‘Not the nation we want to be': Chatham leaders reflect on Capitol attack, impeachment

Posted 1/20/21

State Senator Valerie Foushee was at home on Jan. 6 — isolating in place like she has for most of the last year — when she turned on the news to a scene unlike anything she’d seen …

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‘Not the nation we want to be': Chatham leaders reflect on Capitol attack, impeachment

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State Senator Valerie Foushee was at home on Jan. 6 — isolating in place like she has for most of the last year — when she turned on the news to a scene unlike anything she’d seen in her life: rioters breaking down the doors of the nation’s Capitol building. Congressmen and women wearing gas masks. Capitol police being attacked.

“And yet when I first saw the report,” said Foushee, a Democrat who represents Chatham and Orange counties as part of Dist. 23 in the N.C. Senate, “I must say that as disappointed and frightened as I was, I was not surprised.”

In Raleigh, N.C. Rep. Robert Reives II, the House Democratic party leader who represents Dist. 54, was working in his legislative office with his chief of staff preparing for the start of the General Assembly’s 2021 session.

“Neither of us had looked at our phones,” he said, “neither of us had checked any websites or anything of that sort.”

Upon leaving the office, Reives noticed he had 132 text messages and 40 voicemails.

“I went down to our security station and I was checking in because I had to cross the street to get to my car,” Reives said, “and one of the security gentlemen approached me. He said, ‘Man, I’m so glad nothing is going on here. You be careful.’

“And I said, ‘Did something happen?’”

‘I certainly was not surprised’

The events of Jan. 6 were not were not unimaginable; the violent attempted coup at the Capitol was the result of extremists incited by President Donald Trump’s calls to “fight like hell” to overturn the “stolen” presidential elections results. Though the majority of those attending the two-day rally did not storm the Capitol, the surrounding area was littered with signs eliciting false claims about the election and symbols associated with white supremacy: a large noose, Confederate flags and apparel and flags for a fictional white ethnostate.

While many Chatham leaders expressed horror at the events of Jan. 6, few perceived the insurrection as uncharacteristic of the recent political scene.

“I don’t know that anybody who has been listening to the rhetoric over the last six weeks was surprised that something would happen,” Senator Foushee said, “though perhaps not an insurrection.”

By the time this is published, Trump will no longer be president; Biden will take office officially on Wednesday — Inauguration Day — which Trump has said he will not attend. Much of the perimeter surrounding the event is already heavily guarded against the threat of more violence by Trump supporters and extremists.

After four combative years, Foushee said, it seemed fitting that President Trump’s term would climax dramatically.

“I certainly was not surprised that people who have been told time and time again that something has been taken away from them,” Foushee said, “something that they value, that something that they feel like they own has been taken away from them and taken away from them illegally and to their detriment — that they were coerced and cajoled into fighting.”

Especially when Trump’s language suggested his blessing.

“To be told by the leader of the greatest nation in the world, ‘I will be alongside with you,’” she said. “Did we really expect that nothing would happen?”

What did happen was unlike anything in American history, at least at the Capitol. When the building was burned down in 1814, Reives said, it was stormed by foreign British invaders.

“It’s interesting, when you hear people talk about the events of the 6th, a lot of people say this has not happened” since the 1800s, Reives said. “That’s actually an inaccurate way to put it. What actually is true is that this has never happened in our history … This is the first time we have ever had American citizens launch an assault attack, insurrection — whatever you want to call it — this type of campaign against the Capitol building.”

‘I can’t fathom a more serious crime’

A week after the failed coup, Trump earned a new entry on his list of firsts: the first American president twice impeached. Ten Republicans joined the House Democrats in charging him with “incitement of insurrection” of the violent mob that attacked the Capitol. It was the most bipartisan impeachment vote to date.

In Chatham, Republican and Democratic leaders alike have condemned the Capitol attacks, but views on his impeachment vary.

Reives said the urgency behind impeachment was relayed by several House Republican congressional members, who expressed the need “to do something.”

“What they talked about was the fact that we need a way to express our disapproval of the president’s actions that day,” he said, “and we’re not being provided that by our leadership.”

In impeaching Trump, the House of Representatives effectively voted to remove Trump from office and revoke his privilege to ever run again. But the Senate has final say in Trump’s fate. It is tasked with either convicting the President, thereby upholding the impeachment, or acquitting him.

While the House can impeach with a simple majority, the Senate requires two-thirds support to convict the President, and Foushee is skeptical that enough Republicans would turn on Trump to yield the necessary count.

“I don’t know. It’s hard for me to say with that,” she said, followed by a long pause. “I will be surprised if the impeachment is confirmed.”

Reives likewise predicts little agreement on the Senate floor, but said inaction would be a disservice to the American people.

“Really, something’s got to happen,” he said.

Jan Nichols, chairperson of the Chatham County Democratic Party, said the party was “saddened and distressed at the terrorist violence” displayed on Jan. 6 and sparked by Trump.

“We believe that President Trump must be held accountable, and we fully support impeachment and conviction of President Trump for high crimes and misdemeanors,” Nichols said. “All Americans must work together to overcome the dissension caused by dangerous and baseless conspiracy theories. Our nation and our institutions will hold, our democracy will survive, and President-elect Biden will soon begin the necessary work of healing the soul of our nation.”

The Chatham County Republican Party posted on Facebook on Jan. 6 that the news coverage at the Capitol, namely by NPR, was “beyond rational.” The group questioned the difference in coverage of the Capitol compared to coverage of protests against police brutality this summer, evoking a false equivalency many Republicans have suggested in the weeks following the Capitol attack.

“We are adamantly opposed to the break-in at the Capitol. We are also sure that 99% of the people at the protest did not break into the Capitol,” the Jan. 6 post said. “If you believed NPR, this was the start of the revolution. If you believe your eyes as you watched the live broadcast, you see Capitol Police fail to do their duty to protect the Capitol. We saw thousands of people protesting in a legal, peaceful manner.”

Before the social media site Parler went offline — following a purge of white supremacist threats from popular social media platforms — the site contained multiple calls from Trump supporters likening the Capitol attacks to the beginning of a revolution and threatening continued violence. Amazon withdrew its hosting of the app, citing 98 examples of posts that “clearly encourage and incite violence.”

By Jan. 7, Chatham’s Republican Party posted another update, this time affirming the counting of the electoral votes and a peaceful transition of power. The party did not immediately respond to requests by the News + Record for comment. 

“We will not form a ‘resistance.’ We will not support formal Congressional investigations into President-Elect Biden’s campaign based upon false dossiers,” the Jan. 7 post read, adding that they also would not support impeachment proceedings “based upon second-hand information from an unknown whistle-blower.” 

“We firmly believe that the will of the The People is expressed at the ballot box, and we will do everything legal in our activities going forward to [ensure] that Chatham County has fair, honest, and transparent elections,” the post said. “The 2022 election campaign begins today.”

Republican commenters were critical of the post, with one calling it “pathetic” and another “spineless.”

“You can’t stop me from forming the resistance,” one commenter said.

“[You] are right! We cannot stop you,” the party replied. “However, we can invite you to participate in the only legal process that will reverse the decline in our country. Join us in the process to win in 2022.”

Chatham Commissioner Diana Hales, who is a registered Democrat, also emphasized the importance of upholding legal expression of opinion and honoring the people’s vote — “the foundation of our government.”

“The president lost both the popular vote, and the Electoral College, because more people voted for Joe Biden,” Hales said. “Trump’s malicious disregard for the truth of the vote, and his call to arms directed at his followers, led directly to this insurrection on January 6, killing people in the assault. The House of Representatives is authorized to act, as stipulated by the US Constitution, to remove a president from office through Articles of Impeachment.

“I can’t fathom a more serious crime than for a sitting president to refuse to acknowledge a fair election and then set a mob on Congress,” she added.

Commissioner Jim Crawford, a Democrat, called for N.C. Republicans, such as Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, to no longer look the other way, as he said they did when Trump attempted to coerce Ukraine into investigating a political rival, showing “the rising generation of North Carolinians the difference between bravery and cowardice.”

“The attack on the Capitol demonstrates the high price we pay for mendacity. Donald Trump’s biggest lie is that he loves our country,” he said. “As the FBI arrests the thugs and investigates their networks of coordination, we will see how pervasive is the mind-poison that Trump has peddled for four years. ... How anyone could be inspired by a grifter from Queens to commit treason against the United States in its hallowed temple is simply beyond my comprehension. This is not the nation that we want to be.”

This story has been corrected to reflect that British troops stormed the Capitol in 1814, not in the 1840s as previously stated.

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder. Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @hannermclellan.

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