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Congressional clerk recounts anxiety as riot put US Capitol on lockdown

A longtime Hill staffer recounted panic among elected lawmakers and their aides as a mob tried to overthrow the government on Jan. 6, 2021.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The two chambers of Congress were just over an hour into a ceremony in which they were supposed to certify the results of the presidential election when the first signs emerged of something wrong on Jan. 6, 2021.

"There’s usually no police on the floor at all," Kevin McCumber, the deputy clerk for the House of Representatives, explained on the witness stand Thursday. "So it was noticeable that there … [were] five to six of them gathering in the corner.”

Prosecutors called the longtime Hill staffer to testify in the seditious conspiracy trial of five members of the Proud Boys, including the leader of the group, Enrique Tarrio, who face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of the top charge.

Having worked in different roles in and outside of Congress since 2000, McCumber said it was his job on Jan. 6, as the deputy clerk, to keep track of a journal that the House used to track proceedings.  

When police entered the chamber at around 2:14, he said, the ceremony had just picked back up after some congressional members objected to the certification of the slate of electoral college votes from Arizona, leading to a brief debate.

“I saw Pelosi’s chief of staff whisper to her,” McCumber told the jury, noting that he then saw the California congresswoman who was speaker of the House at the time escorted out of the chambers by her security staff.

The House recessed twice, first at 2:18 p.m. and again at 2:29 p.m., and McCumber recalled hearing the old wooden doors of the chamber being pulled shut.  

“It was quite a slam, slam, slam,” McCumber testified, noting that he then made his way over to a duffle bag of protective "escape hoods."

And as he leaned down to open the bag, he said he heard more noise outside one of the chamber doors. “Bang, bang, bang.” 

Representative Ruben Gallego soon startled some people, McCumber recalled, when he stood up on a chair and announced that “pepper spray will not kill you.”

McCumber noted that the Arizona Democrat is a war veteran. 

“People were getting quite anxious,” McCumber added, and escape hoods were starting to be handed out to House representatives and congressional staff. 

During cross-examination of McCumber, defense attorney Norm Pattis, who represents Dominic Pezzola, established that the witness did not see his client or any of his four co-defendants breach the chambers. 

Earlier in the trial, prosecutors showed the jury footage from the riot in which Pezzola can be seen breaking a window of the Capitol building with a police officer's riot shield. Some of the first members of the mob gained entry through the opening.  

Pezzola belonged to a chapter of the Proud Boys in Rochester, New York. Tarrio, the group's leader, is based in Miami. They are on trial with Joseph Biggs, of Ormond Beach, Florida, who acted as sergeant-at-arms for the Proud Boys; Zachary Rehl, former president of the Proud Boys chapter in Philadelphia; and Ethan Nordean, a Proud Boys chapter president from Auburn, Washington. 

The indictment states the five defendants “directed, mobilized and led members of the crowd onto the Capitol grounds and into the Capitol, leading to dismantling of metal barricades, destruction of property, breaching of the Capitol building, and assaults on law enforcement.”   

In addition to seditious conspiracy, the defendants all face one count of conspiracy to prevent an officer from discharging any duties. Pezzola is also charged with robbery. All have pleaded not guilty

The government has so far charged approximately 985 people in connection with the Capitol riot. As of Feb. 6, about 375 people had pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, and about 125 had pleaded guilty to felonies. Approximately 220 people have been sentenced to prison time.  

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