Combat veteran Don Bacon can’t easily shake the image of an angry mob of supporters of President Donald Trump storming his workplace, the U.S. Capitol, last Jan. 6.
Some rioters battered police officers with fire extinguishers and bludgeoned them with American flags while shouting “hang Mike Pence.”
Five deaths have been connected to the melee. At least 140 police officers were wounded. The riots caused about $1.5 million in damage to the Capitol.
“They didn’t have a right to break in and do what they did,” said Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general who has represented Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District since 2017, shortly after the attack. “Let’s rein this back in.”
A year later, the reining-in is far from complete.
More than 700 people have been arrested in connection with the Capitol riots. Charges include assault, resisting arrest and entering a restricted area, in some cases with weapons. So far, though, no top officials in the Trump administration, or his congressional allies, have been charged with criminal culpability, pending continuing investigations by the Justice Department and congressional committees.
Some Republican leaders — such as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California — initially criticized Trump’s handling of the insurrection but have since walked it back, acknowledging Trump’s continuing influence in the GOP.
Bacon said it worries him that some Republicans appear to be downplaying or excusing the riots.
“There are people on our side of the aisle who are minimizing what happened. I want Republicans to stand for the rule of law,” he said. “It’s never right to assault a police officer.”
Bacon was the only one of Nebraska’s five-member Congressional delegation (all Republicans) who agreed to an interview regarding the anniversary of the insurrection. Sen. Deb Fischer and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry didn’t respond, while Sen. Ben Sasse and Rep. Adrian Smith offered brief written statements.
Smith, whose sprawling 3rd District covers most of the state, described the Capitol riot as a “tragic and unacceptable event.”
“While our criminal justice system is prosecuting those who violently forced their way into the building, it is important we work together to prevent a similar event from happening again,” said Smith, who was the only Nebraskan in Congress to vote against certifying election results in contested states after the Capitol riot.
Sasse described the riot as a failure, noting that it didn’t stop the certification of the 2020 election results.
“Americans solve political disagreements with the ballot box, not with violence,” Sasse said in his statement. “That’s exactly why the attack on the Capitol failed, why the assaults on police officers were gross, and why Congress certified the election results the same night.”
A week after the riots, the House of Representatives voted 232-197 to impeach Trump. Nebraska’s three representatives in the House all voted against the single article of impeachment, while issuing statements deploring the violence on Jan. 6.
At the subsequent trial in the Senate, Sasse was one of seven Republicans who joined all 50 Democrats in voting to convict Trump — short of the 67 votes required for conviction. Fischer voted no.
The riot and Trump’s subsequent impeachment sharpened divisions between the parties in Congress that have been widening for years. Members now look at each other with anger and distrust.
Bacon said the atmosphere has grown so corrosive since the Jan. 6 riots that it’s undermining Congress’ ability to deal with challenges — especially foreign ones — that require unity.
“We have gridlock in this country,” Bacon said. “Meanwhile, China is surpassing us. The environment in Washington is totally toxic.”
He said both parties must stop challenging the legitimacy of election victories by the other party, citing claims by some Democrats that Trump owed his narrow 2016 victory to collusion between his campaign and the Russian government.
Bacon also said the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection is too tainted by partisanship to produce a report that will win Republican support. Speaker Nancy Pelosi established the committee after Senate Republicans blocked a plan to create an independent, bipartisan commission.
He acknowledged that “some things have been learned” because of the select committee’s work.
“But to ask Republicans to get behind a select committee when she’s kicked off people she doesn’t like — that’s not going to happen,” Bacon said.
Bacon believes the way forward for Congress is for members to work across the aisle on broadly popular legislation as he has done with the House’s Problem Solvers Caucus, whose 58 members are evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.
“Optimism starts with example,” Bacon said. “We live in the greatest country in the world, and we’ve got to work together to preserve it.”
This story has been updated to reflect that five deaths have been connected to the Capitol riot. According to the Associated Press, a Capitol Police officer collapsed and died after engaging with rioters who descended on the building. A medical examiner later determined he died of natural causes. A woman was shot to death by Capitol Police and three other people died after medical emergencies during the chaos.