‘This is insane.’ Lawmakers relive Jan. 6 horror alongside fresh trauma of effort to rewrite history

WASHINGTON – Rep. Jim McGovern still wrestles with the violent visions, piercing sounds and angst he experienced Jan. 6, 2021.

A mob of President Donald Trump's supporters assaulting the U.S. Capitol. Rioters smashing windows as they tried to burst into the House speaker's lobby. Panic setting in as lawmakers fled the House floor minutes before it was breached. The police gunshot that killed rioter Ashli Babbitt ringing through the Capitol.

So it baffled the Massachusetts Democrat when a man in a business suit approached him days after the attack at a Worcester supermarket and told the congressman, "We almost got fooled." The footage he had seen on social media, the man said, proved the attack was part of a movie and never really happened.

"I've had people in restaurants tell me this didn't really happen. I'm like: ‘This is insane,'" he told USA TODAYin a December interview. “They smashed the door while I was there. And I was just so angry. ‘How can you do this in this place? What the hell is wrong with you people?' But the lies that people tell, they resonated and with social media get repeated.”

Within hours, the worst attack on the U.S. Capitol in more than 200 years ricocheted through a polarized country and became immediate fodder for online misinformation networks. A year later, the attack – which played out live on television and led to documented deaths and injuries – has been portrayed, at times, as a benign protest of a contested election, or a Democratic talking point, or a left-wing conspiracy. 

  • Fact check roundup: Debunking false narratives about the Jan. 6 Capitol riot

When lawmakers prepare to mark the anniversary of the insurrection in ceremonies planned on Capitol Hill Thursday, their recollections remain a burning point of contention.

Efforts by some pro-Trump lawmakers to rewrite the record or defend the rioters or simply downplay the attack has left relationships in Congress fractured to a point where Democrats like McGovern can’t share the same elevator with some Republicans, and once-cordial bipartisan dealmakers refuse to work with one another.

USA TODAY reached out to the offices of every member of Congress to offer all of the lawmakers a chance to talk about what Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called “one of the darkest days in America." Interviews with more than 120 senators and House members exposed the fissures that plague Congress a year since the attack.

Dozens of Democratic lawmakers interviewed for this story say they are bewildered and angry that the Jan. 6 attack, which happened as Congress was certifying Joe Biden’s presidential victory, is being minimized and even questioned as a real event.

They blame Trump and his baseless claims of a stolen election for inciting the rioters but hold similar contempt for Republican lawmakers who they say continue to diminish the importance of a moment they say saw democracy at its most vulnerable.

  • From Oklahoma City to Jan. 6: How the US government failed to stop the rise of domestic extremism

A number of Democratic lawmakers told USA TODAY they have stopped co-sponsoring bills with the 147 Republicans – eight senators and 139 House members – who voted against certifying the Electoral College votes for either Arizona, Pennsylvania or both nearly a year ago. Some will not vote for any legislation they sponsor, no matter how uncontroversial. At least one Democrat, Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado, said she won't invite any "insurrectionists" on congressionally chartered trips she organizes.

"I don't believe that the Republicans who voted not to certify the election results should be entitled to extra perks," she told USA TODAY.

The rift is not merely a dispute among conservatives and liberals. Republicans who supported Trump's second impeachment and an investigation into the attack have been ostracized within their party.

While many Republicans denounced the attack, others minimized the effect it has had on relationships in Congress and accused Democrats of using Jan. 6 for political purposes. That's despite revelations over the past year that found Trump allies, including top House Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, and even his own son pleaded with the White House to stop the mob.

“Our Democratic colleagues are trying to make (the 2022 midterm elections) about January the sixth and most people are more worried about inflation and crime,” Graham told USA TODAY.

Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul called Jan. 6 a fixation of the “left-wing media.”

The attack has pushed some lawmakers to rethink public service altogether.

“As you can imagine, things have gotten pretty polarized and toxic. It's just bizarre,” said Rep. Ron Kind,D-Wis., who is not running for reelection. “Obviously, Jan. 6 has reshaped the institution and the relationships there.”

  • USA TODAY/Suffolk poll: A year after Jan. 6, Americans say democracy is in peril but disagree on why

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Pens as shivs, curtains as gas masks: Congress braced for violence as the mob broke in

The enduring hostilities permeating the highest reaches of American government began almost immediately on that bloody, brisk Washington afternoon.

Democrats candidly shared vivid memories of the fear they felt and the resourcefulness it took to protect themselves on Jan. 6. 

Thousands of rioters overcame police, busted out windows, burst inside the Capitol and scoured the building to stop the counting of electoral votes Jan. 6. Once inside, they ransacked offices, defiled the building's interior and shouted threats toward elected officials.

Rioters chanted "hang Mike Pence," and looked for House Speaker Nancy Pelosias they raided the Capitol. 

While the mayhem unfolded, lawmakers searched for escape routes and makeshift weapons to arm themselves against the rioters. They retrieved gas masks in the House chamber they didn't know were there.

Some thought they might die, others considered the details of their funerals.

“They said we have to evacuate. And that's the one part of the whole day where I felt that we could be shot or killed because there are so many people having to get out what seemed like one doorway," Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., told USA TODAY.

Kind was on the House floor preparing to be the lead defender of Wisconsin’s electoral votes against challenges when the attack began. They never got that far. While Arizona was being debated, proceedings came to a halt.

“That's when all hell broke loose and chaos erupted and things got out of control pretty fast,” he said. 

When Capitol Police began moving furniture and drawing their guns, Kind said he helped push a credenza against a door and told an officer he had experience with firearms and would help them defend the chamber if they had an extra one.

  • Capitol Police protected democracy on Jan. 6; their scars keep the day's memory ever-present

“I'll never forget that face. He kind of looked at me dumbfounded and said, ‘Sir, that would not be a good idea.’ And he was exactly right," Kind said. "That was not the time to be arming members of Congress." 

As the mob moved closer to the House chamber, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., fell back on her CIA training. She pulled her hair into a ponytail and sifted through her purse, lamenting she didn't have the best pens that could be broken into shivs.

"I joked with my husband (by phone) that, you know, I wasn't going down without stabbing somebody in the neck with my pen," she told USA TODAY.

Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers, mostly Democrats, were trapped in the House gallery, the upper section of seats that looks down on the floor and is usually reserved for visitors.

Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., led a small group of representatives from the gallery down a stairwell but was unsure which door to take. Behind one, he expected to find a violent mob. Behind the other was freedom.

“And which door do I open?” he asked. Quigley guessed right, but the group still was unsure of where to go or what to do.

A member of Quigley's group, Progressive Caucus leader Rep. Pramila Jayapal, was slowed by a cane she was using after undergoing knee surgery. At times, the Washington state Democrat resorted to crawling on hands and knees to maneuver through the gallery. With a gas mask in one hand, Jayapal said she planned out how she would use the cane to defend herself if the rioters broke through.

“I remember coming out of the gallery finally and seeing maybe 5 to 7 feet from where I was going down the stairs the group of insurrectionists on the floor, spread-eagled with their hands above their heads and Capitol Police with their guns drawn on them,” she said. “Those were the people who were trying to break in to kill us. I remember every bit of it. Every bit of it."

During the six hours she hid in a lounge between the House speaker's office and the chamber, Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., worked with a colleague to wedge furniture in front of the door. In a small kitchen, she searched for knives that could be used as a weapon if the door was breached. 

When Meng heard about tear gas being deployed, they wet curtains to put over their faces as a substitute for gas masks.

Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., did have access to a gas mask. When he reached under a seat in the House chamber to retrieve one, he pondered his own funeral.   

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"I just was leaning down and I thought there's no reason to take me back to Memphis to bury me," he said. "You might as well just put me in the congressional cemetery (in Washington)."

Despite the terror, the narrative of what just happened was already muddled by the time lawmakers returned to doing the work of counting the electoral votes: The smoke barely dissipated, the papers still strewn, the windows freshly smashed.

Something changedin the hours between the attack on the Capitol and when the joint session of Congress reconvened to count Electoral College votes, Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., said.

“We were all under attack, and everybody felt that. Everybody felt it … and something happened between 6 o’clock in the evening and 10 or 11 o’clock at night, whenever it was that the votes were cast,” Kildee told USA TODAY. “It was already beginning to change. Some members on the other side were already beginning to rationalize what took place and still cast a vote in favor of the necessary precondition to the attack.” 

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Republicans came face-to-face with the mob, too, but many think Congress should move on

Texas Republican Rep. Troy Nehls heard the shot that killed Babbitt while standing in the House chamber.

He remembers a fellow Republican House member wielding a wooden block broken off a hand-sanitizer station as they came toe-to-toe with the mob. 

"There was a young man looking at me and I’m wearing a Texas mask. And he said: ‘You're from Texas, you should be with us.’ I said: ‘Oh, no, sir. I cannot. I will not. This is a sacred chamber. We are conducting our business today. What you're doing is criminal mischief. And what you're doing is un-American and you need to stop,'" Nehls said. 

Babbitt's death exposes just how deep the rifts are in Congress. Despite being in the same room with McGovern and others, Nehls said "there's no justification" for Babbitts' shooting.

Video shows a number of rioters were trying to force their way into the chamber where lawmakers were being evacuated before Babbitt was shot while trying to climb through a broken window into the chamber. The Department of Justice cleared the officer after an internal review, saying not only were his actions consistent with his training, but that he may have spared the lives of lawmakers and staff.

In the year since the attack, a fog of misinformation has clouded what happened on Jan. 6. Most Republicans contacted by USA TODAY generally did not want to speak much about the attack or dwell on it.

  • Capitol riot misinformation persists: False claims continue to circulate on Facebook

“It’s time to move on,” Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-N.J., said in a text message to USA TODAY, a similar statement to what he said the day after the attack: "We shouldn't dwell on this forever." 

Many congressional Republicans condemned the attack but also told USA TODAY they don’t believe it was the Trump-fueled "insurrection" Democrats are calling it. GOP lawmakers say Democrats are inflating the magnitude of that day for political gain and say the country would be better served by moving on.

"It was certainly not an insurrection," said Sen. Jim Lankford, R-Okla., whose speech on the Senate floor that day was interrupted as the mob made its way inside. "An insurrection actually involves a plan to be able to go and take over the government. There was very clearly no plan." 

For others, the word insurrection fits: “I’ve used it. It was definitely a mob attack," said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from staunchly pro-Trump West Virginia.

"I mean, what do you call people who force their way through law enforcement and invade a building that houses the government?” asked Sen. Richard Burr, one of seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump at his second impeachment trial. Trump was acquitted. 

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who has been in Congress since 1979, described the attack as "unprecedented" and "shocking." 

"I don’t think the people who were involved in the destruction of property in the Capitol and all the stuff that we saw are martyrs," said Shelby, who is retiring at the end of his term. "They did a lot of damage and psychological damage.”

But a cadre of Republican lawmakers have sought to cast the events of Jan. 6 in less stark terms, framing that day in ways that are often at odds with their conservative colleagues and Democrats. Some publicly described it as a routine Capitol visit. Rep. Paul Gosar once called the rioters "peaceful patriots" and a group of lawmakers have been decrying the conditions of jailed rioters.

Gosar, R-Ariz., said without evidence on the evening of Jan. 6 that the left-wing group Antifa was responsible. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., repeated that conspiracy theory the next day. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla. repeated a now-debunked article on the subject. Fox New host Laura Ingraham said something similar to her followers.

By May, other Republicans were questioning the severity of the attack. Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., compared it to a “normal tourist visit," saying rioters walked through Statuary Hall "in an orderly fashion staying between the stanchions and ropes taking videos and pictures." A photograph showed Clyde helping to barricade a door to the House chamber as rioters approached.

Gosar accused the FBI of using the event as an excuse to investigate law-abiding Americans. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said "There have been things worse” and claimed none of the rioters had guns despite two people being charged for unlawful possession of a firearm.

Nehls says he "doesn't necessarily agree" Republicans are downplaying Jan. 6. The people who harmed police should go to prison, he said, but many "didn't harm anyone" and were "just walking around."

"I just think what the Democrats are doing is they're trying … to amplify Jan. 6, because in my humble opinion, the Democrats they own the media, and they want to continue to blame Donald Trump," he said. 

More than 140 police officers were injured during the attack and four people died, including Babbitt. A police officer died of a stroke the next day after he was attacked in the riot though a medical examiner attributed the death to natural causes. Four police officers died by suicide in the weeks that followed. 

  • 'I know that day I saved countless lives': Capitol officer who fatally shot Ashli Babbitt steps forward

“We went back to vote within hours (of the attack) and the next day it looked like nothing happened," said Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, who agreed the mob acted criminally. "I'm not denying what happened but what I would say is to those who want it to be a problem, it is a problem.”

Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican frequently in Trump's crosshairs, disagreed with those who downplay the attack.

"Look, this was an attack on the cradle of democracy. It was outrageous. It was an insurrection, and the great majority of Americans recognize it as such," he said. "It's unfortunate that there are some in politics and some in our media and social media that are trying to confuse truth with dishonesty."

Further amplifying tensions, Republicans in Congress have resisted attempts to get to the bottom of Jan. 6.

When Senate Republicans blocked a bill to create a bipartisan commission to study the insurrection in May, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., suggested the prosecutions of hundreds of suspects and Trump's second impeachment, among other actions, would suffice.

“I do not believe the additional extraneous commission that Democratic leaders want would uncover crucial new facts or promote healing," McConnell said.

Without support from the GOP, Pelosi, D-Calif., created a committee with the same objective and included Republican representatives supportive of the investigation. Republicans have pushed back on that too. The top House Republican, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, pulled all his Republican nominees from the panel and has warned companies not to hand over communications to the committee.

"There are times that the parties choose narratives to fit their political purposes. Rarely do they go to the extent of distorting the perspective of a country continuing to have free, democratic government," said Cohen, the Tennessee congressman. "I've never seen that before."

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A virtual look at the U.S. Capitol riot: See a full interactive story about the siege on the Capitol in Augmented Reality

For Democrats, the Jan. 6 anniversary is a chance to clarify the record 

As 2021 wore on, Democrats settled into a routine of pushing back on alternative narratives to the point that clarifying the record on Jan. 6 is part of the commemoration itself.

When lawmakers gather Thursday, among the events is a discussion among historians about the narrative of the day and a chance for members to share their own experiences.

Those reflections almost certainly will include more pushback from Democrats against what Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., called "this new Republican narrative."

“Part of it is also the way it's been legitimized,” he said. “Trump, for example, and others, just saying that it was a protest, that these were patriots, that they’re political prisoners, that the real victims are these insurrectionists. That's part of it, but part of it is also just the way in which a very serious threat to our democracy and our national security has metastasized from all this.”

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But it's more than simply pointing to the facts of the day, Democrats and some Republicans publicly cast doubts on the sincerity of some Republicans who still back Trump's election fraud claims. 

Privately, Republicans lament the retribution they would face for taking a public stand against Trump's lie about a stolen election, Democrats told USA TODAY. They weigh the political consequences their colleagues have faced when deciding whether to speak up.

“I mean, mafia bosses blush at how Donald Trump treats Republicans in primaries," said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis. "You say anything about him, and you are done. You are dead. You will sleep with the fishes and then he will drain the pond and set it on fire.” 

Some Republicans "acknowledge what's happening and the danger" but fear being "cast aside" by Trump and their party's base, said Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo, who was in the gallery that day.

"What I say is: ‘Well, leadership is hard. Service is hard. And I'm not asking you to storm the beaches of Normandy and to give your life for this country. I'm asking you to make a tough political call because our country and our democracy demands it, requires it,'" he said.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said Republicans are "sweeping it under the rug" to avoid "their own existential crisis that they know politically they would have if they stray from toeing the Trump line."

Those who crossed that line found themselves on the outs in their party. Ten House Republicans voted to impeach Trump after the attack, and they have largely become pariahs in the GOP.

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., was stripped of her caucus leadership post, was chided by her own state Republican Party and is faced with a Trump-backed primary challenger. Several others who voted to impeach Trump will go up against Trump-endorsed primary opponents or decided to leave Congress altogether.

  • Rep. Cheney says Trump 'clearly unfit' for future office, citing his refusal to stop Jan. 6 attack on Capitol

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who won't seek reelection after voting to impeach Trump, was so convinced there would be violence on Jan. 6 that he was armed when he came to the Capitol and told his wife and staff to stay home.

Kinzinger and Cheney are the only Republicans on the Jan. 6 committee, which plans to hold weeks of public hearings this year, laying out "in vivid color what happened every minute of the day," Cheney said. 

Kinzinger now questions whether his Republican colleagues who spread misinformation about the attack believe what they are saying.

"I came out in this job assuming that everybody had some version of a red line they wouldn't cross and that’s sure not the case," Kinzinger said. 

In the wake of Jan. 6: Fractured relationships and a ‘shattered’ sense of safety

 Jan. 6 has torn away the last threads of some of the remaining bipartisan relationships in Congress.

In an era of hyper-partisanship, it has made governing even more difficult.

McGovern said he won't get on elevators with the most vocal Republicans who downplay the events of Jan. 6. Cohen has broken off relationships with former friends across the aisle. Some Democrats refuse to work with Republicans who voted against certifying the presidential election results.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said she couldn't work with Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., anymore after his actions on Jan. 6 and she has broken off a relationship with Mark Meadows, the former White House chief of staff who was elected to Congress the same year as Duckworth.

Hawley said he "continues to work productively" with Democrats.

"I never thought as someone who's helped train people to defend other capitals and helped to fight for democracy in foreign lands – it never occurred to me that I would have to defend my own nation's capital," said Duckworth, a combat veteran who served in the Iraq War.

Others, though, said they would still work with Republicans on policy. And several Republicans said relationships with Democrats have still held strong in the year since the attack.

"I don't want to have a beer with them and talk about old times," Quigley said. "If they can help me do something to help people who need it, all right. But God, it's almost impossible to work on a bipartisan basis with the extremes."

During negotiations on a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package that eventually became law, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said the working group that hammered out the details often would return to the importance of proving the Senate could function after Jan. 6.

"I think it was always in the back of my head that we needed to (show) America that we can take some really difficult, really horrific situations and, and your government can continue," she said.

Working in the Capitol has become "toxic," Quigley said, with members reluctant to work across the aisle in the fallout from Jan. 6 and metal detectors set up to detect security risks.

During Quigley's 13 years in Congress, the Capitol felt like the safest place to be, he said. But the attack on Jan. 6 – and the possibility that it could happen again – changed that.

"That sense of safety has obviously been shattered," Quigley said.

Feelings of insecurity creep into the minds of other members as well. Some have formed support groups to help one another cope with the trauma of the day. Others try to be more prepared if a violent mob attacks the Capitol again.

Some bonds have gotten stronger in the year since the attack. A handful of representatives who were stuck in the balcony of the House chamber during the attack have formed a "gallery group" to support one another.

One of them, Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., said he still suffers post-traumatic stress from the period of time where he wondered whether he would die or be taken hostage. The post-traumatic stress disorder Kildee suffered was so great he still sees a counselor every two weeks.

"Those circumstances surely leave a lasting mark and frankly, it's made me more empathetic to everybody who has endured trauma in their lives, in any shape, or form," he said.

Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., said some are losing sight of "how significant and horrific" the attack was, with a mob violently disrupting the peaceful transition of power.

Democracy is in peril, he said, with outside forces trying to undermine it. On Jan. 6, some of those forces ransacked the seat of federal government.

"I think a lot of people thought we were immune from that kind of thing here in America," he said. "I think Jan. 6 proved that we’re not.”

Contributing: Christal Hayes

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Can Congress heal after Capitol riot? We asked them to remember Jan 6

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