A House committee hearing on Jan. 6 revealed unseen footage, unheard testimony and new details about Donald Trump’s efforts to cancel the 2020 presidential election. They also evoked painful memories for those who experienced the attack. I asked my colleague Emily Cochrane, who has been covering Congress since 2018 and was at the Capitol on Jan. 6, about how the hearing went.
How did January 6 change Capitol Hill?
The Capitol is like a small town. It doesn’t matter if you’re an MP, a staff member, a police officer, a reporter, someone who works in a cafeteria or delivers mail: you end up spending most of your life there. And to see it being destroyed in this way, to see this crowd coming in, to see the violence, to see them disrespecting a place that you have come to respect, is difficult. Many people are struggling with this as these hearings go on, publicly and privately.
How are these hearings different from others you have covered?
Obviously, the substance is extraordinary. But they’re also produced in a way that congressional hearings aren’t usually: videos, hard-lined statements, teasers of what’s to come. They are structured like TV episodes.
They also present a much more coherent narrative because the Republicans are not involved, except for two chosen by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Most congressional hearings are so polarized that the questions are meant to elicit political points rather than information. There are no partisan fights here. They just dump new information and speed up.
We’ve all seen the big congressional hearings on TV. What is it like to be in the room?
Hearings are usually gloomy. Video of the attack was difficult to watch during the first hearing, especially for people who were on the floor of the House of Representatives on January 6th. The hearing I attended about behind-the-scenes attempts to tell Trump that he lost the election wasn’t as visceral, but when Liz Cheney mentioned the “apparently drunk Rudy Giuliani”, someone chuckled.
During breaks, especially after emotional testimony, people watching from behind often thank the witnesses and check on each other.
Who looked there?
Legislators, cops, aides, people who want to witness history, in fact, or those who have personally experienced the riot. The Priest of the House was there regularly. There is the “Gallery Group” – these are members of the Democratic House, who were trapped on the upper gallery of the Chamber of the House during the attack. At least the couple was at every hearing. Their presence is a reminder of how personal it is.
You were hiding with them during the attack, right?
I was on the opposite side of the cell. At some point, I ended up in a chair with other reporters because they stopped the evacuation and I wasn’t sure the camera would be hacked. We could see the rioters on the other side of the door.
Eventually the Capitol police resumed the evacuation. I still don’t know why – I think they thought they stopped enough rioters for the legislators to leave safely – but suddenly the people in front of me started moving again, climbing over chairs and railings, so I did the same. .
Eventually we managed to get out of the cell, and as we did so, we merged into one escape line with the legislators across from us.
It must be hard to watch the video and listen to the testimony that evokes memories of the attack.
Hearings bring many people back to hard times. People found coping mechanisms – they talked to therapists, consulted with others. Gallery Group legislators stay in touch. An informal support group for Capitol Hill began to meet more frequently. I had people asking me how I was doing and I contacted a couple of others. It’s not the easiest hearing to cover, but then you break it down and do your job.
You and your colleagues have written about how the attack sparked a surge in threats against lawmakers, forced some congressional staffers to resign, and forced others to insist on an alliance. How did it lead to such a big change?
Capitol Hill has never been an easy place to work. It’s unpredictable. The hours are long. The load is intense. When you put on the pandemic, the crazy legislature rush, and everything that happened on the 6th, they all put a job for lawmakers and their aides in the future. For them, now there are questions like, do you want to stay on Capitol Hill, where you had this traumatic experience? Can you work with Republicans in Congress who downplay what happened that day?
Congressional staff keep Capitol Hill running. When someone picks up the phone to threaten an MP, the person on the other end of the line is not the MP. This is an employee, probably a junior employee, sitting by the phone, listening to the threats and reporting them to the police. It’s not part of the work you’re signing up for. For some time there was talk of unionization, but on January 6 it came to the fore. People are more open to it.
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