As Speaker Nancy Pelosi was forced to huddle in a secure bunker during the Capitol riots, several of her young aides spent hours sheltered under a conference table in the speaker’s suite as armed rioters pounded the door with menacing taunts of “Where’s Nancy?”
When Pelosi was reunited with her staff hours after the deadly siege at the Capitol, the speaker didn’t even have to ask — she could see the terror reflected in their eyes.
Now as the House prepares to impeach President Donald Trump this week for inciting the insurrection that shook the core of U.S. democracy and left five dead, the undertaking for Pelosi isn’t simply a matter of politics.
“It’s really hard to address this subject without getting emotional about it,” Pelosi told Democrats on a private call Monday afternoon. “We’re very passionate about how we protect and defend our country and how offended we were about this assault perpetrated by the commander in chief.”
The speaker views the invasion of the Capitol as more than just an attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election by a pro-Trump mob. For Pelosi, it was also an attack on the people she calls her family — the lawmakers, support staffers and aides who are the lifeblood of the Capitol — and the building that she considers sacred and has called a second home since birth, when her father was a congressman.
Democrats are now moving to impeach Trump for an unprecedented second time in the remaining days of his presidency, charging him with high crimes and misdemeanors for goading the rioters at the Capitol last week, who killed at least one police officer in their hunt for members of Congress, including Pelosi.
A week ago, another impeachment would have seemed out of the realm of possibility, with the Democratic Party just days away from controlling all three levers of power in Washington, D.C., and finally bidding farewell to Trump.
But after those several terrifying hours on Wednesday, Trump’s own supporters made the Capitol one of the least safe places in Washington, D.C., and Pelosi and her entire Democratic Caucus cannot forget it.
“I think Nancy also looks at this and says, how do you — when the president has put your people at risk of harm or death — not respond to that in the strongest way possible?” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said in an interview.
The emotional toll will have a lasting effect on Pelosi and her caucus. About two dozen Democrats were locked inside the chamber on Wednesday, some frantically calling their families in case they needed to say goodbye, as members of an armed mob eventually forced their way in. Many more lawmakers barricaded themselves inside their offices, where they worked with staff to push desks and couches in front of the doors.
“We are a family. Those were the words used on the caucus call, over and over again,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.), who was among those members in the chamber. She recalled when Pelosi and other Democrats gathered by phone for the first time since the attack on an emotional caucus call. “She talked about her staff, how she was so concerned for her staff and other people’s staff.”
Pelosi was one of multiple Democrats on that 3.5-hour call Friday to encourage members and their staff to seek counseling for the trauma they experienced that day. Support staff, too, should have access to the same mental health services, Pelosi said, noting how they too are an integral part of the Capitol nucleus.
“Some of the maintenance people call me ‘Momma,’” Pelosi said on the call, according to multiple Democrats.
Pelosi has repeatedly urged both lawmakers and staff to seek out mental health support after living through the horrific assault on the Capitol, including on another long call with her caucus on Monday.
For Pelosi and many others, the images of Wednesday’s violence are haunting — rioters in tactical gear storming through the Capitol, ransacking offices, including her own, before turning on police, attempting to crush one in a doorway and dragging another from the building and beating him with a flag pole. Hours earlier, Trump had instructed his supporters to march to the Capitol, vowing the election was rigged and he would never concede.
As she steers her caucus through the emotional wreckage of the attack, Pelosi has also, once again, become the lead voice on impeaching a president who has also been one of her biggest antagonists for four years. Unlike the long on-ramp to her support for impeachment in 2019, this time Pelosi embraced the move within a matter of hours.
“One of the things that people don’t appreciate about her is she has a really heartfelt, deep reverence for our Capitol, democracy and the presidency,” said House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), a close ally of the speaker.
The rest of Pelosi’s caucus has quickly come to the same conclusion as her, with very few exceptions. Democrats announced Monday they will vote Wednesday to impeach Trump after securing enough votes to do so, unless Vice President Mike Pence takes unilateral action before then to declare the president unfit for office.
It’s a remarkable display of caucus unity for Pelosi, who fought her way back to the speakership two years ago after a group of Democratic objectors tried to end her long leadership tenure. And many in her caucus were already predicting a tense atmosphere within the caucus over the next two years, which they saw as inevitable when a big-tent party has such a razor-thin majority.
Instead, nearly every single House Democrat — including freshmen who were sworn in just days ago — quickly lined up in favor of impeachment.
Even some of the caucus’ most pro-impeachment Democrats were shocked by the speed of their caucus and their leadership’s support.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) — who was pulled from the chamber just as rioters breached the Capitol on Wednesday — began talking about impeachment almost immediately after she reached a secure location. She was in the same room as Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and a handful of others.
As they sat together for hours, Omar approached House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer to tell him she would draft an article of impeachment for Trump’s role inciting the riots. He encouraged her to do what she needed to, according to multiple people familiar with the discussions.
Across the Capitol complex, a group of House Judiciary members — Reps. David Cicilline of Rhode Island and Ted Lieu of California — were also barricaded inside an office together as they first floated the idea of drafting more impeachment articles.
As those Democrats quickly began circulating their draft, Pelosi, too, was on her phone nonstop. Since the attack, she has spoken to nearly every member of her caucus, fielding texts and calls late into the night — not unlike the Democrats’ first path to impeachment in 2019.
Twenty-four hours after the Capitol attack began, Pelosi took to the podium to deliver a decisive warning — Trump was a seditious threat to the country and if Pence didn’t take immediate action to remove him, Democrats would.
Speaking in a building nearly empty but for the staff working to repair the damage, Pelosi described Trump’s role in “the gleeful desecration of the U.S. Capitol” and the targeting of members of Congress as “horrors that will forever stain our nation’s history.”
Two years ago, Pelosi spent months carefully managing every step her caucus took toward impeaching Trump. She listened carefully to the moderate freshmen who helped Democrats win back the House, and only vowed to move ahead when a sizable group of them — all with a background in national security — announced their decision to vote yes.
Democrats across the caucus, including those national security-focused members, say the decision to impeach was simpler after what they lived through Wednesday.
“I genuinely believe people were barricaded in their offices making decisions like this,” Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) said in an interview on her decision to support impeachment. “There’s nothing more clarifying than when your life is in danger.”