LANSING — As he huddled in a colleague's staff room Wednesday while President Donald Trump's supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol to contest his election loss, U.S. Rep. Andy Levin thought back to 1989, when he witnessed democracy under attack in Chengdu, China.
Levin had been overseas conducting research as a student at the University of Michigan when he witnessed Chinese military troops beat and attack pro-democracy demonstrators.
"I've experienced a lot of tear gas," Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, recalled Wednesday after Trump supporters clashed with police and delayed Congress’ Electoral College vote count that will officially make Democrat Joe Biden the next president of the United States.
"But I did not expect as a member of Congress to have people try to violently interrupt the workings of our democracy,” he said. "It's a super sad day.”
The second-term lawmaker spoke with Bridge Michigan from a staff room in an office of U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, where he was sheltering in place after his office was evacuated following an apparent pipe bomb threat and rioting in and around the Capitol.
“What's happening right now is literally an assault on democracy itself,” Levin said. “The president of the United States has encouraged his supporters to overrun the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the counting of the Electoral College votes.
We're not going to let it happen. We're going to stand here and do our jobs.”
Hours earlier, Trump had rallied a massive crowd of supporters, encouraging them to march to the Capitol and “show strength” by demanding lawmakers vote to overturn elections in states including Michigan, which Biden won by 154,188 votes.
By late Wednesday afternoon, after reports of gunfire inside the Capitol and one fatal shooting prompted local officials to impose an evening curfew, Trump finally encouraged his supporters to “go home.”
But as he did so in a video message, the president again falsely claimed the election was “stolen” from him, repeating a conspiracy theory that critics say emboldened his supporters to violence.
“Unacceptable,” tweeted freshman Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids, who had been in the House when mayhem broke out.
“Enough. Acknowledge Biden as President-Elect and end this madness. Violent rioters laid siege to the nation’s Capitol in an act of insurrection unparalleled in modern times. This is not leadership.”
Tony Daunt, executive director of the conservative Michigan Freedom Fund, denounced Trump’s continued claims of election theft.
“Today’s assault on our institutions of government – and on ordered liberty – is an outgrowth of the rhetoric, lies, and conspiracies spread by the President and other elected Republicans who’ve falsely and feverishly claimed November’s election was stolen,” Daunt said in a statement. “Their actions over the last two months have today produced disastrous and violent consequences.”
Outside of Michigan, other prominent Republicans including former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie urged Trump to do more to stop his supporters.
"The president incited this, and only he can stop it,” Christie told ABC News.
Three Michigan Democrats — U.S. Reps. Dan Kildee of Flint Township, Debbie Dingell of Dearborn and Brenda Lawrence of Southfield — were in the Capitol when protesters clashed with police and broke windows to gain entry, according to Levin, who was not in the building because of COVID-19 precautions.
Thank you everybody for checking in on me. I’m safe. My staff is safe. We are on lockdown right now, and I will keep you updated.— Brenda Lawrence (@RepLawrence) January 6, 2021
“They’re safe,” Levin said of his colleagues, who were eventually evacuated after police locked down the building. “They're in another location that's not being disclosed. And we are going to try to re-establish a security perimeter and restart these proceedings.”
Kildee tweeted from the House chambers earlier Wednesday, saying he and colleagues had been instructed to lie down on the floor and put on gas masks as police drew their weapons and demonstrators banged on the chamber door.
"This is not a protest," Kildee wrote. "This is an attack on America."
The chaos came on what is typically a ceremonial day marking the United State’s tradition of peaceful transfer of power, as Congress accepts and formalizes the results of the Electoral College.
Michigan was expected to be one of six states whose results will be challenged in a long-shot, futile effort to keep Trump in power.
At least two Michigan Republicans — Rep. Jack Bergman of Watersmeet and Tim Walberg of Tipton — were expected to formally object to the election results, but it was not clear if they would be joined by a senator, which would trigger floor votes. The process was interrupted during debate on Arizona electors.
“Today, the symbolic foundation of our country was attacked by violent and destructive actions,” Walberg said in a Wednesday evening statement.
“I strongly condemn this reprehensible behavior and call for all violence to cease immediately.”
But Levin, a Democrat, argued that the pending Republican objection to the Michigan election was arguably worse than the “mob” response at the Capitol.
“Elected representatives trying to overturn democracy is the most seditious,” he said. “It’s the worst.”
Hundreds of Trump supporters also rallied for the president at the Michigan Capitol on Wednesday in what appeared to be a peaceful demonstration.
“Today’s riot at the [U.S.] Capitol is not what anyone wants for our country or our children,” Michigan House Speaker-elect Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, said in a statement, urging Trump to “use his voice” to restore order and peace.
“America is a beautiful and special place, but this is a tragic moment in our history that obscures our legacy,” Wentworth added.
In his address to supporters earlier Wednesday, Trump had repeated a series of demonstrably false and unproven claims about the Michigan election. He again suggested that "Detroit had more votes than it had voters," alleging 139 percent turnout in Michigan's largest city, where voter turnout was actually around 50 percent.
And the president again mischaracterized a human error by the GOP clerk in Antrim County to suggest Dominion Voting Systems equipment flipped votes in swing states around the country, repeating a conspiracy that Michigan Republicans investigated but found no merit in.
“Make no mistake: this election was stolen from you, from me and from the country," Trump said.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat who has joined with local GOP clerks to refute numerous fraud claims from the president and his supporters, appeared to blame Trump and his enablers for Wednesday’s violence at the U.S. Capitol.
“This is happening because of lies,” Benson tweeted. “Because of a choice leaders made to spread and repeat lies about our democracy. They spread and repeated those lies in court, to the media, in the halls of our state legislatures. That is why this is happening.”
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat who has successfully defended the president’s fraud claims in court, tweeted that Wednesday’s “shameful display” in the U.S. Capitol will be Trump’s legacy.
“Is now a good time to renew discussions about banning guns at the Michigan Capitol?” Nessel added, referencing a months-long debate sparked by armed protesters who demonstrated in Lansing over coronavirus restrictions imposed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who was the target of a foiled kidnapping plot.
“Now is the time to put this election behind us once and for all,” Whitmer said in a statement. “We must unify as one nation to defeat our real enemy, which is the pandemic that has taken far too many of our friends, neighbors, and loved ones.”
She was joined by former Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, who urged prayer for peace, calm and healing.
“While we come from different backgrounds and political parties, Governor Whitmer and I share a deep love for our country,” Snyder said in a statement. “We must always remember that we are Americans first, and we are not one another’s enemy.”