PLATTSBURGH — The breach of the U.S. Capitol by a pro-President Donald Trump mob Wednesday was shocking at one level, former Congressman and Plattsburgh attorney Bill Owens says.
But he argued the president and those who supported his claims of election fraud, including Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, helped lay the foundation for the unrest.
“They bear responsibility for what’s occurring,” he told The Press-Republican.
Owens, who served in Congress from 2009 to 2015 posited that, in various statements he has made over the last several months, Trump indicated he was hoping for such a riot.
“It’s very problematic,” he said. “It’s really the first time in our history when the president has really incited his supporters to violence and it’s very, very troubling.”
‘Set the table’
Senators and House members who had been debating the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory were evacuated Wednesday afternoon when protesters who had fought with U.S. Capitol Police forced their way into the building.
Stefanik, who tweeted that she and her staff were safe, was one of about 140 House members who had announced their plans to object during the certification process. She had alleged election irregularities; since November dozens of suits brought by Trump and his allies claiming election and voter fraud have been thrown out.
Owens believes the president, Stefanik and her congressional colleagues “set the table” for Wednesday’s events, and that any actions aimed at quelling the sentiments that fueled them will be “too little, too late.”
Stefanik tweeted that she fully condemned “the dangerous violence and destruction of the Capitol grounds,” and called the actions “unAmerican.”
In a video, Trump bookended his message telling the rioters to go home by again claiming the election was stolen.
“Now they’re trying to cover themselves when I don’t think that they can,” Owens said. “I think that this is now such a bad situation, they should be standing up and taking responsibility, which clearly they are not doing.”
Owens recalled from his time in office that the procedure during unsafe situations was to shelter-in-place, meaning return to your office, and use the tunnels connecting the Capitol building to congressional offices instead of going outside.
“Of course today that’s not very helpful because the protesters are inside,” he remarked.
He recalled that thousands camped out around the Capitol ahead of the Affordable Care Act vote.
“There was no direct violence but there was certainly intimidation of members as they walked back and forth between the office buildings and the Capitol, and people confronting us inside,” though not at the level of Wednesday’s riot.
During that time, Owens would mostly utilize the tunnels as a safety precaution. He also recalled having to remain in his office during a shooting on the Senate side.
Such events bring bewilderment and feel surreal, he said.
Though these situations are stressful, Owens added, most members were mature and had been prepared to work during such instances.
“I would say most people handled it appropriately.”
Owens said he believes the U.S. Capitol Police were put in a very difficult position Wednesday.
“Merely planning for something like this could be construed as, if you will, anticipating it in a negative sense. I can understand why they were very cautious about how they proceeded. I am a little surprised they let it get as out of hand as it apparently has, that surprises me.”
The former congressman did not anticipate that the breach of the Capitol would alter Stefanik and her colleagues’ approach when it came to the election.
Referencing the Trump camp’s unsuccessful lawsuits and assurances from prominent Republicans of the presidential election’s validity, he argued there was no rational basis for objecting to Biden’s victory.
“What they really are objecting to ultimately is that the Democrats did a better job of getting out the vote and they don’t like the people who voted for Democrats and that’s very problematic.
“I think that she (Stefanik) needs now to take responsibility for this and begin to convey to the people that she supports, including the president, the fact that the rhetoric needs to be toned down, steps need to be taken to get under control and they need to be in a position where they’re acting based upon facts, not upon some made up series of stories.”