Pramila Jayapal: “We Don’t Know If We Can Trust Our Republican Colleagues”

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On Wednesday, Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal and 231 of her fellow congresspeople voted to impeach President Donald Trump for inciting the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. Jayapal was at the center of the Trump-caused firestorm in more ways than one: When armed, right-wing extremists broke into the Capitol, she and some of her colleagues were trapped in the gallery above the House chamber where they had been watching as the Electoral College votes were being counted; then they sheltered-in-place together in a secured room, where some of the Republican representatives refused to wear masks. At that time, Jayapal predicted that this would be “a superspreader event on top of a domestic terrorist attack.” Her words ended up coming true and affecting her personally: Jayapal recently tested positive for COVID-19, along with at least four other Democratic colleagues. Ahead, we caught up with her to talk about Donald Trump’s future, unending Republican cruelty, and how she’s faring after her diagnosis.
First of all, how are you feeling after testing positive?
“Thank you. I am feeling better today, so that's giving me a lot of hope. My fever and chills are gone, and it's mostly a stuffy head and nose, kind of like a regular cold. So this thing is not going to win over me. I'm going to be fighting just as hard, if not harder.”
I bet you're working through it all, which can't make it a whole lot easier.
“I think that is part of it. We don't really get sleep — though last night I got a great night's sleep, so I'm feeling very chipper today.”
You voted to impeach Donald Trump on Wednesday, making this the second time that the House has voted to impeach him. Why is this vote particularly important now? And what implications do you believe it could have for his future?
“Donald Trump incited the insurrectionists, and he spent the last two months essentially using every platform he had as president of the United States to say that this election was fraudulent when it was free and fair, and to aid, affect, fuel, and ultimately incite a tactical, armed crowd to conduct the most violent assault on the Capitol since the War of 1812. The whole time it was happening, he was reportedly cheering them on from the White House, not calling for peace, not allowing for the resources that we needed, whether it was National Guardsmen or other assistance. And even his message, released very late as if he was taken hostage to read the words from the Teleprompter, did not blame any of these people and said they were loyal patriots. So we have to take this action because Donald Trump is a threat to our national security every day that he is in office.”
What are your thoughts on what could happen in the Senate, particularly in light of the fact that Mitch McConnell seems to want to wait until after the inauguration to conduct a trial?
“My hope is still that maybe there could be some pressure for Mitch McConnell to take this up immediately. It doesn't look likely, but I will tell you that a few days ago it didn't look likely that we would have the most bipartisan vote ever on impeaching a president. I think if Mitch McConnell refuses to take this up, then it will proceed under the Democratic majority. And I hope that Republicans in the Senate understand how critically important it is that, even though Donald Trump is the ex-president, they vote to convict him. And if that happens with a two-thirds majority in the Senate, then they can vote to ensure that he never holds office again. I believe that there are enough Republicans in the Senate who are horrified by what happened. At least, I hope there are.”
Like you said, this was the most bipartisan impeachment vote in history, but, as you know, it was only 10 Republicans who voted to impeach him. How does that make you feel about the future of their party and our country?
“It's a tough question because obviously I'm glad that there are 10 Republicans who had the courage to put country over party, but I am also horrified that it was only 10 Republicans. It shows you how much lunacy there is in people's heads. It really worries me that this is essentially a cult following. I think the Republican Party is cleaving before our very eyes, and there will be one faction that is frankly terrifying for the future of the country, but there will be another faction that hopefully will begin to rebuild the depth of the Republican Party so that it is a party that is about at least something, even if we disagree with them. You know, some policy ideas instead of just an individual who is unhinged.”
What about the Democrats? Do you think this experience, as well as the new administration, might allow for a more unifying moment among the Democratic Party?
“I do, and I've already seen it, just in the incredible unity around the impeachment vote. There was really very little question that that would happen and very little, if any, opposition to it even initially. And, I also think that it has fundamentally shifted the conversation on race and the response of law enforcement to white nationalists versus to Black Lives Matter folks. The Republican Party can no longer claim to be a party of law enforcement when we saw people dragging out Capitol Police officers and beating them. But also, I think the racism within how white nationalists are perceived versus people who are simply speaking up against the injustice in law enforcement with Black people being murdered every day, that was so clear. I just hope that it leads to far more unity on race in this country, and what we have to do to fix our institutionally racist structures.”
You and some of your colleagues tested positive for COVID after your Republican colleagues refused to wear masks and essentially made fun of you. What lingering feelings do you have about that experience, and what would you like to say to your colleagues, who put you in harm’s way?
“They did. And I've been clear about my anger about that because here we had just experienced a terrorist attack by white nationalists, and we were forced into that room with over 100 people and they were still mocking the idea of science and public health. The number-one guidance to prevent the spread of the virus is wearing a mask and socially distancing. We obviously couldn’t social distance in that particular situation with so many people in that room, but they absolutely could have taken the very simple step of wearing a mask, which is really about protection of other people, not a personal liberty. I think their intransigence around that and the refusal to set an example for the entire country is absolutely part and parcel of why there are 3,200 Americans who are dying every day from COVID.
“So it's an anger about the fact that they gave it to me, because I know I got it from that room. And, my husband has now contracted the virus as well because of his exposure to me. So it's that frustration on a personal level, but it's also this larger anger about how Republicans have treated the virus and allowed almost 400,000 people to die because they have taken it like a joke.
“I think it’s stunning, too, that in spite of them losing a colleague [Luke Letlow, congressman-elect from Louisiana] who just got elected and couldn't take a seat in Congress because he died from COVID, they still are refusing to acknowledge that this is real. I just don't understand it. I also don't understand how it's only Democrats who have been reporting testing positive since the January 6th attack. You've got to believe that there are Republicans, and they're just not telling us. Which means they could be not getting tested, and could be spreading it.”
How are your colleagues who also tested positive doing? It sounds like it may be particularly tough for Bonnie Watson Coleman, who is 75 and a cancer survivor.
“I was checking in on her today. And luckily she also seems to be doing relatively well, though I don't want to speak for her. Brad Schneider, I actually talked to him last night and he does not have any symptoms. Ayanna Pressley and Adriano Espaillat both also tested positive. So that means four out of the five Democrats who have tested positive are people of color. And I do think that reflects the larger story of the virus in this country and how people of color are disproportionately affected.”
Many of your colleagues such as Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have also spoken out since the insurrection, saying they feared for their lives on that day. What was your particular experience like?
“I was trapped in that gallery with about a dozen other members. For me, my biggest source of concern was that I could only walk with a cane because I couldn’t bend my knee; I had recently had knee surgery. So when they told us to duck under the banisters and go to the other side of the gallery, and then get on the floor, it was physically really challenging for me, on top of the fear of being trapped.
“At one point, we were trying to get the attention of the Capitol Police on the main floor, because we weren't sure that anyone was going to come and get us. It was a deeply traumatic experience for those of us who were in the gallery. We were there when the gunshots were fired into the chamber, we heard that. We were also so close to the doors because that gallery is not very big. And so when the rioters were pounding on those doors, it was like, it was literally right there. We didn't know the Capitol Police didn't have anything to barricade those doors with. So it was literally just locking the door and then standing there behind it to try to keep them out.”
It’s been reported that there were police and even Republican lawmakers helping the rioters at the Capitol. What are your thoughts on some of your colleagues potentially being complicit in all of this? 
“I think that's one of the most disturbing pieces of this, that we don't know if we can trust our Republican colleagues. In fact, everything shows that a few of them were part of planning and inciting the insurrection and showing people around. There was the video of one of the main organizers talking about the three members of Congress that were helping to plan this. It also feels like people knew their way around. So the question is whether there were recon tours that were given ahead of time. I think we need to make sure that any member of Congress who was a part of planning and inciting these attacks is removed from Congress. And if they violate the rules that we have put in place around all of our safety, whether it's walking through metal detectors or refusing to wear masks, then there have to be heavy fines levied on them, and they need to not be allowed onto the floor. You don't follow our rules, you can't vote. Period.”

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