BOISE — Idaho Congressman Russ Fulcher said the seriousness of the situation at the U.S. Capitol last week hit home for him when Capitol Police told lawmakers to take out their gas masks.

Fulcher was sitting in the House chambers, a few feet from the main entrance, when hundreds of pro-Trump protesters stormed the building Wednesday.

At the time, the House and Senate were debating an objection to the Electoral College vote from Arizona, one of several swing states whose support for Joe Biden cost President Donald Trump the 2020 election.

Fulcher was one of 121 House Republicans who objected to the Arizona vote. He was a few minutes away from debating the issue when he started hearing raised voices.

“Then the Capitol Police came in and escorted Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi out,” Fulcher said. “We put a substitute speaker in place, but the police interrupted again and said there’s been a breach in the Capitol, so stand by.”

Up to that point, he said, he had no idea about the scope of the breach or who was behind it. Mainly he was just upset at the interruption.

“I was in anger mode,” Fulcher said. “We had some serious business to attend to, and here some knuckleheads were trying to break in.”

After a few more minutes, police returned and said tear gas had been deployed in the Capitol rotunda and hallways.

“They told us we should remove the gas masks from under our seats,” Fulcher said. “I didn’t even know we had gas masks under the seat, but there they were. That didn’t put anyone at ease.”

Police began evacuating House members to a secure location, but Fulcher and others were still on the floor when protesters tried to break through the main entrance.

“There were three Secret Service officers inside the House chambers,” he said. “They had their weapons drawn and the door was barricaded. When the glass broke, they took one of my colleagues to the floor because they thought it was gunfire.”

He and the remaining House members then left the chamber. They spent several hours in lockdown before returning to the floor to finish the Electoral College vote.

“While we were in lockdown, leadership from both sides pretty much immediately said the intention was to go back and finish our work, regardless of how long it took,” Fulcher said. “That met with significant approval from everyone. We weren’t going to be disrupted.”

The unprecedented storming of the U.S. Capitol has been described as an “insurrection” and “attempted coup,” as well as a second “Day of Infamy” comparable to the treachery of Pearl Harbor.

In retrospect, Fulcher said he didn’t think any lawmakers were in serious danger. However, five people died during the riot, including one Capitol Police officer.

President Trump has been widely condemned for allegedly inciting protesters at a rally shortly before the break-in occurred. There have been calls for his resignation from both Republicans and Democrats. House Democrats are also threatening to introduce new impeachment articles, possibly as soon as Monday, in an effort to remove him from office.

A number of critics suggest the House and Senate Republicans who objected to the Electoral College vote also bear some responsibility, because they supported President Trump’s false narrative that the election was “rigged” or somehow stolen.

Fulcher vigorously rejected that notion, saying Congress has a legitimate role in questioning state election results.

“Democrats have objected to every (Electoral College) vote since 1988,” he said. “What made this different was that Republicans were behind it, and there were a significant number of members in the House and Senate who objected.”

President Trump also spent the last four years questioning the legitimacy of the U.S. election processes and, even before the first vote was cast, said the 2020 election was fraudulent if anyone other than him won.

Fulcher, who objected to the Pennsylvania electoral vote, as well as Arizona, said his goal wasn’t to overturn the election results — even though that would have been the likely result, had the objections prevailed.

“My objections were strictly based on the areas where states broke their own election laws,” he said. “The Constitution gives state legislatures the sole responsibility for setting election rules, but (in 2020) there were at least six states where that didn’t occur, where the governor or secretary of state or the courts made changes.”

Rather than overturn the 2020 election, Fulcher said, his objections were an effort to bring attention to the problem, “so the system can be better next time.”

“I didn’t do what I did for a candidate,” he said. “I did what I could to help create an environment for a better voting system. That was my genuine intent.”

In addition, the widespread concerns regarding the integrity of the election — stoked by President Trump’s rhetoric — also demanded some sort of response.

“This was such a polarized election, with so many extraneous circumstances (such as the coronavirus pandemic),” Fulcher said. “How do we, as members of Congress, go home and tell the 70-plus million people who voted for Trump that it wasn’t even worth questioning this issue? How do we do that?”

Fulcher hasn’t had an opportunity to listen to the president’s speech at the pre-riot rally, but “if what I heard was accurate, then it was inciteful. It was wrong, shouldn’t have done it.”

Nevertheless, he doesn’t support calls for a second impeachment. Even if the Senate went along with it, he said, the absolute earliest Trump could be removed from office would be a few days before Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20.

“The guy’s going to be done in a few days,” Fulcher said. “And if we want any possibility of calm and healing, (an impeachment) would just further detonate it.”

Having “knuckleheads” storm the U.S. Capitol is unacceptable behavior by any measure, he said, but there’s at least a possibility that the “shock value” from that event could reinvigorate efforts towards bipartisanship.

“If we don’t start working together — and not just in Congress — then this is what we have to look forward to in Everytown, U.S.A,” Fulcher said. “Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you start to climb. I hope and pray we’ve hit rock bottom.”

Spence may be contacted at bspence@lmtribune.com or (208)-791-9168.

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