Chad Pergram, the veteran Congressional correspondent for Fox News, did not get much sleep in the last 36 hours. In that time, President Donald Trump held a rally protesting the certification of the electoral college victory of his successor, after which thousands of his supporters stormed the United States Capitol.
The horde of MAGA-hat clad rioters used metal pipes and other weapons to clash with U.S. Capitol Police, who were outnumbered and eventually overwhelmed. The Capitol building was breached, and the certification ceremony, usually a perfunctory affair, was abandoned as lawmakers evacuated. Dozens were injured in the attack, four people died, including one woman who was fatally shot by police, and bombs were found around D.C.
Lawmakers returned to the Capitol building hours later, after police regained control, in order to carry out their duty and certify the victory of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, which came shortly before 4 a.m.
Pergram was on the ground to cover all of that. I called him up on Thursday afternoon to talk about the riot, whether Republicans are turning on Trump, what to expect of the next two weeks before the inauguration, and conspiracy theories that Antifa infiltrated the ranks of the pro-Trump agitators. Read a transcript of our conversation, edited for lengthy and clarity, below.
Aidan McLaughlin: You reported on Fox News that this was the most significant breach of an American government institution since the War of 1812. You said the mob upended American democracy today. Could you walk me through what you saw and what you experienced yesterday?
Chad Pergram: Just the idea that you have marauders storming the Capitol at this critical moment, when you are certifying the electoral vote in a joint session of Congress. There’s only two times that you do a joint session… for the State of the Union and to certify the Electoral College. The fact is there was a major breakdown in security. It was going to be contentious anyway… and then to have this scene erupt on top of that was just a colossal failure and just a dark, dark day in American history.
When I arrived at the Capitol at about one o’clock, because we thought this was going to go late through the night, they weren’t even letting members go across Capitol Plaza. This is right about when the joint session was starting, and a bunch of them said, “Chad you can’t go that way,” and they said “Go back this way.” And I’m like, well they’re not letting members go across the Capitol Plaza to get into the joint session, this is getting bad. And that was the first signal. Then when things got really bad I could tell in the House chamber when you started to see key staff, like Keith Stern, who is Pelosi’s floor director… to see Keith Stern and others start to run around the chamber, and I’m watching this on a monitor because I’m on and off the air at this point, told me a lot was going on. I could hear [Rep.] Jim McGovern, Democrat from Massachusetts, who is presiding, instructing numbers to shelter in place, hunker down, get your escape hoods underneath your seats, we’re going to try to move to the Rotunda, those types of things, which I’ve never heard uttered. That was kind of the signal to me.
And then I saw the video later of the plainclothes Capitol Police officer who they assigned to the Speaker’s lobby shooting through the window of the entrance to the speaker’s lobby. There’s a staircase there, and I’ve spent so much time on that staircase, and there’s a transom at the top. So when the woman starts to scale, the Capitol Police officer shot. Everybody else was kind of just making a lot of noise, shoving and pushing and everything else. And you could see there was furniture that they lodged against the doors to keep people from barging in. And there’s a door that immediately leads to the chamber right past immediately to the right of where she was trying to scale up. I’ve never seen anything like that, so far inside the building and such a serious, deep breach of security. Sometimes I struggle to even put this into context, just how catastrophic these failures were. It kind of stings me. This is where I work. This is where I’ve spent years upon years for different news organizations in Washington, and that’s most of what I’ve covered, Capitol Hill. To see that this happens in the Capitol, but also in your place of work, in a place you go every day, is disturbing.
Aidan McLaughlin: There was a lot of talk today and last night about who was behind the mob that stormed the Capitol. They were all clearly Trump supporters. They attended his rally earlier in the day. They were wearing MAGA hats, waving enormous Trump flags, chanting things like “Stop the Steal.” But there have been rumors spread among Trump supporters, that have even been embraced by members of Congress like Mo Brooks and Matt Gaetz, that these rioters were actually members of Antifa. Do you see any evidence of that?
Chad Pergram: I have not seen any evidence, nor have I had time, being on the air until 5 in the morning, to investigate that.
Aidan McLaughlin: From all appearances, it seems like these were Trump supporters that had been attending the rally in Washington, D.C., and then made their way, on his instructions, over to the Capitol. Is that how it’s being perceived by lawmakers and reporters on the ground?
Chad Pergram: Most members of Congress believe that these were Trump supporters. They don’t come in with a “T” on their sweatshirt and an I.D. card that says, “I’m a Trump supporter.” But this is the problem: when we’ve had other demonstrations at the Capitol on various issues, you had people on the other side suggest that this is really a false flag operation. And that’s happened many times before, during the health care debate with Obamacare in 2010, specifically.
Aidan McLaughlin: What are you hearing from lawmakers about this breach? Have their attitudes changed at all with regards to the president or the attempt to block the certification of Biden’s win?
Chad Pergram: People thought that the temperature might go down a little bit. When people like [Sen.] James Lankford of Oklahoma, and [Sen.] Steve Daines and [Sen.] Kelly Loeffler, who remains a senator for the time being, [Sen.] Mike Braun, not being the Senate petitioner to join the House member to object, and when they started to do that, we thought we might have other state challenges [withdrawn]. When they got to Georgia, Jody Hice, the Republican congressman from Georgia, said that the person from the Senate who was going to join backed down. And when they got to Wisconsin, [Rep.] Louie Gohmert from Texas said the same thing. So that didn’t elicit these other hours of debate in the House and Senate, and that’s where some people wondered if they would just come back into session, and maybe have just a voice vote or unanimous consent, or by unanimous consent approve the Arizona slate and just be done with it. But I think some of that having the debate was also to say, OK, we’re going to certify the electoral vote. We’re going to do this by the book. There are people who have reservations about this. Let’s have their say, and we will have our say, and then be done with it. But it was interesting to me when they went to the Senate on the Pennsylvania slate and Josh Hawley was the objector there, they didn’t even have debate. They went almost immediately to a roll call vote, which is pretty rare.
Aidan McLaughlin: Does that show anything about the Republican objections, or do you think that they were perhaps thinking, let’s not have the debate here because of what had happened earlier in the day?
Chad Pergram: The fact that things were truncated tells you a lot. That that was about the concern. When [Sen.] Josh Hawley was the initial Republican senator who said he would object to a slate of electors, [Sen.] Mitch McConnell was none too pleased, and tried to counsel him and others to back down. Josh Hawley didn’t even show up on a conference call where Mitch McConnell wanted Hawley to lay out his case.
Aidan McLaughlin: I’m getting the sense that there’s been something of a sea change in U.S. politics because of this one day. I think that’s why it feels like to everyone that it’s so consequential. As you noted, there’s a number of lawmakers who withdrew their objections to the certification. You have Republican members of Congress like Adam Kinzinger calling on Trump to be removed via the 25th Amendment. And Elaine Chao is resigning. Does it feel like the party, the Republican Party, is turning on Trump here a little bit?
Chad Pergram: Well, you’ve seen these inconsistencies, legislatively, with President Trump for a long time. You saw it come to a head over Christmas, over the $2,000 checks, where the president called for this and all of a sudden the Democrats were for it, but not a lot of Republicans. And you saw in the first successful override of one of his vetoes on the defense authorization bill. These fissures have always existed, but they have been amplified more of late.
Some of them might be because the Trump presidency is a fait accompli, and people might feel that to some degree it’s time to move on. But some of these decisions were always there. And don’t forget that there were a lot of Republicans who were reluctant to cozy up to the president initially when he was the nominee, or first was elected. And then when they started to see that he actually kind of helped their cause, and that people in their districts and states were supportive, they were willing to get close to the President.
Aidan McLaughlin: Do you have any sense of what’s going to be done now by Congress and by law enforcement to respond to what happened yesterday? What are their next steps?
Chad Pergram: Well already [Rep.] Rosa DeLauro [D-CT], the new chair of the House Appropriations Committee, and [Rep.] Tim Ryan, Democrat of Ohio, the chair of the legislative branch, they’ve already said there will be an investigation. They control the purse strings for the U.S. Capitol Police. Tim Ryan said that some people will be without employment. [Sen.] Chuck Schumer has indicated that if Michael Stanger, the Senate sergeant at arms, doesn’t resign, he will fire him when he becomes Majority Leader. The Capitol Police, though, historically have gotten budget increases after 9/11, after the [Rep, Gabrielle] Giffords shooting, after the police baseball practice shooting, so this happens regularly. The problem that they have is that if you are the police chief in a city, you have one mayor. On Capitol Hill, you have 535 mayors, and they all think you should use more force, or less force, or do it this way, or do it that way. And they’re never going to be happy no matter what. Most people can agree, whatever their strategy was yesterday, was just a colossal failure. But that’s something that they have to look at.
Terry Gainer, the former Capitol Police chief and Senate sergeant at arms had always told me that he has always pushed to make the perimeter where you clear security out by the street. You can go to the Capitol grounds and you can actually move around more freely because you’ve been cleared. Lawmakers haven’t gone for that. Then you have Phil Morse, former Capitol Police chief who is the American University police chief, and he always said this building is safe. He said our principle is to keep the fight outside. And you want to create a bubble. Sometimes the bubble is right next to the building, depending on the city. Sometimes it’s way out by the street or further, for the inauguration or something. Whatever bubble they had was burst. If they had a bubble at all, they did not keep the fight outside.
The imprimatur here has always been that you need to have people come and protest, under their First Amendment rights, not violence or anything like that. You need to have people come and express their opinions at hearings, call congressional offices, do what they do. But there needs to be a demarcation between the fray, and the Members getting their work done. And when the fray starts to interfere with them getting work done, regardless of one’s position, that’s the problem. And that’s what the Capitol Police are supposed to do, is keep the Capitol secure, so those decisions and votes and hearings and whatever they’re doing can be done in a way that is free from the fray. You have input from the public, sometimes polite, sometimes not polite, but this time you had the fray. And the fray upended what they were trying to do, which is something that is prescribed in the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, and that’s why the situation yesterday was so dark.
Aidan McLaughlin: Biden takes office in two weeks. We still have two weeks of a Trump administration. In terms of the Trump administration and now Congress, which seems almost divided between members that are vehemently opposed to Trump and those who are quietly still sticking by him, what do the next two weeks look like?
Chad Pergram: I suspect you’ll start to hear more and more volume about what happened, and how the Capitol Police and security officials handled this. That will take up a lot of the time. People will raise questions about how secure the inauguration is going to be, which will be different than it would because of the pandemic. In the Senate, they already had this kind of time out where they said they weren’t going to introduce a bill until the Jan. 21. It’s going to be very unclear. They’re going to move expeditiously on a lot of Cabinet nominees.
About the Senate, nowhere is it written that just because you have a 50-50 Senate and your party has the vice president, that you have the majority. That’s not written down anywhere, the Constitution, Senate rules, anything. So [Sens.] Trent Lott and Tom Daschle worked out a power sharing agreement [in 2000] where Lott was mostly the Majority Leader, at first, but Daschle had a lot of latitude to call up bills, and equal representation on committees. Will Schumer and McConnell work out something similar on this front as well?
Aidan McLaughlin: There’s been a lot of talk about Congress perhaps filing articles of impeachment against Trump in these last two weeks. Does that stand any chance?
Chad Pergram: Doubtful, they’re going to be out of session, which is kind of this time-out right now. I’ve heard one reporter say, well, impeachment is a lengthy process. It is if you do it by the book, if you look at other historic processes where we’ve impeached officials. But again, nowhere is it written down if somebody comes up with a resolution and puts it on the floor and you vote on it and you have more than 218 votes in the House of Representatives, whether it’s been through committee or not, that person is impeached. And if you go to the Senate with no preparation or whatever, you could convict. But again, that’s probably not going to happen.
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