Troy Nehls arrived early to the U.S. House chamber on January 6, 2021, his third day as a member of Congress. The business of the day was confirming the electoral college vote for president—historically a brief, ceremonial proceeding. This time, though, it would be fraught, as many Republicans had decided to object to Joe Biden electors from Arizona and Pennsylvania in an attempt to overturn Donald Trump’s defeat. Nehls, a former sheriff who represents a district in the Houston suburbs, knew he’d vote along with those Republicans. But he wanted to stake out a position near the back doors of the chamber. From there he could catch Vice President Mike Pence as he entered the room with the members of the Senate to certify the vote in a joint session. Nehls wanted not to hector or plead with Pence not to do so, but to greet him and thank him for serving the president and the Republican party.
Nehls never had the chance. By early afternoon, the business of the House was interrupted. A mob, galvanized by Trump’s call in a midday speech to march on the Capitol and protest the certification, laid siege to the building. Capitol Police officers whisked Speaker Nancy Pelosi away from the House rostrum. An officer told other representatives that the chamber was under lockdown, and instructed them to put on the gas masks they could find underneath their seats. Shortly after, police told members they were going to be escorted out of the chamber.
“I refused,” Nehls told me Monday. “I said, ‘No sir. I’m not leaving. I’m going to stay here with my brothers and sisters in blue.’ And that’s exactly what I did.” Three other freshman Republicans, all from Texas, and all, like Nehls, with military experience—Pat Fallon from North Texas, Ronny Jackson from the Panhandle, and Tony Gonzales, who represents a vast expanse of southwest Texas—made the same decision to stay and seek to hold that hallowed ground. They were joined by, among others, Markwayne Mullin, a fifth-term representative from Oklahoma and former Mixed Martial Arts fighter.
Mullin removed his jacket and broke off a piece of a tall wooden hand sanitizer stand. Nehls recalls asking him, “What the hell are you going to use that for?” “This will be my weapon,” Mullin replied. Nehls broke off his own piece of wood and the two representatives joined the Capitol Police officers who had their guns drawn, right in front of the great doors, amid ferocious pounding to get in.
All of sudden, some glass panels in the door seemed to explode, sending shards flying. “Shots fired,” an officer radioed in. Nehls didn’t believe there had been gunshots; the sound, he said, was made by a man using a six-foot flag pole with an American flag to smash the window. What followed was an indelible image from January 6: a man’s face, framed by the jagged remnants of one of the panes, peering in at Nehls, a couple of feet directly in front of him, as two officers, in plain clothes, trained their guns at the intruder.
“He looked like a very young man. I don’t know, maybe early twenties. I say that because I could see his face and he was trying to grow a mustache and he wasn’t very good at it,” Nehls recalled. The representative was wearing a Texas mask; the man told him, “You’re from Texas, you should be with us.” Nehls proceeded to try to talk the rioter down. “I said, ‘This is un-American. You have to stop banging on these doors because these gentlemen here, they have their guns drawn and they’ll shoot and kill you.’ I just felt my purpose there was to try to help defuse the situation, to try to calm things down.”
Then came the unmistakable sound of gunfire from close by the chamber. An officer had shot and killed Ashli Babbitt, a 35-year-old Air Force veteran from California who was trying to crawl into the Speaker’s lobby through the broken window of a barricaded door. Unarmed, Babbitt was draped in a Trump flag she wore as a cape. An officer approached Nehls and Mullin. “Gentlemen, gentleman, you must leave.” Nehls left the floor.
It had been a brave performance, and intruders never breached the House floor. But in the year since, Nehls and his colleagues have been assiduously crafting a new defense: that Trump was blameless in the attacks on the Capitol, that his lie that the election was stolen is the truth, and that the horrific scenes from that day were anomalies or someone else’s fault.
In the hours after facing down the mob, Nehls would vote as he had intended: against certifying the Arizona and Pennsylvania election results. Though there is no evidence that ballot fraud affected the outcome of the election, Nehls told me he believed that there were “irregularities” and that states that expanded vote-by-mail to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus used the pandemic as “an excuse to just start sending ballots to everybody,” costing “Donald Trump his presidency, without question.” (He added that if Republicans win the House, he’d like to investigate whether China “created” the coronavirus to target Trump.) Pence, defying Trump, accepted the electoral college results confirming Biden’s victory after the members voted to certify them.
In the immediate aftermath of January 6, Trump distanced himself from the rioters, and Nehls called their behavior criminal and un-American. But he told me Monday that “a majority of the people in the Capitol that day had no intention to turn into criminals or insurrectionists.”
In July, Speaker Pelosi formed a committee to investigate the events of January 6 in order to determine how the riot happened and why the Capitol was so vulnerable, and to examine more broadly Trump’s attempt to reverse the election result. Nehls was supposed to have served on the committee, one of five members named by Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, which Nehls considered an honor. At the time, a Washington Post report heralded the Texan as McCarthy’s “most interesting pick,” because of the role he played defending the floor and denouncing the violence. But when Pelosi rejected two of McCarthy’s other choices—Jim Jordan of Ohio, because he said he might be a material witness to events leading up to January 6, and Jim Banks of Indiana, for saying the committee was meant to “justify the Left’s authoritarian agenda”—McCarthy withdrew all his picks.
Since then, Nehls has been conducting what he, and the other Republicans whom McCarthy initially named to the committee, call their own investigation. He believes law enforcement failed to protect Congress. “If I would have been the chief of police, the National Guard would have been there on January 4. If you had the Guard there on January 4, January 6 would never have happened.” A Washington Post investigation concluded that the Capitol Police were “disorganized and unprepared,” that their chief was unaware of the department’s own ominous intelligence about the looming threat, and that some Pentagon officials worried the Guard’s presence might prove provocative—or that Trump might even misuse the Guard to try to stay in power.
When we talked Monday, Nehls refused to blame Trump for what happened on January 6. He told me to listen to Trump’s speech that day and cited the president’s call “to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.” Nehls is intrigued by a theory propounded by Revolver News, a right-wing website run by Darren Beattie, a former Trump speechwriter, that federal informants and undercover agents incited violence at the Capitol on January 6 to discredit Trump. It’s a theory that PolitiFact dismissed as “rife with holes, inaccuracies and circumstantial speculation,” and a New York Times fact-check described as “without evidence.” But it has been picked up and spread widely by Infowars’ Alex Jones and Fox’s Tucker Carlson. Does Nehls actually believe the riot might have been an “inside job”? “I do believe that we need to continue to examine the evidence,” he said. “I’m telling you something is fishy.”
Nehls believes the official House inquiry is a sham whose sole purpose is to undermine Trump, who he hopes runs again in 2024. “They don’t want him coming back in 2024, because, quite honestly, they don’t have a candidate that can beat him,” Nehls told me. Not surprisingly, Nehls has little regard for the two Republicans who ended up serving on the official January 6 committee. When I mentioned to him that one of them, Liz Cheney, recently told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that a Trump victory in two years would mark the end of democracy, he shrugged. “Oh, whatever,” he told me. “Issue number one: she’s not getting reelected.”
Aside from recounting his own experience that day, Nehls has also sought a national audience to condemn Babbitt’s killing. He appeared on Carlson’s show in October to talk about it. The Justice Department and the Capitol Police determined that the officer who shot Babbitt, Lieutenant Michael Byrd, acted reasonably amid the mayhem to protect lives. On January 6, shortly after the shooting, Mullin, Nehl’s comrade-in-arms who faced down the mob, ran into Byrd. “He was the last person in the world who ever wanted to use force like that and he wasn’t prone to do that,” Mullin recalled in a July interview with C-SPAN. “I know for a fact because after it happened, he came over. He was physically and emotionally distraught. I actually gave him a hug and said, ‘Sir, you did what you had to do.'”
Nehls, on the other hand, says that Byrd’s defense—that he was trying to keep Babbitt from gaining access to the House chamber via the Speaker’s lobby and didn’t know she was unarmed—doesn’t hold up. “I have not talked to an offficer anywhere across the country that felt what Lieutenant Michael Byrd did was justified,” Nehls told Carlson. “It wasn’t, Tucker. It was murder.”
Nehls’s thoughts occasionally return to the man with the fledgling mustache whom he confronted at the door to the House chamber. I asked if he thought his entreaties to stand down had any effect on the rioter, whose life he may have helped save. “I don’t know,” he said. “But I want to meet him one day. If he’s reading this, whoever it is, I would love to meet him. I would like to just ask him a question as to why he did what he did.”