In a new piece for the local paper Bangor Daily News detailing her experience in the Jan. 6 attack on Congress, Republican Sen. Susan Collins made a revealing admission on Monday about her first thoughts during the siege.
The lawmaker from Maine, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said:
My first thought was that the Iranians had followed through on their threat to strike the Capitol, but a police officer took over the podium and explained that violent demonstrators had breached the entire perimeter of the Capitol and were inside. Several of us pointed out that the doors to the press gallery were unlocked right above us. That tells you how overwhelmed and unprepared the Capitol Police were, although many, many of them were very courageous. [emphasis added]
Many commentators noted that it was a pretty stunning admission for Collins to say that her first thought during the attack was that it was Iranians. People who had been paying attention to President Donald Trump and his supporters in the past two months had noticed that their rhetoric was becoming increasingly radicalized and dangerous. Trump and some Republican lawmakers had stoked expectations that Jan. 6 would be a significant date in the president's fight to overturn the election, putting observers who had been warned about right-wing extremism on edge as the usually ceremonial day to count Electoral College votes approached. FBI Director Christopher Wray had previously warned Congress that groups including white supremacists, "anarchist violent extremists," and "militia types" — groups often associated with the far right and support for President Trump — are committing the "the most lethal activity" and acts of domestic terrorism in the United States.
The fact that this threat, which came from a crowd that was literally directly outside of the building where Collins was standing, wasn't first in her mind says a lot. It says she has underestimated the true threat of Trump's radicalism and right-wing extremism, and she is likely overestimating the threat posed from countries like Iran. Iran may want to do the United States harm, but it was the right-wing radicals who had specifically focused on Jan. 6.
Collins' failure to clearly see this threat, however, does not come as much of a surprise. After she voted to acquit Trump during his first impeachment in 2020, she infamously said Trump learned "a pretty big lesson" from the process. He made clear, repeatedly, that he hadn't learned anything, insisting that his conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the center of the charges against him was a "perfect" call.
Nevertheless, Collins included criticism of Trump in her new piece. She squarely placed the blame for inciting the siege on Trump's shoulders. She wrote:
I called and texted my closest contact at the White House to urge that the president immediately tell the rioters to stop their violence and go home. But President Donald Trump completely undercut that message by repeating his grievances and telling the rioters that he knew how they felt. This was terrible, especially since he incited them in the first place.
Unlike her close ally Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, though, Collins did not demand that Trump resign. Instead, she has hidden behind the process and declined to take a public stance on whether he should remain president. A spokesperson for the Maine senator said over the weekend: "Now that it appears that the House is going to consider an impeachment resolution next week, we won't have any further comment on impeachment because of the Senate's constitutional role in those proceedings, which includes sitting as a jury." This is not a widely accepted principle — other senators feel free to comment on an impeachment case prior to sitting in judgment.