WASHINGTON — The scene in the Capitol seemed jarringly disconnected. Inside the House, the nation’s lawmakers spoke with solemnity about democracy, the rule of law and the words of Abraham Lincoln as they undertook a vote to remove the president from office.
They wore masks, a rule imposed by Democrats, as a measure of the pandemic that continues to ravage the country.
But only steps away, outside the chamber doors, there was the look of an armed encampment.
The House impeachment of President Donald Trump for inciting an insurrection on the home of the branch of government created in Article I of the Constitution contained arresting reminders of the violence and death wrought just a week ago and the fears that the Capitol needed enhanced protection to prevent it from happening again.
Where visitors once walked, hundreds of National Guard members camped out, protecting lawmakers still reeling from last week’s violence and preparing for the inauguration of Joe Biden.
The Capitol grounds were wrapped in seven-foot fences, and scores of other law enforcement officers and troops kept a watchful eye.
The Capitol always sees stepped-up security precautions leading up to an inauguration, but it rarely looks like the nation is on a war footing.
But along with the signs of fear, there were also signs of gratefulness for those protecting the Capitol. A tunnel leading to House office buildings has become a makeshift tribute to members of law enforcement who protected the Capitol. More than 50 police officers were injured in the attack, including 15 who were hospitalized. One was killed.
Outside of the Capitol, members of the National Guard — many carrying semi-automatic assault rifles — are supplementing the work of the U.S. Capitol Police, forming perimeters around each of the office buildings that lawmakers and their staffs use when not in the Capitol for votes.
As the debate over whether to impeach Trump ensued in the afternoon on the House floor, one side called for unity, the other accountability. It’s unclear whether either will happen.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gaveled the vote and announced the tally — but only after waiting for California Democratic ally Maxine Waters, a strong opponent of Trump, to cast the 232nd and final vote to impeach him.
As Pelosi announced the vote count, there was hardly a sound. A single clap from one or two in the audienc was quickly replaced by silence as most members headed for the exits.