked as a Republican House leader with the suddenly hawkish vice president. “I never thought of him as being a hothead with respect to going to war,” Michel said. “He was a mediator, I thought.”
Cheney’s erstwhile friend Brent Scowcroft told journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, “Dick Cheney I don’t know anymore.” Kenneth Adelman, another former Cheney ally, told me the same thing almost word for word. I had known Cheney from his days in the House, and as vice president – and didn’t find it any great mystery. The second most powerful man in the U.S. government had been yanked to his feet by a panicked Secret Service agent, hustled underground not knowing if his eldest daughter, who worked at the State Department, was alive or dead (a rumor, reported on-air by NBC, was that the State Department, not the Pentagon, had been hit). Some 3,000 Americans had died, the Pentagon attacked, and the only reason the White House -- or the Capitol -- was still standing is because courageous Americans aboard UA Flight 93 had fought back.
So, it’s not so much that Dick Cheney was “changed” as that he was galvanized. I’m not saying invading Iraq was the right call -- I don’t think so and didn’t at the time -- but that’s a question of judgment. I think George Bush and Dick Cheney concluded from 9/11 that the post-Cold War world had grown too small to allow failed states such as Afghanistan to exist or dictatorships such as Iraq and Iran to export state-sponsored terror. I believe that they decided, Cheney in particular, that they would do what it took to keep Americans safe.
I believe that’s what Nancy Pelosi is doing today. Yes, there are invariably partisan considerations, but on Jan. 6, 2021, she and the other members of Congress, along with Vice President Mike Pence, were evacuated from the House and Senate chambers or from their congressional offices minutes before the mob, some with firearms, some carrying handcuffs, others with bear spray, many chanting murderous threats, rampaged through perhaps the most cherished symbol of American democracy. The rioters broke down the door to Pelosi’s office, leaving young members of her staff cowering for 2½ hours in a darkened anteroom where they stayed under a conference table while the rabble ransacked the office outside. Late Wednesday afternoon, impeachment manager Stacey Plaskett of the Virgin Islands showed a photo of an insurrectionist from Arkansas sitting in Pelosi’s chair, a powerful stun gun strapped to his waist. He left a threatening note for the speaker.
According to a Justice Department criminal complaint, one Pennsylvania woman made a video in which she said the mob was “looking for Nancy to shoot her in the friggin’ brain.” Others were looking with ill-intent for Pence. Besides those toting guns, others carried pipes and baseball bats. At least one man had a noose; others waved Confederate flags. Most were U.S. flags, however. Yes, the mob used flagpoles attached to Old Glory to break windows, strike police officers, and defile the symbols of America. The nature of the threat brought 9/11 to Rep. Plaskett’s mind. She was a congressional aide working at the Capitol that day. “I know a lot of you senators were here, some of you might have been members on the House side,” she said. “This is 20 years since the attacks of Sept. 11, and almost every day I remember that  Americans gave their lives to stop the plane that was heading to this Capitol building. I thank them every day for saving my life and the lives of so many others.”
The intellectual author of this attack wasn’t a fanatical Saudi Arabian terrorist with a thirst for global sectarian war, however. This time the Capitol was targeted by a home-grown politician with a rabid following and little sense of U.S. history. A man who is such a poor loser that he was willing to undermine faith in America’s elections and governing process.
“Sadly, the person that’s running the executive branch is a deranged, unhinged, dangerous president of the United States,” Speaker Pelosi told CBS News correspondent Lesley Stahl. “He has done something so serious that there should be prosecution against him.”
Did his loyalists genuinely believe the election was stolen? I have no doubt. Neither do the Democrats. “They bought into his big lie,” House impeachment manager Joaquin Castro said on the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon. “President Trump told his supporters over and over again, nearly every day, in dozens of tweets, speeches, and rallies that their most precious right in our democracy, their voice -- their vote -- was being stripped away. They had to fight to stop that. And they believed him.”
On a January day 183 years ago, a politically active young Illinois lawyer spoke about the danger of inciting such passions and assembling violent crowds to act on their fury. “There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law,” 28-year-old Abe Lincoln said.
“At what point shall we expect the approach of danger?” Lincoln added. “By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some trans-Atlantic military giant to step the ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the Earth (our own excepted) in the military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, would not by force take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.”
No, they couldn’t, but Lincoln’s point was that the danger lay within, the same theme House manager Jamie Raskin stressed Monday while citing Lincoln’s 1838 speech. Nancy Pelosi has alluded to it many times. “[Trump] roused the troops, he urged them on to fight like hell, he sent them on their way to the Capitol,” she said. “…And the lawlessness took place.”
After this country was attacked in 2001, George W. Bush stood amid the rubble of the World Trade Center and famously vowed through a borrowed bullhorn that “the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” This wasn’t an idle threat. The U.S. military roared into Afghanistan, toppling the Taliban regime that harbored Osama bin Laden and then pursued him to the death -- although a Democrat was president when justice was finally served. Every Democrat in Congress except one backed Bush’s request to go to Afghanistan, Nancy Pelosi among them. What Democrats would like now is some Republican support in settling accounts for this attack.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.