WASHINGTON — On the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, Abigail Cate anticipated a long day of work on the Senate floor as a chamber assistant. She was expected to aid Republican staff and senators as they voted to certify the 2020 presidential election and help other chamber assistants transport electoral ballots from the Senate to the House floor, a historic tradition during the certification process.
“People told me that pictures of this will be in history textbooks,” Cate recalled, “We were honestly all really excited.”
On her commute to work the then 19-year-old rode the metro with people dressed in American flags and “MAGA” merchandise and walked passed protesters wandering the Capitol lawn.
Cate anticipated a long day, but not a dangerous one. The Republican Cloakroom notified her of heightened press presence and the chance of protesting outside – not unusual on Capitol grounds. She was told to arrive early and warned she may work late into the night due to Republican objections to certifying votes from swing states.
After a nationally-televised trip to the House floor with the electoral ballots, Cate and a colleague munched on sour punch straws by a window facing the front of the Capitol. A crowd of protesters accumulated outside, but Cate said she did not view them as dangerous or a threat. Rumors of protesters breaching House office buildings did not concern her at the time.
“Everyone was like, ‘oh wow,’ but no one seemed too worried. You can’t break into the U.S. Capitol. I was told I was in the safest building in the country.”
Cate’s sense of safety soon changed when Vice President Mike Pence was suddenly removed from the Senate Chamber by secret service. As if all at once, she felt something was “deeply wrong.” She was instructed to stay put and not to panic. Approximately twenty minutes later, Cate was told to flee the Chamber.
While waiting in a safe room for the attack to subside, Cate desperately wanted to connect with family but she left her phone in the Cloakroom because technology is not allowed on the Senate floor. A Senator lent her a personal cell phone to make a call.
“There was a lot of camaraderie in that room,” said Cate, among staff and senators alike. “When President Biden came on TV to address the attack, everyone clapped. When Trump appeared, no one clapped. Not even his most strong supporters. At that moment, it seemed everyone was on the same page about how we had gotten here and what needed to be done.”
After nearly five hours of waiting, Cate and fellow Republican staff returned to the Senate. She wipe bear-spray off of desks and rearrange papers that had been thrown around the floor in hopes of making the Chamber presentable for the returning senators.
“I wish some of the senators could have seen what it looked like when I came in. Maybe it would have resonated more if they had seen that mess. I did not want to go back there that night, I just wanted to go home and be safe.”
The Senate proceeded to certify Joe Biden as President of the United States. Around midnight, Cate was escorted back to her apartment.
Cate was safe from insurrectionists, but far from escaping the events of Jan. 6th. Over the following weeks she said she found it “impossible” to avoid coverage of the attack.
“Over time, it just becomes the story you see on TV. It’s hard to balance seeing it as a media thing, and also feeling like this happened to me personally,” said Cate, who turned off her news notifications the following day..
Cate blames the insurrection not only on Trump’s rally that morning, but an entire presidency built upon “hate and animosity.” As for the Republican lawmakers she once served who still support him, she said she is frustrated by a lack of empathy.
“I wish I could just walk [Republican lawmakers] through my whole day and the genuine fear I felt, a fear that has lasted two years. Real people were hurt. They went too far.”
Cate said she is also frustrated by false reporting that minimizes what she experienced firsthand.
“I think the American people need to understand what happened. Yes, it was a security breach and an attack on our elections. But people forget that this was Americans fighting Americans. Americans tried to kill other Americans. [The press] needs to do a better job personalizing it.”
Cate left her job in the Senate in 2022. She will graduate from George Washington University in May with a degree in International Affairs.