WASHINGTON — Rep. Stacey Plaskett was just about to leave her office and go to the Capitol when the call came: Lock your doors.
Plaskett, a Democrat who serves as the House delegate representing the Virgin Islands, had been watching her colleagues debate over Republican attempts to undo Arizona’s Electoral College results remotely, given how difficult it is to socially distance on the House floor. Earlier in the day, she’d gotten some texts from friends alerting her about the speech President Donald Trump was giving down the street, where he riled up supporters at the “Stop the Steal” rally.
Her friends told her it was disturbing, and Plaskett was concerned. She knew, as she put it during an interview with BuzzFeed News Wednesday, “these individuals were coming to the Capitol to do harm.”
Suddenly, though, Plaskett realized the debate on the House floor had stopped, and her staff were locking their doors. She watched on TV as some of her colleagues rushed out of the chamber and heard there was a disturbance at the Capitol. She and her staff hunkered down in her office and waited.
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After some time, Plaskett got another call alerting her to a secure location where members would have protection. It was around 5 p.m., and she decided to go join them.
“I went down to the location where — you've seen pictures of where all the members were — and talked with a few members for a couple of minutes,” Plaskett said. But Plaskett worried that the secure area wasn’t so secure after all — she noticed some of her GOP colleagues weren’t wearing masks. She weighed the risks of a possible confrontation with the insurrectionist mob that had stormed the Capitol against the risks of staying in the room with maskless lawmakers while the coronavirus pandemic rages on.
“I became concerned that, you know, maybe I could fight off or run from rioters, but I wouldn't be able to see the virus as it was coming toward me,” she said. “There were definitely Republicans in there who did not have masks on, and then when I got down there, a few of the members had been there for some time.”
Some members had been told they could not go back to their offices, because those buildings were not yet secured, and were forced to stay in the room for hours. Republican members were filmed rejecting Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester’s offer of masks as they all huddled in the room.
“I decided that I'd rather go through the tunnels and get back to my office and lock the door again,” Plaskett said. After just about half an hour in the room, she left the secure area.
Later that night, after law enforcement had cleared the Capitol of the violent mob that had stormed the building, leaving five people dead, lawmakers finished certifying the Electoral College results. Plaskett finally left the Capitol complex sometime around midnight.
In the days since, at least three members of Congress — Democratic Reps. Pramila Jayapal, Bonnie Watson Coleman, and Brad Schneider — have tested positive for COVID-19 after sheltering with maskless members. Coleman’s case is particularly concerning: She’s 75 and a cancer survivor, putting her at high risk.
“I am angry that after I spent months carefully isolating myself, a single chaotic day likely got me sick. I am angry that several of our nation’s leaders were unwilling to deal with the small annoyance of a mask for a few hours,” Coleman wrote in an opinion column published in the Washington Post. “I am angry that the attack on the Capitol and my subsequent illness have the same cause: my Republican colleagues’ inability to accept facts.”
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On Wednesday, just one week after the attempted coup, the House voted 232–197 to impeach Trump for a second time, charging him with incitement of insurrection — adding to his 2019 impeachment charges of obstruction of Congress and abuse of power. Plaskett has been named as an impeachment manager, meaning she, along with eight other House Democrats, will prosecute the case in the Senate when the trial begins. Senators will then vote to either acquit or convict the president; at least 17 Republicans will need to vote yes to convict Trump.
In the days since the riots, Plaskett said she’s been on many calls — “marathon caucus meetings” — with her colleagues talking about what happened and what to do about it.
“I listened and sat through all of them and really thought that they were important for the members, as members were working through and listening to each other and getting support from hearing from each other and being able to express their feelings in a safe place,” Plaskett said. “There are members who were very, very angry, members who were crushed at what they believe is happening to our democracy, members who are in some ways still in shock. And so observing that and watching members go through it is, you know, is very painful to watch.”
It’s been frustrating for her, too, to see her Republican colleagues argue that impeachment is too divisive.
“I believe that there will not be any unity in this country unless we do that — that we are attempting, from their argument, to unify ourselves with neo-Nazis and seditionists and terrorists and anti-Semites, and that's not who America is and those are not true Americans,” she said. “And I think that by impeaching Donald Trump and forcing the trial and asking for his removal that we are unifying the country.”
But Plaskett said she’s feeling OK. She is, as she put it, in “her usual mode” when crisis strikes, which means throwing herself into work.
“That’s usually a good way for me to work through things,” she said. “What I experienced is my internal experience, and for me that doesn't have anything to do with what I'm doing, what my work is. You know, [what happened] that's compartmentalized away somewhere. And I'll probably unpack and deal with that at a later date.”