Pramila Jayapal was in the House gallery Wednesday afternoon because Covid-19 restrictions meant that only so many members of Congress could be on the House floor at one time. She was watching Republicans object to the certification of the Electoral College as text messages started to come in, each more ominous than the last. Protesters had broken inside the Capitol, and her husband suggested that she evacuate to her office for safety. But the 55-year-old Democrat from Seattle, Washington, had just had knee surgery, and she couldn’t imagine hobbling through a mob and making it in time. Besides, she told her husband, she was in the safest chamber on Earth, with the House speaker and majority leader. They would be well-guarded, she assured him.
Then she saw the speaker evacuate. Then her colleague, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., showed her a photo on her phone. It was a man carrying flex cuffs, on the hunt for congressional prey. By now the mob was smashing the glass and trying to push through. One woman, climbing through a window, was shot and killed. The gallery, though, while overlooking the House floor, is not part of it.
Only a door separated the gallery from the hallways outside, and the hallway was now teeming with angry rioters trying to smash it down. With the roughly dozen members of Congress were two confused Capitol Police officers, struggling to find a key to the door to lock it. The members of Congress were all handed gas masks. It was heavy enough, Jayapal decided, that she could throw it at the first attacker coming her way, then start swinging away with her cane. She was going down swinging.
But the attackers didn’t breach that door. Capitol Police reinforcements arrived in time. Once they convinced the police inside the gallery that they were real, the officers opened the door and Jayapal saw her would-be assailants splayed out on the floor. But there weren’t enough officers to escort them to safety, so they were told to remove the pins that identified them as members and make their way to a congressional hearing room through the tunnels. Jayapal and freshman Rep. Mondaire Jones, D.-N.Y., contemplated the decision: Leave the pin on, and be discovered by the mob. Take the pin off, and be attacked by police who might not realize they’re members of Congress. They left the pins on.
Then came the trouble of the long marble stairs. Jayapal stared at them, knowing her knee couldn’t make it. Rep. Mikie Sherrill, a New Jersey Democrat, held her up as the two hopped down the stairs. They made it to the hearing room, and as Jayapal opened the door, it immediately dawned on her: She had tested negative for the coronavirus that morning. “I’m going to get Covid,” she forecast accurately.
In this episode of Deconstructed, Jayapal talks about the assault, her hopeful recovery, and how progressives plan to push President-elect Joe Biden on his $1.9 trillion relief package.
Ryan Grim: In the early afternoon of January 6, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal was in the gallery of the House of Representatives. She was watching the effort by Republicans to block certification of Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory.
Rep. Paul Gosar: I, Paul Gosar from AZ-04.
Rep. Steny Hoyer: For what purpose does the gentleman from Arizona rise?
PG: I rise for myself and 60 of my colleagues to object to the counting of the electoral ballots from Arizona.
RG: She was there in the gallery because Covid restrictions limit the number of representatives that can be on the floor at any one time. And so it was from up there that she saw all hell break loose.
[Sounds of the insurrectionists breaking through, shouts, then gunshots and screams.]
RG: Jayapal represents Seattle, Washington and is the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. She’s also our guest on the show today.
She was supposed to be our guest for last week’s episode, which was going to be about the path from here to eventual passage of Medicare for All. Instead, we posted a rather unplanned episode called “Inside the Insurrection,” which you should go back and listen to if you haven’t.
Jayapal, like reporter Matt Fuller on our last episode, made it from the gallery to a secure area to wait out the assault. And while the room proved in the end to be secure from violence, it wasn’t safe from maskless Republicans or from Covid.
Rachel Maddow: Three Democratic members of Congress have now tested positive for COVID-19 after being confined in the same room for hours alongside Republican members of Congress who refused their requests, even in that room, to put on masks. Congressman Brad Schneider of Illinois; Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal of Washington, who’s the chair of the Progressive Caucus; Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, who’s 75 years old.
Stephanie Ruhle: Jayapal put out a statement saying this: “… many Republicans still refused to take the bare minimum COVID-19 precaution and simply wear a damn mask in a crowded room during a pandemic—creating a super-spreader event on top of a domestic terrorist attack.” She also called it “selfish idiocy.”
RG: But she agreed to join us today anyway to discuss the events of last Wednesday, how she is handling her diagnosis and hopeful recovery, and what all of this means for the progressive agenda over the next few weeks and months.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal: Hey, there.
RG: Hey, Congresswoman Jayapal. How are you?
PJ: I am OK. How are you?
RG: Better than you! I mean — how are you feeling?
PJ: I’m feeling much better today. The first three days were kind of rough, but I definitely started feeling better this morning. So the fever’s gone, the chills are gone. Now it’s just like a big stuffy head, you know, sort of more like a regular cold.
RG: Right, and I gather you had tested negative right before this.
PJ: That’s right. I got tested on Tuesday afternoon. And I tested negative that night, I got the result. And I had also tested negative five days before that because I had gotten tested before I flew into D.C., and that test was also negative. So I’ve regularly been testing negative until I went to the super-spreader event that I was forced into.
RG: Can you walk us through Wednesday morning to the moment you saw those rioters trying to smash their way onto the House floor?
PJ: Well, I got to the Capitol early, at quarter to nine, because we had been told that there would be what was being described to us as protests at that time.
Kasie Hunt: As Congress gets ready to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the Electoral College today, Washington D.C. is bracing for massive protests.
PJ: But also we understood that it was not a regular event — that there were real security threats because we were being asked to get there several hours before the proceedings were to start and we had been told to be on alert by Capitol Police.
Kasie Hunt: The National Guard has been deployed as President Trump is expected to address a rally of his supporters later on today.
PJ: And so when I got to the chamber just before one o’clock, there were limited numbers of people who were allowed on the main floor of the House and then in the gallery, just one level above because of Covid. And so I was one of the people that was allowed into the gallery, so I was sitting there with maybe a dozen other members.
And at 1:25, my chief sent me a text saying “Evacuating Cannon.” We were all getting the messages on social media in the minutes before that, and we didn’t understand why nobody was reacting because it seemed like there was an enormous mob outside. And yet we were still there. But you know we had this strange, now what I realize is misplaced, faith that we were going to be safe. You know, at 1:28 I texted my husband and said, “This is seriously crazy. Police have been breached. Chaos is going to break out and violence, too.”
Newscaster: There’s an armed standoff at the House front door. Police officers have their guns drawn. Hopefully this gets resolved peacefully, but police are overrun by these protesters and asked for reinforcements to deal with this situation that is escalating and going out of control here, guys.
PJ: That was at 1:28. He, you know, asked me if I should come back to the office. He said, “Maybe you should just come back to the office right now.” But I had had knee surgery and the trains weren’t running between the Capitol and the other buildings. And so the idea of like, trying to make my way back to the office didn’t seem safe, either. And so I said, “No, I’m in the safest place I could possibly be. I’m with the Speaker of the House.”
RG: Right. Mhmm.
PJ: “I’m on the House floor, you know, of the House gallery. And of course, there’s going to be lots of Capitol Police that are going to prevent any harm from coming to us.”
And that, of course, turned out to not be true at all. And so it was 2:17 when they locked us in and they had just taken out Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Hoyer. And, you know our alarm bells were ringing at some point before that. Abigail Spanberger showed me a picture of FlexiCuff man in the Senate, so that had already happened.
Martha Raddatz: … Eric Munchel of Tennessee, who law enforcement officials say appears to be the man here carrying plastic restraints, prompting questions about whether they intended to take hostages.
PJ: Nancy and Steny at 2:17. At 2:18 I texted, “They are on the steps of the Capitol.” And at 2:19 I said, “We’re recessing but we can’t leave.” And at 2:21 I said, “The Capitol has been breached.”
So it was just all happening so fast. And we could hear all of the noise because the gallery is quite shallow. You know, it’s maybe 10 to 15 feet at most from the banister that overlooks the House floor, to the doors that go directly out into the corridor. And there were rioters starting to pound on the door.
We were told to move for some reason. And because of my knee surgery, I had a cane and so I was completely focused on how am I going to get under the banisters with this cane with a knee I can’t bend?
RG: Right. Right.
Mike Mibach: There is absolute chaos right now. The United States Capitol Building has been breached. We heard from lawmakers who were initially in lockdown and then being told to put on gas masks trying to get out of the Capitol Building.
RG: Did you think they were gonna get in?
PJ: I really did. Because by the time we were down on the floor, there were people banging on the doors. And unlike the main floor of the chamber, not only were we very close, but there’s no movable furniture there. They’re all seats that are nailed in. And so all we had between us and the rioters were — and we didn’t know if they were armed, you know, we didn’t know who they were — was a few Capitol Police officers.
But they seemed somewhat confused themselves. They were yelling to each other about who has the key before they were able to close all the doors. And they didn’t really seem to be in communication with anyone else. And so we just had no idea if anyone was going to know that we were there and come and get us. All the other members had been taken off the main floor of the chamber by then. And we were still stuck there.
And so yes, there was a very real fear that these people who were pounding on the doors, maybe just 15 feet from us, were going to get in and that we would not make it out.
RG: How did you make it out?
PJ: Well, at some point, after they started pounding and the Capitol Police officers were saying, “Identify yourselves. Identify yourselves.” Because we weren’t sure how we were ever going to know it was safe to go out, somebody must have identified himself as a Capitol Police officer and they opened the doors. And then they ushered us out. And we were right near the big staircase going down stairs and just on the other side of the staircase, so maybe 5 feet away from us, were these rioters — insurrectionists, I don’t know what we want to call them — down on the floor, about five of them, maybe, spreadeagled on their bellies with their hands over their heads and Capitol Police officers around them guns drawn on them.
PJ: And those were the people that have been trying to get into where we were. We were just told to go down. There was no police officer with us. There was nobody with us, nobody telling us where to go, other than, “Go down the steps.” And I know for me, you know, the big thing for me was I can’t do steps — I haven’t been doing steps with my knee.
PJ: And so Mikie Sherrill saw me with my cane and said, “Do you want help? I can stand on your other side.” And I said, “Yeah.” And just took a giant deep breath and then basically tried to cantilever myself down with, you know, one hand on the railing, one hand on Mikey, and using my right leg as much as I could to go down what I think was about six flights of stairs into the sub-basement where the tunnel is to the other buildings.
But we got into the tunnel, there were still no Capitol Police officers with us. So we were just told to go to one of the other buildings that was supposed to be a secure location, so we started to head in that direction, and went through the tunnel, nobody guiding us, nobody looking out for our safety. And then we saw some Capitol Police coming the other direction. And they told us which room to go to, which was a different room than we had originally been told. And we eventually made our way there. And by the time we got there, I think we were among the last people to enter the room, because it was packed.
And the minute I walked in there, I thought, “I’m gonna get Covid. There’s just no way. This is a super-spreader event.” There were over 100 people there. But there were no choices in that moment. So that’s what we did.
RG: Right. When you were in the gallery, and the people were banging on the door, were people looking around for weapons they could use to defend themselves? Was your cane kind of identified as a weapon?
PJ: Oh, yeah, I identified my cane. I mean, I had it. The challenge was I was holding a gas mask in my right hand. But I had my cane in my left hand, it was sort of propped on my leg.
The gas mask was another weapon, potentially, because it’s actually very heavy. And so I sort of figured that between the gas mask, and the cane, and I’m right handed, that I would start by, you know, flinging the gas mask, and then I would be able to pick up the cane with my right hand, and use the cane. But, I mean, these are all split-second thoughts that were going through my head, like, what are we going to do?
RG: So you were gonna go down swinging?
PJ: Oh, for sure.
RG: So you found yourself in this committee room, packed, and this is the area that has since become famous for a lot of Republicans refusing to wear masks. Did you try to get as far away as you could? What was your move in there? And did people think that you were safe yet, or were you still curious if there would be a breach at that location?
PJ: Oh, no, I don’t think any of us knew we were safe. And there was one point at which somebody was live streaming with press from that room, which there was an announcement immediately to stop doing that, because you can tell from the surroundings, the background, which room it is, if somebody knows the Capitol.
RG: Right. Right.
PJ: So there was definitely fear that we still weren’t safe. And my first thought was, “I have to sit down.” I mean, my knee was killing me, it was probably five times as big as it should have been. And so I went and found a place that was as distant from other people as possible, but a chair, and it was, you know, behind the first row at the end. But the rows are where the members sit, you know, it was a hearing room. So I was on the lowest level, near the end, where I figured, at least there was nobody right next to me, and elevating my leg and asking if anybody had a cold pack or ice that I could put on it. And somebody got me some ice and then I was just sitting there with my leg elevated and hoping nobody came close to talk to me. But, you know, it’s not possible to stay really far apart. So I was better than some of the other members who were still trying to process and talking to each other and milling about each other because there wasn’t any room to not do that. You know, in some ways, I was probably more distanced than other people were, just because I couldn’t move.
RG: And so, coincidentally, while all of this was going on, the press declares that Jon Ossoff has won in Georgia.
RG: You know, which flips control of the Senate to Democrats. And so combining his win and Democrats taking the Senate with this insurrection that was repelled, how has that kind of changed Democrats psychologically, and in terms of their political calculations, about how aggressive they’re going to be with their agenda going forward? Or, or is it wrong to kind of link the two?
PJ: No, I definitely think that we’re not very good as a progressive movement in general about celebrating our victories. And so I think that there was this like, when we win Georgia, we’re all really going to celebrate. And I even remember thinking: We’re gonna win Georgia in the midst of them challenging the Electoral College vote. And how sweet is that going to be to both win the Senate and defeat them on the Electoral College vote and certify Joe Biden as the next president?
Of course, we just didn’t get to do that in real time. So there was celebration about Georgia in that room. There were, you know, we were talking to each other about — I mean, it was both Republicans and Democrats, but with Democrats, we were talking to each other about just trying to hang on to every piece of good news. And it was significant, obviously. And so there was that.
And then there was also, I think, in the days since January 6, there has been an enormous amount of unity, about the threat that faces us from these people who are really unhinged. I mean, refusing to wear masks, and also refusing to go through metal detectors, and then continuing — worst of all — continuing to support these insurrectionists and calling them loyal patriots. And then, of course, all the reports that show that some of them were likely involved in planning and executing the attack, including yours was the first piece I saw with that clearly reported.
And so I think that all of that, you could see the effect of all of that in how quickly we move to impeachment.
PJ: There was not that resistance this time. There was a little bit of initial, a couple of members, but even people who had been very reticent the first time around were just clear: This has to happen. We have to do this.
And I also think that this will take some time to figure out, but I do think that there’s a different sensibility about racism and it was so clearly on display. What we had seen during the summer that I pointed out to Bill Barr about these white nationalists, armed militia, storming the State Capitol in Michigan, which I believe was a precursor to this. I mean, I think those were trial runs. And then the way that law enforcement treated them as in, ignored that whole thing and acted like there was nothing there; Bill Barr told me he didn’t even know, which I don’t believe is true, but that’s what he said.
And then, of course, the way that Black Lives Matter individuals who were demanding justice at the murder of yet another Black person at the hands of law enforcement during the summer, and those people were tear gassed, and pepper sprayed and National Guards troops lined up everywhere. And then this, where this wasn’t even taken seriously as a threat, in spite of all the things that we now know existed prior to January 6, that somehow because these were white nationalists — Proud Boys, Boogaloo boys, people who Chris Wray identified to us in the Judiciary Committee during a hearing a year ago, as the single biggest domestic terror threat to the United States, were these white nationalist groups. And yet, they weren’t identified as a serious threat. There was no additional law enforcement there. Now we’re finding out more about the National Guard not being called in, the National Guard being delayed, all the different ways in which the intelligence was not shared or assessed — who knows which pieces of these are going to be true in the end — but they were not taken seriously. And so I do think that there’s a different understanding of race.
And some of the calls that I have been on, some of which are to process what happened. I created a text string called “The Gallery Group,” that is everybody that was in the gallery, and we’ve been processing with each other. And it’s been pretty intense, both in person and on text. And I think that there is a different understanding of race. And for those of us who were people of color, several of us, when we were told to take off our member pins so that the insurrectionists couldn’t identify us, we actually had to make a choice about whether we wanted to do that or keep them on because we weren’t sure that Capitol Police would identify us as members if we took them off. So I kept mine on. Mondaire Jones kept his one.
PJ: And I think that there has been discussion about that among us as members. Not just progressives; I mean, this gallery group has people from across the caucus: Blue Dogs, Frontliners, and others.
RG: The other element of the next few weeks will be the stimulus. Joe Biden on Thursday night is going to unveil what he’s pushing for. Your Medicare for All co-sponsor on the Senate side, Bernie Sanders, has been pushing him to include significant elements of Medicare for All in that push, similar to what you were calling for the last time that we spoke.
How likely do you think it is? How much leverage do you think you have at this point to be able to get some of those elements? Lowering the Medicare age, raising it for people 25 and under and also for people who are unemployed, to be able to get into some type of insurance, whether it’s TRICARE or Medicare or something else?
PJ: Well, I do believe that the crisis moment that we’re in has just been elevated multiple times now. And I think that our narrow majorities in the House and the Senate mean that, of course, you know, it’s challenging, but there is budget reconciliation in the Senate that can be used for a relief package; those things have to be budget related. But we also got the PAYGO exemptions, which are more important now than ever before, so that things related to the pandemic, including healthcare, do not have to go through the PAYGO point of order. And so I think that the reality of the crisis is maybe even more enormous. I mean, I understand that, you know, what we faced was an insurrection. But I still think that the need to get relief to people and the need to sort of show that somebody is in charge and they’re going to get relief is more important than ever.
And so I hope that the fact that we won Georgia — the fact that Black and brown and indigenous folks won Georgia for us — and, you know, the reality of now controlling the House, the Senate, and the presidency, that has to be enough to say to Joe Biden, but to all of our Democrats, including some of our conservative Democrats, “Now we have to deliver.” We have to deliver. And we have to show people that we’ve got their backs. And of course, there’s the midterm elections looming in two years, but we have to show that we can deliver real relief to people across the economic — working people’s economic spectrum, I should say, poor people and working people’s economic spectrum.
And so, you know, we’re going to use every tool in our toolbox to do that. And we obviously got through some of the procedural reforms that we need in the House to be able to do that. But we’re also going to have to work really closely together with Democrats in the Senate, I was just on an inside/outside strategy call with Bernie and our movement partners. And then also, with our leadership, and across the caucus, and some of the unity that has been building across the caucus with different parts of the caucus that perhaps never would be in this situation otherwise sharing, you know, very personal things, I hope that helps us to really come together as Democrats — and maybe a good few Republicans, I don’t know, but at least as Democrats — to really push for the boldest relief we can get. That is our job. And we have to get that done.
RG: And the other thing you and I talked about last time was that CPC has the most leverage in situations where you’re not going to get any Republican support. And you can hope, but I would suspect that on a Biden stimulus you’re likely to get pretty much universal opposition, they’ll find things in it that they say that’s just a bridge too far, we’d love to bring relief to people, but we can’t do XYZ — you know, whatever thing is in it that they don’t like. Do you think that’ll be one of these moments of leverage? Or do you think that they’re going to be able to kind of railroad you guys by saying: If you don’t vote for this, then people get nothing?
PJ: I think that is a real challenge. Because you saw what happened on the last Covid relief package. I mean, there was a bipartisan group of conservative Democrats and more liberal Republicans that got together and were crafting the scope of that package. And that could happen again, because I do think that there are a lot of people who believe we need to get serious Covid relief done. But my fear is that that group will hold sway on getting something through the Senate.
Now with 51 votes, and if we can use budget reconciliation, that gives us the ability to not need Republicans. So it really depends on if it’s a pure budget reconciliation piece where I think we can get a lot of stuff done. But some of the things we want to do, you know, let’s just say around immigration and offering green cards to frontline workers, those kinds of things, we’re going to have to figure out what we can get through by budget reconciliation, which would only allow 51 votes versus things that will require a 60-vote majority in the Senate.
RG: Well, Pramila Jayapal, thanks so much for joining us. And best of luck in your recovery. I know there can be yo-yo effects, but I hope that you’re headed out of the woods on this.
PJ: Thank you so much, Ryan. I hope so, too. I’m not gonna let this virus stop me. But I know the reality of the course of it, and we just have to wait and see. But hopefully all will be good.
You know, the doctor called me this morning to say, “I’m so glad you’re doing better. But please know, day seven is the real day. Day seven, eight, and nine is often where people get much worse.” So I’m just in the middle of day five, at the beginning of day five. So we’ve got a few more days to make sure I get through this. But hopefully, the fact that I don’t have terrible symptoms now is a good sign. And we don’t know what the long-term effects of these things are, even if you get through it, you know?
Anyway, to that point, I should go rest.
RG: Yes, you should. You should.
PJ: So, thanks so much Ryan. Good to talk to you.
RG: Same. Same to you.
RG: That was Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, and that’s our show.
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
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