Vermont Conversation: Rep. Peter Welch says it’s ‘an all-hands-on-deck moment’ to defend democracy

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said he believes the failed coup of January 2021 was a rehearsal for a successful one. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

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On January 6, 2021, supporters of former President Donald Trump, who falsely claimed the 2020 presidential election had been stolen, launched a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop Congress’s formal certification of President Joe Biden's electoral victory. Rep. Peter Welch, who has been Vermont’s lone Congress member since 2007, was in the House chamber waiting to vote. As rioters rampaged in the halls, Welch was ordered to lie on the floor by Capitol police who stood over him and his colleagues with guns drawn. Welch heard a gunshot. He thought he might die.

“All of us thought that at some point,” says Welch. “When we heard that gun go off, and we saw that the mob was trying to break the doors down, that this could include violence. So the thought definitely occurred to every single person who was there, including the Capitol police officers. In fact, five officers died as a result of what happened that day.

Welch notes that many of his colleagues experience post-traumatic stress disorder after the terror they endured in the insurrection. Welch says, “My PTSD now … is the reality that our democracy is very much in peril.” He points to what followed hours after the attack on the Capitol: 147 Republicans voted to overturn the election of President Biden.

“That's a shattering of the democratic norm of the peaceful transfer of power,” says Welch.

I ask Welch if he believes that the failed coup was a rehearsal for a successful one.

“Yes, I do. It's definitely happening.” He adds, “There are efforts to use through legislation the capacity to overturn a presidential election, rather than the use of violence that failed on January 6. So yes, it's very much a work in progress.”

Welch says that his sense of urgency about defending democracy is what motivates him to run for U.S. Senate in 2022. “It's an all-hands-on-deck moment,” he says. “Our democracy is imperiled. And we have to preserve it. ... Given my circumstances, given my service in Congress, the decision I made is this is the best way I can help. And I am absolutely all in."

Below is a partial transcript, edited for length and clarity.

David Goodman: What do you call what happened? We hear insurrection, riot, coup. What do you call it? 

Peter Welch: Well, it was an attempt to overthrow the election of President Joseph Biden. That's an insurrection. 

The stunning thing is that it was the first time in our history where there was an organized effort to deny the peaceful transfer of power to the person elected by the people of this country. And secondly, it was the first time in our country where, in order to achieve that goal, violence was used as a means of political persuasion. So it was absolutely an effort to overthrow the election, and it came within a whisker of happening. 

The only thing that held it back was a couple of the institutions held. One was Vice President Pence, who — under enormous pressure, not just from then-President Trump, but from the mob outside, where I was, and saw the makeshift gallows with the signs, “Hang Mike Pence” — Mike Pence, under immense pressure, did not do the president's bidding. And of course, the Georgia secretary of state, who was asked to “find 10,000 votes,” did not do that for then-President Trump. But the mob used violence. I mean, it was absolutely searing. 

I was in the Capitol. I was in the House chamber at the time. But before that — I live very close to the Supreme Court. I took a walk early in the day along the Mall, down past the Capitol, past the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, and then back by the White House. And it was a scene that was not alarming to me at the moment. Because there were lots of folks in there — they had the Trump paraphernalia on. They had the signs. There are a lot of very angry, violent epithets in the signs. But it was a lot of people out there. And never in a million years could I imagine they actually breached the Capitol, which later happened. 

But there was something that was very alarming to me. When I walked past the Ellipse, which is where the President was later going to address the crowd, and famously told them to get tough and go down there — it was the scene of intense, white-hot anger. People were hurling epithets at everybody in the Capitol. “F— those people” was the chant that many were chanting. And what was so alarming to me was that, I understood people were totally loyal to Trump. I knew they were angry at Nancy Pelosi and maybe Mike Pence. But that indiscriminate, white-hot anger at everybody who was in the Capitol — that included cafeteria workers, it included the custodial staff, as well as, obviously, police officers. 

These are folks who work incredibly hard. Many of them have to live an hour or more away from the Capitol because the cost of housing in Washington is so high. And these are people just doing their work. And that anger was so indiscriminate that it was scary to me — to see people that were so intensely angry about what was going on that they could make abstract the lives of these fellow citizens and fellow human beings. That was really, really alarming to me. 

David Goodman: So you then ventured back into the Capitol to do your job. On January 6, remind us what Congress was convening to do and where you were physically.

Peter Welch: Our job on January 6 is just a ceremonial job to certify that the votes from the state of Vermont and every other state, as presented through the secretary of state, are accurate, and recertify the election. It’s pro forma. We're not counting the votes. Those are the elector votes. And it's really never been a contest other than 1876. 

Of course, the “stop the steal” movement was based on the argument — for which there was no evidence — that there was fraud in some of these states. And many of the Trump-aligned members of Congress and the Senate were going to vote against certifying Joe Biden as the duly elected president of the United States. 

It was appalling to me that anybody who was serving in Congress would vote in that way, where there was no evidence whatsoever. Because obviously, all of us, whether we're Republicans or Democrats, don't decide who the president is. That's not our job. That's the right, and the exclusive right, to the people of this country. So to be imposing ourselves into this was crossing a line, breaching a norm, that is very, very dangerous. 

It was so bizarre. When I'd be talking to some of my colleagues — I remember talking to one from Pennsylvania, where he's arguing that it was fraudulent on the ballot, and I said, “Wait a minute. Weren't you on the same ballot? Didn't they count you and elect you?” And of course, the answer to that is yes. But that selective thinking allowed him, in what he asserted was in good conscience, to claim that that vote, that ballot, was counted correctly as to getting him elected to Congress, but it was counted incorrectly as to getting Joe Biden elected to be president. 

In retrospect, the fact that the members of Congress did that, I think, was a real breach of the norms that all of us have to accept — that it's the voters, not the members of Congress, who decide who our president is. 

David Goodman: When the riot reaches the doors of the chamber of the House, where were you and where did you go?

Peter Welch: I was in the gallery. Because of (Covid-19) and the physical distancing, some members were on the floor, some members were in the gallery and some members were in their offices as the debate was going on. But I was in the gallery with a number of other members of Congress and some of the press.

I couldn't believe that there was any possibility that anybody in the Capitol was going to be threatened. I have always said, it's like the safest place in the world. So the notion that this was going to be attacked never occurred to me — even though I had done this two-hour walk on the Mall and seen what was white-hot rage among the protesters at that point. 

What happened in the Capitol was, suddenly, we saw the security people for the speaker and the majority leader and the minority leader, Kevin McCarthy. They are there in the back of the chamber, by that iconic door that opens when the president is announced to enter and address the Congress and the American people in the State of the Union. The security people came rushing down and just almost lifted up Steny Hoyer. He was leaving. He was startled, and he was just taken out. And then the speaker's staff did the same thing. She was gone so quickly that she didn't even have a chance to take her cellphone with her. 

All of us who were there on the floor and the gallery were totally baffled and bewildered. And then things just sat there with no explanation of what was going on. And Jim McGovern, the chair of the Rules Committee, took the speaker's position on the podium and started continuing the process of certification. And then suddenly, one of the Capitol police officers interrupted the proceedings — and this has never happened in my 15 years in Congress — and said, “The Capitol has been breached.” There's been said, as I recall, there was tear gas, fire. 

Of course, all of us who were in the gallery, in the chamber, had no clue as to what was being seen on television, with the mob climbing up the ramparts and starting to batter down the doors. But we paused. And then there was another announcement that the Capitol had been breached. We were told to lie down on the floor, to get out gas masks that are available under the seats and to put those on. 

David Goodman: Gas masks are routinely located under the seats in the House? 

Peter Welch: They are.

David Goodman: Did you know that before that day? 

Peter Welch: I did not know that. So we were told to get these gas masks on, get on the floor. Everyone was pretty nervous. But again, we had no knowledge of what was going on. 

At a certain point, though, we started hearing banging on the doors, and we saw the security folks starting to just do makeshift obstructions. Heavy bookcases were put over those iconic doors that were later attempted to be battered down. All my colleagues on the floor, all of us really worried, people starting to make phone calls — (Michigan Rep.) Dan Kildee talks about that call. Because I think a lot of us had in mind the visuals of a lot of those other demonstrations around the country, where folks in camo and with AK-47s were very much in attendance. So there was a fear that this was going to end violently.

But what I remember almost more than anything else — as I was on the floor, standing above me was a young Capitol police officer. He's probably in his early 30s. He has gone up, as they all did, and they were watching left and right on all of the doors — there's so many doors where entry can be made in the gallery — and intently looking, but he had a look on his face. I can't say it was apprehensive, because he was going to do his job. But his life would change if he had to pull that trigger. 

The idea that people would put this young man in this position where he had to make that choice — that would be so horrible for him to have to do that. But I knew that he would do it if that's what he had to do. He was standing basically over me and Congresswoman (Susan) Wild, and he was going to do what he had to do, to do his job and protect the members who were there. But that a mob would put a person, a good person, another fellow citizen, in that position was really appalling to me, and is with me to this day. 

David Goodman: Do you have PTSD from that experience? 

Peter Welch: You know, I don't. A lot of my colleagues do. We've got a group who were in the gallery. A lot of us are on an email chain. I was scared. We all were. But my PTSD now, if anything, is the reality that our democracy is very much in peril. This was not a one-off event. 

I found that in talking to some colleagues who had traumatic experiences before, and it really brought back those memories. I found colleagues who had young children were really terrified because they had to live with this real possibility that they wouldn't be there to take care of their kids, men and women. We all kind of reacted to it in different ways. But the fact that I've had my colleagues that I can interact with has been, I think, quite helpful. 

But it is clear. You know, I was there when the shot was fired. I was in the gallery. We were literally about 20 feet away. The shot was fired on the second floor. We were on the third floor. So we didn't see it, but we heard it. It was unmistakable. That was just the floor below us. 

Those of us who were in the gallery were the last to get out. Because you couldn't just go out the door that went from the floor of the chamber, through the Speaker's Lobby, and then to the safe spot that was across the street. You had to go all the way around this building, or this gallery, where the seats were close together. And there were railings that were just a little too high to go over easily, just a little too low to go under easily. And with all respect to my colleagues, members of Congress are not the most athletic group of people in the country. 

So it was actually a long process to get out. We'd go 20 feet and the officers would hear some banging on the door. They would tell us we had to get back down on the floor. And then they'd have us get up and go another 20 or 30 feet and have us get back down on the floor. It was a very, very slow process, during which we had Capitol police officers with their guns out, looking at what was happening and whether any of the doors would be breached. 

David Goodman: Did you think that you were going to get hurt or even killed that day? 

Peter Welch: All of us thought that at some point. I mean, there was no question when we heard that gun go off, and we saw that the mob was trying to break the doors down, that this could include violence. The thought definitely occurred to every single person who was there, including the Capitol police officers, they said. In fact, five officers died as a result of what happened that day. And of course, the woman who was trying to climb in through the door to the Speaker's Lobby was shot and killed as well. So people died as a result of the activities that day. 

David Goodman: There has been a lot of talk about the complicity of certain Republican Congress members in aiding or abetting the rioters. What do you understand about that? And do you believe that there was complicity? 

Peter Welch: Well, there's definitely been support for the “stop the steal” movement. The fact is that even after this violence, 147 of my colleagues voted to not certify Joe Biden as the president of the United States. And that is really, really shocking. And you had some members who clearly were participating in meetings and discussions. 

The whole point of the January 6 committee is to move this beyond the question you asked, and answer, what facts can we get through the emails? Through the text chains? And what we're seeing from the January 6 committee is, there was a lot of planning by a lot of people about trying to use that date to overturn the election. It's not clear how much and who was involved from Congress. But it's clear a number of my colleagues in Congress were very supportive of the effort to overturn the election. I'm going to wait for the January 6 commission before I can have a conclusion on who specifically did what.

David Goodman: The saying goes that a failed coup is a rehearsal for a successful one. Do you believe that's what's happening? 

Peter Welch: Yes, I do. It's definitely happening. And I must say, when you asked me about PTSD, that's what concerns me the most.

My reaction was that the violence, that was so publicly recorded, would have caused a reaction on the part of the American people to reject anybody who was associated with that violence, the attack and the death of Capitol police officers. I thought it was such a terrible stain that people would repudiate it. 

But what has happened? 147 of my colleagues, instead of repudiating the violence, and the effort that that violence was attempting to achieve — the rejection of the election of the president — they voted not to certify the election. That's a shattering of the democratic norm of the peaceful transfer of power.

Secondly, what you're seeing right now is, in Trump-aligned legislatures across the country, they're passing laws that are doing two things. One is making it much tougher for people to vote. But number two, and very, very ominously, taking away the authority of independent commissions to certify the vote — whether it's the secretary of state or an electoral commission that has always been nonpartisan — and transferring that authority to the legislature itself. So that elected legislature, a partisan legislature, can decide who it is they want to be the president of the United States. 

What you're seeing, as we speak, is that there are efforts to use, through legislation, the capacity to overturn a presidential election, rather than use of violence that failed on January 6. So yes, it's very much a work in progress. 

David Goodman: And yet Congress has been unable to do anything to stop this by passing federal election protection laws. 

Peter Welch: That's right. We passed it in the House, as you know. 

There's three things that are pending in the Senate that we passed in the House: The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would restore protections in many of the Southern districts. Number two, the For the People Act, which would guarantee that there were election integrity procedures about voting, and about making certain that nonpartisan determinations were made about the counting of the vote, as opposed to partisan electoral bodies. And then third, something that's long overdue, is to shore up the institutional authority of the House of Representatives as a counterweight to the executive. The fact is that the Article One responsibilities of Congress as a coequal branch of government are withering. You're seeing that even with the Trump years — a complete repudiation of oversight by the executive. Thumbing his nose at any subpoena, or congressional effort to get information that's relevant to the oversight responsibility of the Congress. 

Those are really critical. They're pending in the Senate. The filibuster is standing between us and getting those passed.

David Goodman: I have to say, as somebody who watched the Watergate hearings back in the day, the word subpoena used to send a shudder through lawmakers or anyone who received one. Because it kind of meant the game was up — that all the shucking and jiving was over, and you now had to show up and defend or testify. Now, that has become like a joke, like a punchline. They’re all defied.

Peter Welch: That is exactly right. And that is a development that imperils democracy. The whole constitutional framework is separate but equal branches of government, and that all three have coequal status. And what you're seeing now is an imperial executive that is acting as though it's beyond any oversight and accountability to the legislative branch, which is the branch elected by all of the people. And that's a very ominous development for our democracy. And it's why this legislation to restore subpoena power — the authority to hold the executive accountable, to give authority to Congress, and that could be a Republican- or a Democratic-led Congress, but where the Congress itself has to be asserting itself as an equal branch of government — that is vital to the restoration of democratic rule. 

David Goodman: Let's shift for a moment here to the daily work that you do. The Build Back Better bill, the so-called soft infrastructure bill that includes free community college, universal pre-K, expanded Medicare coverage, paid family and medical leave, climate initiatives. Sen. Sanders had called on House Progressives to vote against this bill being separated from the so-called hard infrastructure bill — roads and bridges. And he said it would “end all leverage” if you did that. You disagreed and voted for the bills separately. And now President Biden is unable to persuade Sens. Manchin and Sinema, as well as all the Republicans, to pass this Build Back Better bill. 

Was Sen. Sanders right? Do you have second thoughts about having voted to separate these? 

Peter Welch: I don't. I mean, the reality is, this is coming down to Joe Manchin. Would Joe Manchin have buckled because we held back on infrastructure or not? The fact is, none of us really know. 

The reality here is that the importance of Build Back Better is as important to the people in West Virginia as it is to the people in Vermont. This is a bit of a head scratcher for many of us. Why would Joe Manchin want to deny the benefit of paid family leave to folks in West Virginia? Why would he want to deny affordable child care? In Vermont, a young family with two kids may pay 30% of their income for child care. This would bring it down to 7%. 

One of the things Manchin talks about is the debt. Well, the reality is, this is paid for. This legislation is paid for. 

I was in West Virginia. I was with Joe Manchin. I went to a mine in Harrison, West Virginia, went down 900 feet, 4 and a half miles in, spent the afternoon with the coal miners cutting coal on the side of a seam of coal. Those are hard-working folks. They're wonderful folks. And I came out the next day, and I worked with him — Joe Manchin and David McKinley, who was my host, a West Virginia member of Congress — to fight to get health care benefits back that had been literally stolen, in my view, by the coal operators. They had negotiated health care benefits for life for these coal miners, and you know they need them given that job. What those companies would do is declare bankruptcy, they’d reorganize, but when they reorganize, they'd offload what that commitment was that they made in exchange for lower wages for the miners. 

We fought in Congress, and we got that. We got the coal miners their benefits. So what I say to Joe Manchin is, Joe, look — this is important for the people you represent. It's important for us.

Even on the climate initiatives — which, by the way, we have no time to delay on dealing with climate — there's a lot in there that would be helpful to West Virginia. 

So, what the tactic is and who was right, none of us will know. But we've got to get that passed, that paid-for bill passed, for the benefit of folks in West Virginia, and in Vermont and around the country. 

David Goodman: Sen. Manchin may soon be your colleague if you win your race to replace Sen. Leahy. In that election, you have announced that you will not be taking contributions from PACs. But this sort of begs the question that you have accepted PAC money for the last 14 years. What has changed?

Peter Welch: There's a question of conscience in government, and corporate PACs have raised the question as to whether or not that is influencing your vote. It never has. It never would. It never will. But it's an effort on my part to acknowledge the questions that are raised about corporations and PACs. 

The reality is, there's way, way too much money in politics. Beyond the PACs, it’s these super PACs, where it's undisclosed amounts of money. It's unlimited amounts of money. And it's why I have been a lifelong supporter of campaign finance reform and public financing of elections. 

So this is an effort to take a small step. But the reality is, the challenges we face with this toxic money in politics is really doing a lot of damage. 

When I first got elected to Congress, it was pre-Citizens United. And I made my opponent, Martha Rainville, who was the very good Republican candidate — we made a pledge. We had a cup of coffee and said, “Hey, we don't want to do negative ads.” And since that was pre-Citizens United, and super PACs were not legal, we controlled the money in our campaigns. That was the last time in America that there were no negative ads in a contested congressional race. We couldn't do that now. Citizens United has just got to go and got to be overturned. 

David Goodman: Would you consider giving back money that you've previously raised from corporate PACs? 

Peter Welch: No, I won't. At this point, these elections have come and gone, and not a single contribution, whether it's from a PAC, a corporate PAC or any other PAC, or an individual, has influenced my votes. 

David Goodman: Let's close by talking about that race. Why are you running for Senate? 

Peter Welch: You know, it's an all-hands-on-deck moment. This whole conversation is reminding me of what is at stake, and it's our democracy. It's our democracy, and it's the direction of our government. But the most important thing is, our democracy is imperiled, and we have to preserve it. 

Wherever you are, whether you're young, you're middle-aged, or you're older, each of us has to make a decision about what we can do to best help preserve our democracy. And given my circumstances, given my service in Congress, the decision I made is, this is the best way I can help. And I am absolutely all in. And I respect the decisions others make, as long as their decision is that it's going to be part of restoring and reviving our democracy, and secondly, the direction of our government. 

The Trump years were terrible in many ways. But when you have a government that actually repudiates science, that uses racism as a mobilizing agenda — there's nothing good that's ever going to come out of that. We have to have a government that acknowledges that it works for the people. That it has to face problems, not deny that they exist. They exist. Obviously, Exhibit A is climate change. Exhibit B is income inequality, where you've got an economy that works incredibly well for folks in certain sectors, but really, it's tough on everybody else. 

We’ve got a moment. All of us are living in this moment. And all of us are in different situations where what we can do is determined by our temperament, by our personal situation — and I'm in a position where I hope I can make a big contribution to the urgency of facing these problems now, by running for the U.S. Senate and serving. 

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David Goodman

About David

David Goodman is an award-winning journalist and the author of a dozen books, including four New York Times bestsellers that he co-authored with his sister, Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman. His work has appeared in Mother Jones, New York Times, Outside, Boston Globe and other publications. He is the host of The Vermont Conversation, a VTDigger podcast featuring in-depth interviews about local and national topics. The Vermont Conversation is also an hour-long weekly radio program that can be heard on Wednesday at 1 p.m. on WDEV/Radio Vermont.

Email: [email protected]

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