Senator Richard Blumenthal Reflects on His Flight from the Capitol

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Tear gas outside the United States Capitol on 6 January 2021

When rioters inspired by President Donald Trump broke through police lines and invaded the U.S. Capitol, few members of Congress felt the sense of violation more acutely than Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

Blumenthal’s father, Martin, fled Nazi Germany in 1935—a time when the architecture of the Holocaust was in its embryonic stages. Mobs of Nazi Brown-Shirts roamed the streets of the elder Blumenthal’s native Frankfurt. Like so many other refugees of all nationalities and religions, he was drawn to America as a beacon of liberty and tolerance. 

And like so many American Jews growing up amid post-war prosperity, the younger Blumenthal came of age on a diet of confidence in America’s enduring Democratic institutions. It couldn’t happen here—until it did.

The Trump-supporter assault on the Capitol, of course, was not an explicit act of anti-Semitism. But enough disturbing images emerged in the aftermath to make people wonder whether hatred of Jews was a palpable subtext. Among them was a man wearing a sweatshirt with “Camp Auschwitz” and a skull and crossbones on the front, and “Staff” on the back. 

Such reports are “deeply troubling,” Blumenthal, 74, says. “They are one more part of the terrorist attack on our democracy.”

But he cautioned against overinterpreting the anti-Semitic aspects of what he described as an “insurrection.” 

“This riot was not an anti-Semitic riot; it was a mob attack that included anti-Semitic elements,” he says. “I think the anti-Semitic aspect should be kept in perspective.”

To be sure, the rioters were a hodgepodge of Proud Boys, QAnon conspiracy theorists, diehard  Trump supporters and costume-wearing exhibitionists. The common thread uniting them was the falsehood that massive voter fraud swung the election from Trump to President-elect Joe Biden.

But anti-Semitism clearly was an active ingredient in the toxic brew awash in the U.S. Capitol’s hallways, offices and chambers. Biden on Friday said rioters “should be treated as a bunch of thugs, insurrectionists, anti-Semites” by law enforcement.

At zero hour on Wednesday, Blumenthal was at his seat in the Senate chamber listening to objections and debate over what should have been a formality: affirming Biden’s victory in the Electoral College.

A Senate security officer interrupted to tell senators the Capitol had been breached, asking them to shelter in place and not to go near the doors. Minutes later, the officer announced Senators had to evacuate the chamber right away.

Members of what has been called “the world’s greatest deliberative body” filed into an adjacent reception room and down a staircase not open to the public. They walked through a tunnel normally humming with small subway cars ferrying senators back and forth. The cars were not in service.

Senators walked the distance to the Hart Senate Office Building, Room 216, a large TV-friendly hall where major Senate hearings are held. “It was a pretty harrowing process,” Blumenthal recalls.

Once technicians hooked TV monitors up to CNN, virtually the whole Senate first comprehended the enormity of what was unfolding in the Capitol building. “We were aghast,” he says.

Nearly all senators were in the room, refugees in their own fortress. An equal number of staff were there, too, so the room felt crowded, a worrisome thing in the middle of a pandemic. But all eyes were glued to CNN. “The images were shocking, abhorrent, sickening,” Blumenthal says. “None of us had ever seen anything like this.”

Blumenthal is one of eight Jewish U.S. senators, all Democrats except for independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Blumenthal grew up in New York’s outer boroughs and later on Manhattan’s East Side. His father, Martin, was a successful commodities trader. His mother, Jane Rosenstock, came from a family of Jewish ranchers-farmers in Nebraska. By his own description, he was “litigious” as a child—a smart aleck unafraid of verbal jousting with his parents. As a Jewish family, the Blumenthals fell in the vast gray area between secular and observant. He became one of the nation’s wealthiest senators through his marriage to Linda Malkin, whose family real-estate firm in New York owns the Empire State Building and competes with the Trump Organization. (Trump himself has engaged in finger-pointing via Twitter over Blumenthal’s statements from more than a decade ago that he was a Vietnam veteran. Blumenthal served in the Marine Reserves during the Vietnam era.)

After Harvard (where he was on the swim team) and Yale law school, he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to be U.S. attorney for Connecticut. He was 31. He then spent 20 years as Connecticut’s state attorney general before winning a U.S. Senate seat in 2010. He defeated Linda McMahon, wife of wrestling magnate Vince McMahon and head of the Small Business Administration under Trump.

On Capitol Hill, he’s earned a reputation as a sharp questioner of Supreme Court nominees who come before the Senate Judiciary Committee, as well as a railroad-safety advocate on the Senate Commerce and Transportation Committee—a hat-tip to his home state’s concern about troubling accidents involving commuter trains.

He insists he does not take vacations, spending free time at his well-appointed home in Greenwich and making appearances throughout his easily traversable state.

But the comfort level counted for little when he fled the secure Senate chamber as rioters, whose arsenal included guns, pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails, battered down the doors and paraded across the dais.

In a 2018 interview, Blumenthal recalled his father once warning him that creature comforts notwithstanding, anti-Semitic violence “can happen anywhere if people fail to take a stand.”

The admonition proved to be prophetic.

Read more of Moment‘s coverage of the violence at the U.S. Capitol.

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