WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and her staff are old hands at dealing with threats of violence and death provoked by President Donald Trump's criticism. The Minnesota congresswoman travels with security guards because the president has repeatedly singled her out for her immigrant roots, Muslim faith and Democratic politics.
Omar, every other member of Congress, and the staffs that support them now confront a new kind of angst this week after a mob of Trump supporters breached the Capitol and damaged property, clashed with police and panicked members and staff. The chaos became the latest flare-up in a city that has become the epicenter of the nation's bitter political divide as it prepares for the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.
"We've got armed guards and metal detectors," said Omar's communications director Jeremy Slevin. "This was an invasion [of a place] where people were supposed to feel most secure."
Regardless of how long it takes, the job going forward will be to make people feel secure, said Bill Harper, chief of staff for Democratic U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum.
Members of the Minnesota delegation and their staffs who spoke to the Star Tribune said remote work caused by the COVID pandemic keeps offices mostly empty or operating with skeleton crews. That was a godsend Wednesday.
Eventually, though, many people must physically return to offices.
"To see the Capitol stormed by insurrectionists and to receive notifications of bomb threats across Capitol Hill was deeply disturbing for a lot of folks working here," David McGonigal, communications director for Democratic Rep. Angie Craig, said in a statement.
Going forward, congressional offices must try to allay feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability, said Jeff Lomonaco, chief of staff for Democratic Sen. Tina Smith. "What we can do is provide a commitment to a place that is fully safe."
"Fully safe" means big changes to security, almost everyone agreed.
"There was clearly a massive set of security failures," Lomonaco said. "There's going to be a deep-dive investigation to fix it."
That is not likely to come before Biden's Jan. 20 inauguration, a sprawling outdoor ceremony scheduled to be held a mile from where Trump hosted a rally shortly before the riots.
The National Guard has already called in about 6,200 members the from six states — Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland — to support local law enforcement in Washington for the next 30 days, the Associated Press reported. A host of new security measures are being considered for the ceremony, including significant road closures.
"The outrageous attack on the Capitol, however, will not stop us from affirming to Americans — and the world — that our democracy endures," Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri said in a joint statement.
Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips sensed trouble after reading memos from the Capitol Police in the days before the attack.
Phillips decided Tuesday afternoon that his director of communications, Bryan Doyle, should not attend the joint legislative session to certify the Electoral College votes. Those votes gave Biden the presidency and sealed Trump's defeat.
"I was upset," Doyle said. "I told him I wanted to be there to support him. He again told me to stay home. Ultimately, I was thankful he did."
Minnesota's elected leaders and their staffers are still struggling to make sense of what happened.
Phillips said that when he heard Trump's speech to tens of thousands of supporters gathered near the White House on Wednesday morning, he was even more certain of trouble.
The president told the crowd the election had been stolen and told them if Vice President Mike Pence would block certification of electoral votes, "we will win the election." Trump then told the crowd to march to the Capitol.
As the certification session began a couple of hours later, Phillips walked to a window and looked out. What he saw was a Capitol security corps that was "outmanned and ill-equipped."
Elizabeth Campbell, a University of Minnesota business professor, said the violence in Washington and the images of rioters lounging in Capitol offices and damaging property is ushering in a new sense of anxiety as the city prepares for the inauguration ceremony.
For some workers, "it may be more challenging to feel normal again," Campbell said. "It's harder to concentrate if you feel stressed out."
Nevertheless, the attack sparked determination to get back to the office as soon as possible from staffers for Klobuchar and Republican Rep. Pete Stauber.
Abby Rime, press secretary for Republican Rep. Tom Emmer, predicted that members of Congress would restore the sense of safe harbor the Capitol once provided.
"It's going to be safer going forward," she said, "because they never want this to happen again."
Jim Spencer • 202-662-7432