This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.
The Secret Service is perhaps the most elite security force in the world, a group of trained professionals whose skills are matched only by their finely honed and celebrated paranoia. If you can picture a worst-case scenario, there are terrific odds that the team that lives on earpiece vibrations can beat your dystopian fantasy. It’s literally their job to ask what can possibly go wrong and then shift course to ensure their charges can make it through another day. If their issue wants to visit a war zone, the Secret Service can, with sufficient warning, get the package in and out before potential threats even know they’re in the theater. When those in the backseats are the President, Vice President, their families and—at times—their senior staffers, there’s not a lot of room for simply hoping for the best. Success is the only acceptable option.
This is why the testimony heard Thursday night about the Secret Service agents assigned to protect Vice President Mike Pence on Jan. 6, 2021, is as shocking as it is terrifying. The Jan. 6 committee used part of its second primetime hearing to play audio from a White House security official who described how those agents thought they were about to die as a mob of supporters of President Donald Trump inched closer to the office in the Capitol where they were hiding.
“Members of the V.P. detail at this time were starting to fear for their own lives. There was a lot of yelling—a lot of very personal calls over the radio. It was very disturbing. I don’t like talking about it,” the official, who was provided anonymity to be candid, told the committee. “There were calls to say goodbye to family members. For whatever reason on the ground, the V.P. detail thought that this was about to get very ugly.”
“About to get very ugly.” At the U.S. Capitol. During what should have been a routine rubber-stamp of the 2020 election results. Panicked calls from the House Republican Leader to the President, and later his kids. The Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader bunkered down and asking for a security assessment of their fiefdom from the Pentagon’s chief. The President trying to hijack his motorcade and, when that failed, keeping it idling in the White House drive as he searched for a single yes man to let him head to the Hill. If you’re an adherent of America First political ideology, such a stab to the country’s standing as a functioning republic runs quite counter to the slogan.
To be crystal clear: Nothing about that day was normal, and the bipartisan group of House lawmakers trying to get to its bottom isn’t leaving any stones unturned. In fact, it now seems like the plans of wrapping up their query by the end of this month may slip—and for good reason.
As committee members and staffers learn more, they have more questions. Why, for instance, wouldn’t Trump admit the election was over even on Jan. 7? Why was he vamping on a recorded video and resisting his scripted call for peace? Ultimately, what responsibility does Trump have for a day that left him mostly sitting on the sidelines as he literally watched TV coverage of the violence unfolding in his backyard? And to what end?
Most Americans have long assumed that the shell that the Secret Service builds around its protectees is impenetrable—even if agents have proven in recent years capable of epic failures in judgment and, in recent days, been shown to mount a colossal bungling of its own records.
The testimony aired Thursday evening of the agents’ state of mind, coupled with the footage from that day of a scurrying Pence, laid bare the very real risk the presidential backup faced. Such a flaking of confidence is not only bad for the Secret Service. It’s bad for the projection of America’s might.
The Jan. 6 committee has already crushed expectations. The narrative around that failed insurrection is being preserved in testimony and evidence. While it’s easy for Trumpists to shout nuh-uh when confronted with the facts, the committee has the receipts. For a brief time Thursday night, House Republicans even used their main Twitter account to attack a Republican Hill staffer testifying against her former boss—proving once again that the GOP is making a short-term bet on appeasing Trump over getting right by history.
For much of Washington, the fragile nature of democracy on Jan. 6 has an uneasy echo to the days after the Sept. 11 attacks. The country’s arrogance on 9/11 melted—briefly—as one brand of extremism sought to humble Americans. It isn’t a stretch to think a similar radicalization primer found receptive ears 20 years later in the homegrown extremists bent on derailing Americans’ exercise of democratic norms.
And with the Secret Service now confirmed to have feared that it might not have been able to defend the Vice President from a lynching, yet another stress fracture in American confidence emerges.
Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the D.C. Brief newsletter.
- TIME's Top 100 Photos of 2022
- I Tested Positive for COVID-19 Right Before the Holidays. What Should I Do?
- Column: How To Create a Sense of Belonging In a Divided America
- How to Survive the Holidays if You're a Scrooge
- Life Expectancy Provides Evidence of How Far Black Americans Have Come
- The 10 Best Albums of 2022
- Iran Has a Long History of Protest and Activism
- 6 Ways to Give Better Gifts—Based on Science