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Rep. Johnson: One year later, 'We're not better prepared to defend the U.S. Capitol'

Dusty Johnson 2.jpg
Rep. Johnson's office

This interview is from SDPB's daily public-affairs show, In the Moment.

On January 6, 2021, U.S. Representative Dusty Johnson and his staff members were minutes away from being confronted by rioters who breached the U.S. Capitol building, intent on halting the democratic process.

One year later, Rep. Johnson says meaningful security measures have yet to be enacted, law enforcement officer concerns have not yet been addressed, and members of Congress are less likely to work across party lines than they were before the violence.

In the Moment host Lori Walsh spoke with Rep. Johnson on January 5 about those concerns, about how the insurrection at the capitol is being leveraged politically, and about whether or not the Republican party is overdue for an awakening regarding divisive rhetoric.

The following interview transcript has been auto-generated.


Lori Walsh:

Congressman Dusty Johnson, welcome back as we look back at a year later after the January 6th insurrection, and thanks for being with us today again.

Dusty Johnson:

Absolutely. Thank you.

Lori Walsh:

When we talked a year ago, there was so much that was happening in your personal life with your staff, you were texting your children, trying to figure out how to communicate with them. What was happening with their dad and what was happening in the United States at the same time, looking around your office for improvised weapons in the case that your staff came under attack, you were at an undisclosed location. There were a lot of things that were happening on January 6th of 2021. Now that you look back on that day a year later, what are some of the things that are still burned in your mind that stand out as something you will just never or forget?

Dusty Johnson:

I think how angry some of the, and I'll just note, and I know people know this, but there were thousands of people in Washington DC that day who did not go down to the Capitol, and who did not have any interest in being violent. But the two things that stand out in my mind are how angry some of the people who were at the Capitol were, and how scared some of the law enforcement officers were. And we're not accustomed to seeing fear like that in the faces of these men and women who protect the Capitol. And there are a couple of those images that are really hard to shake.

Lori Walsh:

This is going to be an important part of how we as a nation remember this time and continue to process it, is through the lens of law enforcement officers that day. And we anticipate words from the president, the vice president, other national leaders. What are some of the things that you have had interactions with Capitol police officers since then, or that you feel like they need to hear, those law enforcement officers in the Capitol?

Dusty Johnson:

Well, I would say by and large members of Congress have said the right things. I think there was a real outpouring of support by members of Congress and staffers. I mean, most of the people work on Capitol Hill certainly have never been elected. I mean, there are lots of very dedicated staffers who are proud to serve their nation in that way, but I would say we have not taken enough tangible actions to really honor their service. We had an Inspector General's report about some of the security deficiencies that day and make no bones about it, it was a catastrophic security failure, and very few of the inspector generals recommendations have been implemented. And I think more to the point, we're not better prepared to defend the Capitol. And I think the same can be said for lots of civil unrest we've seen in the country the last two years. I don't know that our cities are better prepared to deal with that. And America is going to make mistakes, but shame on us, if we don't learn from those mistakes.

Lori Walsh:

Is it different going to work today than it was a year ago? Do you see security changes? Do you see rhetoric change changes? What has changed?

Dusty Johnson:

Well, the physical environment is not that much different. Now for a long time, there were layers of fencing around the Capitol and I mean, the thing that concerned me the most about that is it was not consistent with the actual risk assessment. I mean, you want your security posture to be tied to actual facts on the ground. And so for a while, it seemed like we were playing a lot of political theater with the post January 9th response and shame on us. But now that the fences have come down, by and large, the physical environments look the same.

But the interactions between members of Congress is still not recovered. It is a frostier environment. It used to be. People have thought that DC's been broken for a long time, of course, Lori, but it was not unusual pre January 6th to see Democrats and Republicans huddled together talking. It is increasingly unusual to see that. And I don't think any party has a corner on wisdom. And I think that all of us working together are a lot smarter than any one of us. The fact that we have less collaboration in DC now in the wake of January 6th, is that will cost our country more than we know.

Lori Walsh:

What is the lack of trust for? I mean, is it because the rhetoric is so divisive about what even happened? Is it the big lie and people who are still preaching it on Capitol Hill? What is causing that lack of trust to be so deep that it's that difficult to cross a party line?

Dusty Johnson:

Well, I think there's been a shocking lack of empathy on both sides of the aisle, my democratic colleagues, there are some of them who still will not do business with Republican members of the house, because they paint with an exceedingly broad brush and they want to blame Republicans writ large or Republican and congressmen and congresswoman writ large for the violence of that day. And they just, they decide that they're just not going to do business with the other half of America. And we don't get that luxury to write off half of our country. So there are still democratic members and some of this, I mean, I know a lot of them went through trauma and I understand that that healing can take time, but there is a deep seated and continuing anger and lack of trust. Now on the Republican side, I think there is a sense that we are just that the majority, the Democrats, are playing politics with a certain number of these things.

I mean, one physical change to the environment is that there have been magnetometers placed as one walks from the Capitol, which is already a secured environment, but from the Capitol of generally in to the U.S. House Chamber, that's never been the case before. And I've asked the Sergeant of Arms, and there is no active security assessment that would indicate a member of Congress is at risk from being shot on the House floor from another member of Congress. And indeed, we gather together all the time, two or 300 of us, and we don't have that security protection. And so there is a belief that in ways large and small, that we aren't actually trying to address the problems of January 6th, but are playing a bit of politics. And certainly some people on both sides of the aisle are, but we do need some of us who are serious adults to try to figure out how do we move forward to govern in a country?

Lori Walsh:

On the other hand, it would probably be remiss of me not to ask you if you think the GOP has a problem internally with the kind of rhetoric that led to the insurrection, the words of then President Donald Trump. Some of the things that were said. Does a GOP have a problem of perception or a problem of reality?

Dusty Johnson:

Well, we do have a political rhetoric problem in this country. Way too toxic. And the Republican party is not immune from that problem. And indeed some of the worst and most offending voices share my party affiliation, but I mean, I don't want us to assume that this problem is one dimensional. I mean, when you've got the terrible violence that we saw the summer before last and when you've got Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who says, while the city she is in is literally burning, and while the lives of police officers are at risk in that very moment, when she says, "We need to get a lot more aggressive on the street and how we deal with these issues." I mean, that is every bit as fanning the flames of anger, rage, and discontent as what some of my Republican colleagues have very unfortunately said. And so I think what I try to do, I try to model good behavior. I try to be critical of ideas and policies, and negative worldviews, but I do try to remember that I have got to remember the human element.

Dusty Johnson:

And I try not to call my colleagues or any American terrible nasty names, because at some point we have a country that the world is counting on us to govern. And we do have a political rhetoric problem in this country. And if we don't address it, I think, well, let me put it this way. Tony Blair, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, I was in a small group meeting with him just a few weeks ago. And he said that America's lack or rather our political dysfunction is a global security threat. And that the rest of the world worries that America is not going to be able to pull it together when we need to, because one half of America can't talk to the other half. That should chill all of us to the bone.

Lori Walsh:

When you're here in South Dakota, I'm guessing it doesn't feel like one half and the other half, there are a whole lot of people who wouldn't define themselves as one half or the other half. I mean, they might say they were a Democrat or they were a Republican, but in reality, it's not that black and white is it?

Dusty Johnson


You're right. The real world, a normal interaction feels pretty functional. It feels pretty normal. It feels pretty healthy. When I go to a middle school chorus concert, it does not feel like Washington DC, but those voices, the voices of normalcy and decency are awfully quiet on social media. And I'm not asking all of your listeners, Lori, to become a keyboard warrior. You're sticking up for Dusty Johnson or anybody else out there. But I do think if we all take one opportunity a day to try to amplify it, to try to elevate the decent words of others, we can change the tone of the conversation. If somebody on Facebook says something that is decent and accurate, if they correct the record, if they remind people to be civil, just give them a thumbs up. I'm not asking you to wade in with your own words, into this morass of political toxicity, but don't leave the people who are fighting the good fight on their own, give them an attaboy, give them an attagirl because you're right. The real world doesn't feel anywhere near as dark and dangerous as Twitter and Facebook.

Lori Walsh:


You know what that reminds me of? It reminds me after the Parkland school shooting and you and I sat down together inside the studio, and you told me a story about a principal who gave kids cookies.

Dusty Johnson:

Yeah.

Lori Walsh:

And my first question was like, really? That's what you got? And you said, "Really, that's what I've got." Every single day you step out and you do the next right thing, and you look somebody the eye and you keep doing it. And the more people who are doing it, the more that takes hold and that matters. You haven't changed in some ways, in that regard.

Dusty Johnson

Well, we all individually need to take more ownership. I mean, we have a tendency to use these bumper sticker slogans to define or to defend our behavior when we lose control of that. Well, I know I shouldn't say that about President Trump or about President Biden, but... And we just think that because we disagree with them, all too often, we think that because we disagree with them, we get to treat them as subhuman. And that is not the way to build better America. An America that's got more opportunity, more freedom, more prosperity. We're not going to deliver this country by just devouring one another.

Lori Walsh:

Congressman Dusty Johnson joining us from the road. Thank you so much for being here with us today. We appreciate your time.
Dusty Johnson:

Absolutely. Anytime, Lori. Thanks.

Lori Walsh is the host and senior producer of In the Moment.