With a mob of election protesters laying siege to the U.S. Capitol, Sen. Mike Lee had just ended a prayer with some of his colleagues in the Senate chamber when his cellphone rang.
Caller ID showed the call originated from the White House. Lee thought it might be national security adviser Robert O’Brien, with whom he’d been playing phone tag on an unrelated issue. It wasn’t O’Brien. It was President Donald Trump.
“How’s it going, Tommy?” the president asked.
Taken a little aback, Lee said this isn’t Tommy.
“Well, who is this? Trump asked. “It’s Mike Lee,” the senator replied. “Oh, hi Mike. I called Tommy.”
Lee told the Deseret News he realized Trump was trying to call Sen. Tommy Tuberville, the newly elected Republican from Alabama and former Auburn University football coach. Lee walked his phone over to Tuberville who was talking to some colleagues.
“Hey, Tommy, I hate to interrupt but the president wants to speak with you,” Lee said.
Tuberville and Trump talked for about five to 10 minutes, Lee said, adding that he stood nearby because he didn’t want to lose his cellphone in the commotion. The two were still talking when panicked police ordered the Capitol to be evacuated because people had breached security.
As police were getting anxious for senators to leave, Lee walked over to retrieve his phone.
“I don’t want to interrupt your call with the president, but we’re being evacuated and I need my phone,” he said.
Tuberville said, “OK, Mr. President. I gotta go.”
Lee said when he later asked Tuberville about the conversation, he got the impression that Trump didn’t know about the chaos going on in the Senate chamber.
The bizarre scene is among the surreal moments members of Congress and Utah’s delegation experienced Wednesday when pro-Trump rioters took over the Capitol during the counting of electoral votes for president.
Meantime in Utah, the state dispatched Utah Highway Patrol troopers to the Utah homes of members of Congress to watch over their families.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, was evacuated from his office in the Cannon Building earlier in the day due to a bomb threat, and was moved to the Capitol and later placed on lockdown.
“We were surrounded by angry crowds trying to break into the Capitol building,” he said.
Capitol Police moved him and others from room to room to keep them safe.
“The crowd broke through the barricades and entered the building. They filled the hallways and began chanting and tussling with police officers. It was a mess,” he said.
Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, was in his office in the Rayburn Building waiting to vote on the Arizona objection and watching the protesters move up the Capitol steps on C-Span and cable news. He said it was alarming to see people breach the doors because that’s a line that nobody gets to cross.
“It then reached even a further fever pitch when they got into the chambers,” he told the Deseret News.
Curtis and his staff went into lockdown in his office.
He considers the House chamber a sacred space, and watching rioters on the floor felt like having his home burglarized.
“You just feel violated. This our home. This is the people’s home and it is being violated,” Curtis said.
Curtis characterized it as very emotional for him, his staff and his colleagues.
“That feeling of we have lost the Capitol to a mob really is surreal, and hard to get your arms around what that really means. I think in reflection, it’s a very, very serious thing. Not only is it serious, it’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing around the world. It’s embarrassing that the seat of democracy is under siege,” he said.
My staff and I are safe— thank you to @CapitolPolice for working tirelessly.— Rep. John Curtis (@RepJohnCurtis) January 6, 2021
It’s totally inappropriate what’s happening here at the Capitol. This is not who we are, we’re better than this. My plea is that we use all our influence to tone this down & return to reasonable debate. pic.twitter.com/I2X3e7nGt0
Rep. Blake Moore, R-Utah, said he could see the crowd rising outside the Capitol through a House chamber window.
“It starts to get a little bit more loud and you start hearing, I guess they were pipe bombs, but you hear things going off. It seems like, ‘OK, it’s getting a little bit closer,’” he said Thursday on KSL Newsradio’s “Dave and Dujanovic.”
As he listened to the debate, he saw security lock down the double doors to the chamber. He said he received text messages from his staff that there had been a breach. Moore said some of his colleagues barricaded the door.
“I think the most eerie time was when you started hearing banging on the House chamber doors. They were literally just right outside and you could hear them banging on it. That’s when they told us to get our gas masks,” he said.
At that point, police evacuated the chamber.
Moore said he saw images of protesters on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s seat while he was still in the House.
“We thought if they can get there, they can get in here, so we all rushed out,” he said. “We just had to barricade ourselves into each of the offices.”
Lee said he heard yelling and some of his colleagues heard shots fired outside the Senate chamber. Police ordered them to stay at their desks.
“People were a little bit scared, but everybody had their game-day face on,” he recalled.
Lee said the 100 senators were eventually escorted through tunnels to Room 216 in the Hart Building, the largest Senate hearing room. He saw a parliamentarian carrying boxes of electoral votes submitted by the states.
“We had a lot of conversations in there about what we should do,” he said.
Senators considered going into session in the hearing room to finish the electoral vote tally, which they learned was allowed under Senate rules. But Senate majority and minority leadership felt it was best to wait until they could get into the chamber.
Lee said there also was pressure put on senators who had objected or who had planned to object to states’ electoral votes to end the counting as quickly as possible. Some of them changed their minds when the session resumed.
Congress eventually confirmed President-elect Joe Biden as the next president with 306 electoral votes to 232 for Trump. A dozen GOP senators and more than 100 House Republicans had planned to object to the votes in as many as six swing states that Trump lost.
In the end, Republicans objected to the votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania, both of which failed.
Stewart and Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, had indicated they would not vote to certify the election. They both voted against the Arizona objection and for the Pennsylvania objection. The other four members of Utah’s all-Republican delegation voted against both objections.
Stewart said he voted that way because the facts “supported that conclusion” in Pennsylvania but said there was not enough evidence in Arizona.
“What happened yesterday does not in any way change the facts that happened on Election Day or time surrounding that election,” he said on KSL Newsradio’s “Live Mic.” “My point was answering these questions, giving people assurance that our elections are fair and that they are represented.”
The Alliance for a Better Utah called for Stewart and Owens to resign Thursday because of their vote on Pennsylvania.
“Reps. Owens and Stewart have chosen to fight against democracy for the sake of their own political ambition, and they must accept the consequences of their actions,” said Chase Thomas, Better Utah executive director, “They can no longer be trusted to hold the sacred offices to which they were elected.”