Reliving Painful History


The House Jan. 6 committee’s hearings have revealed unseen footage, unheard testimony and new details about Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. They’ve also stirred painful memories for those who experienced the attack firsthand. I asked my colleague Emily Cochrane, who’s covered Congress since 2018 and was inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, about how the hearings have landed.

How did Jan. 6 change Capitol Hill?

The Capitol is like a little city. It doesn’t matter if you’re a lawmaker, a staff member, a police officer, a reporter, someone who works in the cafeteria or the person who delivers the mail: You end up spending a good portion of your life there. And to see it breached in that manner, to see this mob come in, to see the violence, to see them disrespect a place you’ve come to respect, is difficult. A lot of people are wrestling with that as these hearings go on, publicly and privately.

How do these hearings differ from others you’ve covered?

Obviously, the substance is extraordinary. But they’re also produced in a way that congressional hearings normally aren’t: the videos, the tightly worded statements, the teasers of what’s to come. They’re structured like television episodes.

They also present much more of a seamless narrative because the Republicans aren’t participating, with the exception of two handpicked by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Most congressional hearings are so polarized, with questions designed to tease out political points rather than information. Here, there’s none of that partisan bickering. They’re just dropping new information and speeding right along.

We’ve all seen big congressional hearings on TV. What’s it like to be in the room?

The hearings are generally somber. The videos of the attack were hard to watch during the first hearing, particularly for people who were in the House chamber on Jan. 6. The hearing I attended, about the behind-the-scenes efforts to tell Trump he’d lost the election, wasn’t as visceral, but when Liz Cheney made the reference to “an apparently inebriated Rudy Giuliani,” there was some chuckling.

During breaks, particularly after emotional testimony, people who are in the back watching often make a point of thanking the witnesses and checking in with each other.

Who’s been there watching?

Lawmakers, police officers, aides, people who want to witness history, essentially, or who experienced the riot personally. The House chaplain has been there regularly. There’s the “Gallery Group” — they’re Democratic House members who were trapped in the upper gallery of the House chamber during the attack. At least a couple have been at every hearing. Their presence is a reminder of how personal this is.

You hid with them during the attack, right?

I was on the opposite side of the chamber. At one point, I was behind a chair with other reporters because they had stopped the evacuation, and I wasn’t sure if the chamber was going to be breached. We could see rioters on the other side of the door.

Eventually, Capitol Police resumed the evacuation. I’m still not sure why — I think they felt they had stopped enough rioters for lawmakers to leave safely — but all of a sudden, the people in front of me started moving again, climbing over chairs and banisters, so I did the same.

We were eventually able to leave the chamber, and, as we did, we merged into one evacuation line with the lawmakers across from us.

It must be difficult to watch videos and hear testimony that dredge up memories of the attack.

The hearings are bringing many people back to the rawness of the day. People have found coping mechanisms — they’ve talked to therapists, they’ve checked in with others. The Gallery Group lawmakers stay in touch. An informal Capitol Hill support group started meeting more frequently. I’ve had people ask me how I’m doing, and I’ve reached out to a couple others. These aren’t the easiest hearings to cover, but then you compartmentalize and do your job.

You and your colleagues have written about how the attack prompted a spike in threats against lawmakers, led some congressional staffers to quit and caused others to push for a union. How did it bring about these big changes?

Capitol Hill has never been an easy place to work. It’s unpredictable. The hours are long. The workload is intense. When you layer on the pandemic, the mad dash to get legislation through and everything that happened on the 6th, they all put the jobs in perspective for lawmakers and their aides. For them, there are now questions like, do you want to stay on Capitol Hill where you had this traumatic experience? Can you work with the Republicans in Congress who have downplayed what happened that day?

Congressional staffers keep Capitol Hill running. When someone picks up a phone to threaten a lawmaker, the person on the other end is not the lawmaker. It’s a staff member, probably a junior staff member, sitting on the phone, listening to threats and reporting them to police. It’s not a part of the job you sign up for. Unionization has been batted around for a while, but Jan. 6 helped push it to the forefront. People are more open to it.

More about Emily: She grew up in Miami and studied journalism at the University of Florida. She lives in Washington, where she likes to listen to musicals and take her two majestic Siberian cats, Hercules and Yuzu, on walks.

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