House committee hearings on January 6 revealed never-before-seen footage, unheard-of testimony and new details about Donald Trump’s efforts to annul the 2020 presidential election. They also stirred painful memories for those who lived the first-hand attack. I asked my colleague Emily Cochrane, who has been covering Congress since 2018 and was inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, how the hearings went.
How did January 6 change Capitol Hill?
The Capitol is like a small town. It doesn’t matter if you’re a legislator, a staff member, a policeman, a journalist, someone who works in the cafeteria or the person who delivers the mail: you end up spending a good part of your life there. And to see him violated in that way, to see that mob come in, to see the violence, to see them disrespecting a place that you respect, it’s hard. A lot of people are wrestling with that as these hearings unfold, in public and in private.
How do these audiences differ from others you’ve covered?
Obviously, the substance is extraordinary. But they’re also produced in ways that congressional hearings normally aren’t: the videos, the well-crafted statements, the teasers of what’s to come. They are structured like television episodes.
They also present a much more cohesive narrative as Republicans do not participate except for two hand-picked by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Most congressional hearings are so polarized, with questions designed to unravel political points rather than information. Here, there are no partisan quarrels. They just drop new information and speed up right away.
We have all seen great congressional hearings on television. How does it feel to be in the bedroom?
Audiences are generally dark. The videos of the attack were difficult to watch during the first hearing, especially for people who were in the Chamber on January 6. The hearing I attended, on the behind-the-scenes efforts to tell Trump he lost the election, wasn’t quite as visceral, but when Liz Cheney referenced “a seemingly sick Rudy Giuliani.” ‘drunk’, there were some laughs.
During breaks, especially after moving testimony, those watching behind are often keen to thank the witnesses and talk to each other.
Who looked there?
Lawmakers, policemen, aides, people who want to witness history, basically, or who personally experienced the riot. The house chaplain went there regularly. There’s the ‘Gallery Group’ – they are House Democrats who were trapped in the upper gallery of the House Chamber during the attack. At least one couple has been to each hearing. Their presence is a reminder of how personal it is.
You hid with them during the attack, right?
I was on the other side of the room. At one point I was behind a chair with other reporters because they had stopped the evacuation, and I wasn’t sure the room was going to be breached. Rioters could be seen on the other side of the gate.
Eventually, the Capitol Police took over the evacuation. I still don’t know why – I think they thought they had arrested enough rioters for the lawmakers to leave safely – but all of a sudden the people in front of me started moving again, climbing on chairs and railings, so I did the same.
We were finally able to leave the room, and as we did, merged into a single evacuation line with the legislators in front of us.
It must be difficult to watch videos and hear testimonies that bring back memories of the attack.
Hearings bring many people back to the rawness of the day. People found coping mechanisms – they talked to therapists, they consulted other people. Gallery Group lawmakers are staying in touch. A capitol hill informal support group began to meet more frequently. People asked me how I was doing and I contacted a few others. They’re not the easiest audiences to cover, but then you compartmentalize and do your job.
You and your colleagues wrote about how the attack prompted an upsurge in threats against lawmakers, led some members of Congress to resign, and pushed others to lobby for a union. How did that 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 the pandemic, the mad rush to pass the legislation, and everything that happened on the 6th, they put all 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 congressional Republicans who downplayed what happened that day?
Congressional staffers run Capitol Hill. 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, sitting on the phone, listening to threats and reporting them to the police. This is not part of the job you are signing up for. Unionization was beaten for a while, but Jan. 6 helped push it to the fore. People are more open to it.
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