One year after protesters stormed inside the United States Capitol Jan. 6, One Detroit contributor Nolan Finley sat down with United States Congressman Fred Upton to recount how it felt to be inside the Capitol during the insurrection. Upton shares an eyewitness account of the insurrection, expresses his thoughts about the state of our democracy, and discusses whether he thinks the Capitol riot has affected our democracy’s trajectory.
Nolan Finley, Editorial Page Editor, The Detroit News: So Congressman, you were in the Capitol on January 6th when the demonstrators poured in, where were you when that incident began?
Congressman Fred Upton, (R-MI) St. Joseph: The Speaker actually asked because of COVID, no more than 80 members of the 435 be on the House floor. So I decided I’ve seen this a number of times. Normally I was there on the floor when they would count the electoral ballots, but I would let freshman, the new freshman Peter Meijer from Michigan, one of them, to be on the House floor. I went back to my office and then watched it on TV and the interesting point of fact here was I’m one of the couple of members that actually has a balcony in the Rayburn Building. So it overlooks the mall, and I saw all the protesters taking the subway to the Capitol South Metro stop, walk then down to the White House 16 blocks. Not all that far. It was a cold morning. Then walk back and I was out on my balcony watching much of this. And in fact, the National Guard, the state police, all of those folks literally came and emptied out from their vehicles right below my office as they watched this thing unfold that afternoon.
Nolan Finley: Now, Congressman, from your perspective, having been there that day, was this a riot? Was this a demonstration? Was this an insurrection? How would you categorize it?
Congressman Fred Upton: No, I would call it an insurrection. They knew what they were doing. Yeah, there was a lot of mob. I’m sure there were some people that sort of got caught up into it, but there were thousands of people, tens of thousands of people is my guess. I watched the president’s speech on my TV from my office and went out again, back and forth to my balcony, which I left the door open. The individuals were cleared out about six or seven o’clock that night. And this thing started about at 2:30. So I was watching it on my TV and my C-SPAN in my office. I saw when the Speaker literally said, ‘Let’s get out of here.’ I knew that the chamber had been broached, and after it was quiet, I would say, I went over to the Capitol an hour or two before votes started again. It was important to finish the job on January 6th. I spent time talking to the SWAT team folk. They had been beaten up. They were just literally lying on the floor and there was broken glass. You saw the vestiges of what they did, and certainly afterwards, I know that — we have a Capitol Hill policeman from my hometown, St. Joe/Benton Harbor — that I spent time with but also spent some time with the other officers that were there literally hours as they described to me, what happened. One of them was telling me is they dragged, literally dragged him out of the Capitol door, shoot him with his own gun.
Nolan Finley: So Fred, do you get the sense that this was spontaneous? Was it organized?
Congressman Fred Upton: You know, that’s I think one of the things that the January 6th commission is going to indicate when they finish the job, probably this next year. I don’t know. You know, it seems to me that from the outside that there was some planning here, but it’s important that we actually get to the facts, which is why I supported a bipartisan commission. It passed the House with a pretty decent margin. Unfortunately, the Senate didn’t have the 60 votes to pass it there, even though they had a majority. And that, of course, what’s continuing to deliberate now, this January 6th commission, is they interview hundreds of people trying to get (inaudible) was it spontaneous? Was it planned? Who was behind it? And you know, all the ramifications that come about.
Nolan Finley: So Fred, I mean, you’re a Republican, but you supported the commission in its current form. It’s pretty much dominated by Democrats. Do you trust this commission? Do you feel that it’s being politicized? Are you confident in its work?
Congressman Fred Upton: So there are actually three different versions of the commission. The first one was, in fact, very partisan. So a number of Democrats said they were against it as well, and it really didn’t have the chutzpah to move forward. Then it was negotiated with a Republican, John Katko, who had Kevin McCarthy’s lead with the Speaker’s team. They devised a select committee that was going to be equal Republicans and Democrats, equal staff to submit a subpoena. You’d have to have both a Republican and a Democrat support it, so you wouldn’t have just a partisan request. And it was going to be done by the end of this year. That’s last week. (It) was going to be done by the end of 2021. So that was the commission that I supported. That was the commission that passed the House. It was going to be bipartisan, bicameral.
That was the one that the Senate then didn’t have the 60 votes, and so when that failed, Pelosi then came with somewhat of her original plan. And that’s the one that we just have now two Republicans on. The other spots were filled by McCarthy, although she knocked them off thinking they were too partisan. And that’s the— and we had a vote on that. I voted against that panel because that wasn’t the panel that I originally supported, but that’s the one that’s in place, and that’s the one now that is moving forward. And of course, it’s not equal Republican and Democrat, and it didn’t finish in 2021 as the other panel that…We didn’t want this to bleed into an election year, being this year now, ’22.
Nolan Finley: So what are your concerns about this panel?
Congressman Fred Upton: Well, we’re going to see what they do. I mean, it’s legit. I mean, it was formed. They have subpoena power. They’ll be doing the report. We’ve had a number of different issues that have come now to the House floor. I was one that did not accept Steve Bannon’s thinking that he would be exempt from this, claiming executive privilege. He didn’t work at the White House, hadn’t worked there for years. So how would that be covered under executive privilege? President Trump? So, I voted and he was cited for contempt. That’s now in the courts that are gonna, when we do this, when we cite them for contempt, it merely sends it to the Justice Department for them to then decide whether they want, see whether or not a hearing is held. We had another contempt arrest on the floor for Mark Meadows, president, former President Trump’s former Chief of Staff. I voted not to hold him in contempt, feeling that there is some, certainly a perception, but certainly some thinking that he should be exempted in some degree and didn’t feel that the process had necessarily been completed.
Nolan Finley: Culpability do you feel former President Donald Trump has in what happened on January 6th?
Congressman Fred Upton: What disturbed me the most was found when it was over. President Trump said that he had done everything, in his words, totally appropriate. I didn’t think that was the case. And I know at just the close, Kevin McCarthy, the majority-minority leader for us, the Republican leader, called them from his office in the Capitol and said, ‘Mr. President, call the dogs off. You know, these are your supporters. Tell them to stop. You’re doing a terrible thing for your legacy, et cetera.’ As we all know, the president’s response, allegedly that Kevin reported, was ‘I guess they care more about the election than you did.’ That’s not totally appropriate in my book.
Nolan Finley: So, Congressman, I wanted to ask you about that as we closed the broader issue here. Vice President Kamala Harris said the other day that the threat to our democracy is her biggest concern. Do you feel our democracy is threatened and this represents some sort of broader movement that may undermine our republic?
Congressman Fred Upton: You know, I sure hope not. I don’t know that I could go as far as what she said. I didn’t see specifically your comments, but you know, we’re a democracy. Every vote should count. I believe that there are the safeguards there to make sure that ballots are counted, but that I do think that we have to get to the bottom of what happened a year ago now, January 6th.
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