After not being able to go as delegates to the Republican National Convention, a Flandreau couple still wanted to support President Trump.
Leslie and Libby Heinemann decided they would do so by attending his Jan. 6 rally in Washington, D.C., and were on the Capitol grounds after a group gathered, including some protesters who breached the building. But what they witnessed is different than the national story that has led to Trump’s impeachment, they say.
“At no time did we feel threated or that Trump was inciting an insurrection,” said Leslie Heinemann, a retired dentist and former legislator who served six years for District 8.
Plans to travel to Washington were made shortly before the rally, he said. But it was based on not having been able to go to a traditional, large scale nominating convention in August, which was canceled, and their experience seeing Trump speak at a Fourth of July rally at Mount Rushmore.
The convention trip would have been the couple’s first time as delegates and would have been a chance to cast votes for a president whose policies they admired.
“We felt a little bit cheated that we didn’t get to go to that. We had made our plane ticket reservations and everything,” he said.
As a substitute event, the Heinemanns and another South Dakota couple they are friends with got tickets to fly to the D.C. rally. They planned to meet with members of the South Dakota congressional delegation, to attend three gatherings to hear speakers they were interested in and to support Trump and his efforts to delay certification of the electoral votes so that states would have more time to look into allegations that results were wrong.
“We were wanting to support the administration’s policies and what they’ve done over the last four years, first and foremost,” he said. “We were hoping for a miracle.”
The Heinemanns, who are both 66, were able to meet with Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D. and, the night before the rally, they attended a pro-life gathering in front of the White House with speakers they were interested in hearing.
The next morning, they prepared to walk to the Ellipse park near the White House where Trump was hosting his Save America Rally. The venue is about a mile and a half from the Capitol, they said. Through texts and emails from mostly pro-life Republican groups, they learned some details that said they would have to enter the rally through a security point and that they were not allowed to bring chairs, backpacks and water bottles.
When they and their friends got to the event, there were so many people that they were unable to enter the secured area and instead listened and watched on a Megatron board about three football fields away, closer to the Washington Monument. The crowd was a cross-section of ages with young people, families and their children and people using wheelchairs.
After members of Trump’s family and Rudy Giuliani spoke, the President took the stage at 11:59 a.m., Leslie Heinemann said. He looked at his watch at that point. About 45 minutes into the speech, some people in the crowd started leaving while others started moving through the crowd.
“I thought, ‘Well that’s kind of rude. He’s giving his rally speech, and they’re leaving,’” he said.
The man who wore fur and horns and was later seen on television having entered the Capitol, walked directly in front of the couple while they stood listening to Trump.
They saw someone in an anti-Trump shirt and heard others who started swearing near them, which they found distasteful. Some Trump supporters in the group shouted, “USA, USA,” while others ridiculed that. They saw an absence of security, something that they still have questions about.
“There were no security guards. There were no paramedic people,” he said.
But they didn’t feel the event was contentious, although eventually before the President stopped speaking, they were concerned that something was happening.
“I turned to my friend and said, ‘Something’s up. Somebody’s trying to get something going.’”
Trump spoke until about 1:20 p.m., and Leslie Heinemann’s perception was that he was asking for a last-minute miracle to stop the vote count. Right before Trump finished speaking, the South Dakotans and others got a text saying that Vice President Mike Pence wasn’t going to change the outcome of the confirmation of the electoral votes. That put a sad pall over the crowd.
“The people at this rally had no intention of insurrection. People over at the Capitol at that time, they might have been doing that,” he said. The couple thought the group was infiltrated by Antifa or other radical groups, including Trump supporters who were there for a different agenda than most rally goers. People in vans and buses were being dropped off near the building, too.
The couple walked toward the Capitol, getting within about a football field away near the Peace Monument by about 1:45 p.m. They saw tear gas being dispensed in the distance and heard percussion bombs going off, while people climbed scaffolding and walls. While they didn’t feel threatened, they also didn’t like the experience.
By about 3 p.m., they decided to walk back to their hotel, realizing that a prayer rally scheduled for that night wouldn’t be taking place because of a curfew that had been implemented.
“I turned to Libby and said, ‘I don’t think this is going to go very well.’ It was a different crowd than we had left at the White House,” he said.
“Later Libby and I realized the Capitol was being breached even before Trump was done with his speech. The breach occurred before we were even done with the rally.”
While the couple has accepted President Joe Biden’s win, they don’t think Trump incited an insurrection.
“We’re trying to move on. It’s hard when there are activities going on in the Senate through the impeachment trial that are trying to link the rally to an insurrection. We were part of that group, and we did not feel it was an insurrection,” Leslie Heinemann said. “It’s disappointing to a see a President (Biden) that we accept now, that really isn’t interested in unification with the rest of our country.”
They also don’t favor a permanent fence around the Capitol, a place that has been open to their visits many times.
“Because he served in the Legislature, you’re aware of the sacredness of that building,” Libby Heinemann said. While the trip didn’t end as planned, “I was glad that I was there, and I would go back again.”
The Heinemanns decided to tell their story so others would know what they saw on that Jan. 6 day that will live on in history. But they also know they won’t change other people’s minds with what they witnessed versus what has been shown on television.
“It’s been difficult trying to share what our perspective was. In our eyes, it was not the same,” he said. “We’re very sad that it happened. If they would have called up appropriate security and had them there, maybe it wouldn’t have happened.”