About one month after pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, The 19th reached out to all 143 women in the 117th Congress to ask about their experiences on January 6. Twenty-three shared their points of view from that day. We are also publishing each lawmaker’s full account of that day. Here is what Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois told The 19th. The transcript has been lightly edited:
We planned out that day so that the first round of members on the floor were all in either leadership positions or were part of the arguments. We could basically cycle out in different segments of the day. So as members of Congress, we get texts that come in from Capitol Police. Normally, you ignore them because it’s just like “this road’s closed” or something similar. They come in all the time. Typically, I don’t even look at them — or just glance at it for a second and then delete. These started to come in pretty fast. First, issues over at Cannon; they talked about evacuating to Longworth. But again, we knew that this rally was going on — when you’re sitting on the House floor, you don’t know what else is going on out there.
It wasn’t until [Rep. Eric Swalwell] showed me his phone and it showed a bunch of people storming up the Capitol steps, that I said: “My God, Eric. When did this happen?” And he said. “This is live television.” He didn’t have his work phone, so he wasn’t getting Capitol police alerts. At that point, [Speaker Nancy Pelosi] was still leading the proceedings. The day had started out with a joint session and then of course we divided up, House and Senate, as we were hearing the arguments about the Arizona votes.
The doors weren’t locked. Everything was just going on, but it was probably shortly after Eric showed me that that we started to be a lot more commotion. Someone goes up to Speaker Pelosi, whispers something in her ear, then she leaves.
At this point, I know from watching Eric’s phone that there’s a lot of stuff going on. Then, the Capitol Police start locking the doors. And then, they take out [Rep. Steny Hoyer], the House majority leader and then [Rep. Jim Clyburn], our majority whip.
I was on the House floor, along with 25 other Democrats and 24 Republicans. I was sitting in a row with the other two co-chairs of the Steering and Policy Committee, a leadership position that allows us to sit alongside the speaker, the majority leader and the majority whip.
When we were told the Capitol had been breached, Rep. Dean Phillips — a Democrat in the gallery — started yelling at the Republicans that this was their fault and several yelled back in response. At this point, what’s going through my mind is how I’m going to fit under these chairs given my height. What was I going to do if someone came storming in with automatic weapons firing? We now have this mob that I had just seen on the television. They’re just outside here? And that’s the first thing [Rep. Phillips] thinks to say? Then [Rep. Steve Cohen] — also in the gallery — starts yelling at the Republicans. I said, “Steve, this is not helpful.” I’m down on the floor, and he’s up in the gallery. Then, [Rep. Frank Mrvan], a freshman member from Indiana who sat to my left, said to me: “I want to stay calm. If I talk to you, and you talk to me, then we’ll stay calm together.”
At this point, what’s going through my mind was: “How am I going to get flat on this House floor? I’m pretty tall. I’m too tall to go under these chairs. Lie as flat as you can.”
The next thing that happened was the Capitol Police got on the microphone and said to get our gas masks that were under our chairs. I had no idea that we had those. If we had ever been trained on those, I don’t ever remember it. They were medically sealed devices in vacuum-packed packages that were hard to open. I thought it was hard to figure out. Frank said, “Let me help you.” He opened his and gave it to me. I looked to my right where [Rep. Barbara Lee] was sitting. I gave her that gas mask and said, “Go ahead and give me yours.” Then Frank opened another one and gave it to me.
[Rep. Colin Allred], I consider him a friend and have a very good relationship with him, was a former NFL player. He’s a big guy. He was standing up and ready to do what he had to do to protect us. I said, “Colin, I want to stay by you.” He was staying calm, being ready. [Rep. Ruben Gallego], a Marine Corps combat veteran, said he had more than 100 combat missions under his belt. He immediately went into this mode. There were hundreds of people around him who didn’t know what to do. He stood on top of a desk and tells everybody how to put the mask on and how to breathe into it: “Don’t breathe normally or you might hyperventilate. Just remain calm. Tear gas won’t kill you if it comes in here.”
In the meantime, we were three rows from that center door. At this point, there was a lot of commotion. That was the door with the hole smashed through it. Frank says let’s move over closer to the other doors, so if someone comes through the middle doors, we’ll be able to go out the other doors.
At this point, the doors are locked and we’re being told to stay on the House floor while all of this is going on. Barbara Lee and I moved over to this row of seats. I wanted to make sure she was OK. She’s a little bit older than I am and wore comfortable shoes that day because she wanted to be able to move around, which was smart on her part. So we moved together, then the timeline is kind of hard to know exactly.
But then at some point, the Capitol Police said, “OK, we’re leaving,” through the door to the right of the dais where the speaker had been just a little bit ago. It was on the side where the Republicans typically sit, so most of them went out first. In an orderly fashion, we single-file went out that door.
I looked to my left, and there was a huge commotion going on outside the door that leads to the speaker’s lobby. Within minutes of us getting off the floor, that ended up being where the woman was shot.
We evacuated and went through the hall. [Rep. Debbie Dingell], who had been sitting behind me, always dressed up, and she was in heels. I told her to stay by me. We were at various points running. At one point she got far behind me, and I waited for her to hold the door. We descended a bunch of steps. It was really kind of a madhouse in the evacuation. We ended up getting separated — about six members ended up in a cafeteria. Initially, that’s where they told us to go. That’s where we were told to go. And immediately, we were like, “This isn’t safe.” So we’re like this is not a safe place to be. There’s somebody with us — I don’t know if she was a police officer — but she said, “OK, we’re going to a different location.”
And that’s where we ended up as members, where we were for several hours. Lot of commotion when I looked down the hallway. There was a police officer with their automatic weapon, holding people off with a drawn gun. You know, there was a lot going on all around us.
In terms of my own personal emotions, I really kind of kicked into a gear, thinking two steps ahead. When they told us to get on the floor, I thought: “Where am I going to get?” I kept thinking about Debbie behind me and Barbara to my right. And I tried to think of people who are a little more vulnerable or less agile. You don’t want to leave anybody behind. I just kept thinking in that way, but then I would say even during the hours that we were in the safe place, there was a ton going on there.
While in the crowded safe room, we were sent Skittles and water; we hadn’t eaten lunch. Some people were angry that certain members were not wearing face masks. At one point, the chaplain came in and said a prayer. After several hours, Speaker Pelosi finally came and told us that we weren’t going to let the mob win. We didn’t leave the room until about 8 p.m.
I went back on the House floor when we were back in session and [Rep. Mike Quigley], another member from Illinois, said his 87-year-old mother reached out to make sure he was OK. Everybody was on their phone, texting or calling their families.
My husband is a sheriff of our county. He’s the first person I reached out to. He hadn’t been watching TV, so he didn’t know what was going on. My three sons, their wives, my husband and I have a group message. But it actually freaked them all out. Everybody was all working, not fixed on what was happening in Washington, but they all turned on the news then. “Oh shoot, Mom is inside that building where all of this is happening.” They became very worried. My sons became very, very angry — there were lots of F bombs. I think all of this has been harder on our families and maybe even our staff. My kids are very, very upset about this.
I couldn’t get out of Washington fast enough, so I flew home early the next morning. It was the worst flight of my life. The plane was filled with people who had hours earlier stormed the Capitol. In the middle of the flight, 30,000 feet in the air, the woman in front of me stood up, ripped off her mask and started yelling: “Patriots! When you get home, you need to storm your capitols. This can’t end.” There were loud chants in the back. I kept my coat on and didn’t wear my congressional pin, because I didn’t want them to know I was a member of Congress, someone they wanted to kill or maim the previous day.
When we landed, she stood up again, told everyone to take off their masks and told them when they got home, they didn’t need to wear their masks. She and others on the plane started verbally abusing a young Asian woman, calling her a “commie,” and started talking about smothering babies. So the pilot gets on the loudspeaker and says that we cannot deplane and law enforcement would be coming on the plane. Finally he comes on, removes a guy and people start yelling: “Is it just because he isn’t wearing a mask?”
We deplane and same thing, there’s all this disruption. Chicago police had to be called in. This is who we’re dealing with. As much as you want to intervene, like the Capitol Police officers, what chance do you have? When there’s 10,000 angry rioters and 800 police officers. It was just disgusting to think that these people on this plane would just get up in front of every person on that plane and have a mini Trump rally. I was absolutely disgusted by it.
I would say it wasn’t until I got home and was watching the news that night that I actually saw the footage on my big screen TV. And when I saw that, I can’t believe that people I work with and I were literally feet from these crazy people who wanted to disrupt our democracy and take our lives.