WASHINGTON — South Dakota's lone member of the House of Representatives tried to walk outside back to his office from the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6 when security stopped him.
"Capitol police had reminded me that was not being recommended," said Rep. Dusty Johnson in an interview with Forum News Service on Thursday. "And I should take the tunnels."
Johnson didn't yet know, but the American Capitol was under siege. After members of Congress objected during a joint-session to President-Elect Joe Biden's victory in Arizona, which split up the chambers for two hours of debate, a restless, mob of supporters of President Donald Trump stormed past a line of law enforcement, gushing up the Capitol steps, and overtaking offices.
Johnson, a 44-year-old Republican, said he barricaded in a secure location with staff and other members, watching the violence unfold on television.
"We were seeing... images of protesters seemingly, almost at will, being able to knock down perimeter after perimeter," said Johnson. "Lots of noises... we didn't know whether they were explosions or gunshots or tear gas going off."
Outside, the mob overwhelmed the police. Hill staff fled, as sirens blared. Shots fired were reported in the Capitol. C-Span broadcast rioters roving Statuary Hall.
Inside, makeshift weapons were improvised. The Mitchell resident said they planned whether to fight or flee. More than fear, Johnson said he felt anger.
"Absolute, seething anger for the events that were unfolding," explained Johnson, who spoke by phone from Washington. "It seems to me, and I'm not a security expert, that Capitol Police did not have the resources they needed to contain this."
Too many have sown the seeds of anger and division. This is its tragic harvest. This needs to stop.— Rep. Dusty Johnson (@RepDustyJohnson) January 6, 2021
South Dakota's lone congressman came to D.C. two years ago and last week took an oath of office for his second-term after winning resounding reelection in November. He has carved something of a maverick streak as a Republican, opposing Democrat-led impeachment efforts of President Trump, but also objecting to the president's ploy to declare an emergency to use the military to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.
Minutes before Congress met on Capitol Hill to certify President-elect Biden's victory in November's presidential election, Johnson's staff cabled to reporters a statement announcing Johnson would not join with other Republicans in overturning the democratic elections in Pennsylvania and Arizona.
"[J]ust as I would resolutely defend the results of South Dakota's elections from federal interference, I cannot overturn the legally-certified election results of another state and its voters," said Johnson.
But the pro-Trump mob — enraged by baseless claims of election irregularities and ginned up by a speech earlier in the day from the president who vowed to "never concede" — were already beckoning at the Capitol steps. Other members would not watch the ensuing Capitol desecration — some waving Confederate flags, others taking selfies from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's desk, still more climbing and smashing windows — from afar.
Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota aided Nebraska's Sen. Ben Sasse in helping parliamentarians transfer election certificates to safety, according to reporting from The Washington Post. Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips tweeted from the House chamber about prepping gas masks, calling the breach "our founders worst nightmare." And Democratic Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who lost her legs flying a Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq, was bunkered in her office before capitol staff came to her aid.
It was a chaotic day unlike any other at the seat of the world's oldest living democracy, with one female rioter shot dead. When Johnson returned to the Capitol by nightfall to resume Congress' work, he found garbage, broken glass, and exhausted law enforcement.
"Capitol Police (were)... nearly collapsed on the floor of the rotunda," said Johnson, "Beneath the beautiful and priceless (John) Trumbull paintings and the statue of George Washington and underneath the (Capitol) dome, containing the Apotheosis of Washington (painting), it was a remarkable juxtaposition."
Johnson snapped a picture of the agents he posted to social media, calling them "true heroes." He added the agents were "shell-shocked... as almost everybody working in the Capitol last night did."
Congress plans to return to session in D.C. when Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th president of the U.S. But the scars and scuffs left by an angry mob upon the building remain.
Johnson said as he left around 3:30 a.m. Thursday, he saw 200-year-old, wooden furniture overturned and "gouged."
"This is not just an office building," said Johnson, "It's also a temple to a peaceful constitutional republic."
That is — as many lawmakers said in making impassioned speeches late into the night on Wednesday — if the people can keep it.