Members of Congress duck and lay down between the seats in the gallery of the House chamber.
Andrew Harnik/AP Photo
Politics

After the Attack

Jan. 6 was a terrifying day for members of Congress. Weeks later, they are dealing with the trauma.

On the morning of the Capitol insurrection, Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Florida, was watching the debate over the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory from the balcony of the House chamber when she began to feel uneasy. It was too crowded up there for her liking, and she was worried about COVID-19, so she left to wait for the vote elsewhere.

As Frankel was exiting the balcony, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Virginia, who is a former CIA officer, stopped her. Spanberger recommended that Frankel remove the pin that identifies her as a member of Congress, lest any malicious Trump supporters, who were then gathering outside the Capitol, identify her as a target. Frankel complied, though she thought it seemed excessive. “I had no warning of any danger. I was clueless,” Frankel told me. “I don’t go on social media. I had not been watching television that day. I don’t even know if I knew that the president was having a rally.”

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Frankel had to take care of some business elsewhere in the Capitol, where she assured a Capitol Police officer that she was a congresswoman and authorized to be there, but had been advised to remove her pin. “And she said to me, ‘Oh, you don’t have to worry, we’re going to keep you safe,’ ” Frankel said. “Famous last words.”

Frankel would spend five hours that day barricaded in a room alone with Rep. Grace Meng, D–New York, while mobs of rioters searched the building for legislators. When the lockdown alert came, the two women were in an empty lounge together. They shoved furniture against the door and waited. From inside the room, they heard chanting, yelling, and stomping as the rioters streamed right past the lounge. They texted their family members and staff. Frankel gave a live interview to a West Palm Beach, Florida, NBC affiliate, her voice lowered to just above a whisper. Her son, who’d served in the Marines, called her to check in and tried to explain the best way to block a door. She sent him a picture of what they’d done, and he approved. But Meng was still worried that the mob would try to break the door down. Frankel told me she’d planned to pretend they were both “secretaries” if the rioters broke in. “But what actually scared me more was what would come after, when they opened the door and realized that I was a minority, a woman of color,” Meng said. “I was scared what they would do to me if they [saw] what I look like.”

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A selfie of Grace Meng in a cloth mask with a chair pushed against a doorknob to barricade the door visible over her shoulder.
Rep. Grace Meng barricaded in a lounge at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Photo courtesy of Grace Meng

Eventually, the legislators got a text from staff members that the Capitol Police force was overwhelmed and wouldn’t be coming to save them. In that moment, Meng feared for her life. “Thank God we were fine afterward,” Frankel told me. “Physically fine—mentally, I don’t know,” she said with a laugh.

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Much has been reported on the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. There are law enforcement investigations of militia groups, other investigations into the failure of the police response, and new reporting on the riot every day. But while all of these developments play out, the congresspeople I spoke to are still trying to process what happened, deal with lingering feelings of anger and fear, and help one another grapple with what was not just a giant news story but a very personal traumatic event.

For days after the ordeal, Frankel continued her work while battling extreme exhaustion, as her body and mind recovered from the stress of being trapped in a room with violent agitators outside. When we talked eight days after the attack, Frankel said it was the first day since the riot she hadn’t felt “totally wiped out.” Meng has noticed that she now feels “nervous” when she hears people she can’t see making loud noises outside the room she’s in. She’s also gotten calls from fellow members of Congress and their staffers, some of whom she barely knows, to check in on her after hearing what she’d gone through. “And I said, ‘I’m fine, I’m good now,’ ” Meng said. “And then they would just break down and cry, or they would just say to me, ‘I’m not OK.’ And some of these are grown men.”

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Things moved quickly in Congress after the siege. Lawmakers returned to the chambers as soon as the Capitol was cleared of rioters, certifying Biden’s victory in the wee hours of Jan. 7. It made sense. They went back to work immediately in order to, as the saying goes, not let the terrorists win. But it’s not often that the victims of a terror attack are directly responsible for the nation’s response to it, and the members of Congress I spoke to all talked about how difficult it’s been to work through what they experienced. People were killed in their workplace. Some lawmakers and staff members were holed up alone in their offices, or hid under tables in darkened rooms, while rioters raged outside their doors. Others heard gunfire and made phone calls to family members, believing that those conversations might be their last. Legislators will continue to do their jobs, but their recovery process is just beginning.

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The pressure to instantaneously move on from a crisis is acute for lawmakers, who don’t have the luxury of mental health days in the middle of overlapping national crises and are incentivized to project an image of strength. But “it’s sort of like going through a car accident,” trauma therapist Betty Teng told me. “If you walked away and don’t feel something right away, you have to pay attention to the fact that maybe in a day, in two days, or maybe even in a week or a month, you will feel the impact in some way or another, physically or psychologically.”

Some members of Congress told me that the swift return to seminormalcy has helped them recuperate from the assault. “I didn’t want it to build up into a place I was scared of going,” said freshman Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-California, of the House chamber, to which she returned the night of the attack. “My chief [of staff] walked with me, I think for a similar reason.”

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Jacobs had served in Congress all of three days before the insurrection. When the rioters breached the Capitol, she was in the House gallery—the balcony. The few dozen members of Congress and journalists who were up there with her were evacuated after those on the floor of the chamber, which meant a much closer brush with catastrophe. They were the ones photographed in those escape hoods and comforting one another while huddled on the ground. Some members were trapped in the gallery for 15 minutes or more, watching Capitol Police officers move furniture in front of the doors on the House floor, while other law enforcement officers outside the chamber struggled to clear a path through the rioters for their escape.

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“We could hear the mob behind us. We heard gunshots,” Jacobs said. “I remember thinking to myself that I don’t even know how to get out of the gallery in the best of times. It’s my fourth day—how am I going to evacuate?” She had a fleeting, morbid thought that maybe, if members of Congress were killed, “people would finally recognize the depth and danger of white supremacy in this country.” Before she ran for Congress, Jacobs, 32, did stints at the United Nations and the State Department, where she specialized in conflict areas and post-coup settings. In the gallery, as she waited to see if she’d be able to escape, “I was thinking of articles I could send my team of how other countries were able to recover and rebuild from similar incidents, and what I wanted my final message to the country to be,” Jacobs said.

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Instead of returning to California for the weekend after the riot, Jacobs stayed in D.C., in part to give herself time to process the attack. She’s talked to her therapist and says she’s feeling “resilient,” but has been experiencing more anxiety than usual, including “a couple moments of really, I would say, feeling the magnitude of what we’re going through.”

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Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, was also in the gallery when rioters breached the Capitol on Jan. 6. The next week, when she returned to the chamber to vote to impeach Trump for the second time, she found herself staring up at the balcony. “I mentally retraced my steps around the perimeter of the gallery, and where we’d gotten before we were told to hit the ground. And I looked squarely at the door where we were evacuated,” she said. “You’re in the moment, but then you have more time to reflect after. You think about what could have happened. I’m fine, I’m good. [But] every now and again I think about it—it brings tears to your eyes.”

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In the days after the attack, some of the legislators who were in the House gallery during the attack started a text chain. They commiserated about the impact of the assault on their family members, some of whom had received “goodbye” phone calls from spouses in Congress during the riot. They sent jokes to one another, and also links to purchase bulletproof vests for Biden’s inauguration. “We realized that our experience was different and that we needed each other,” said Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D–New Hampshire. (Kuster’s son is the boyfriend of Slate’s news director.) Over the past couple of weeks, as she’s absorbed advice on how to recover from a traumatic incident, Kuster learned that “it’s very important to connect with the group of people that had the same experience, because they will be best suited to understand what you’re going through.”

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Three women vacate the chamber gallery while holding escape hoods.
Reps. Lisa Blunt Rochester, Pramila Jayapal, and Abigail Spanberger evacuate the gallery as rioters breach the Capitol. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call Inc via Getty Images
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On the Sunday after the riot, the congressional text chain moved to Zoom. Organized by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, members of Congress who had been in the gallery spent a couple of hours talking to one another and a trained counselor. Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colorado, a former Army Ranger who served three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, was on the video chat. “What he has shared with all of us is that the surge of adrenaline that he had, and the fear that he faced—that we all experienced—was the same as combat,” Kuster said.

Since the siege, Crow has been vocal about this comparison. After a photo of him clutching the hand of Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pennsylvania, on the balcony floor made the rounds, Crow gave several interviews about going “into Ranger mode” in that moment of crisis. For Crow, that meant preparing for the possibility of having to fight off the rioters. He told me he double-checked the locks on the doors in the gallery and readied a pen as a makeshift weapon. He also considered asking one of the Capitol Police officers in the gallery to lend him a firearm—“You never know who’s capable of pulling the trigger until you’re put in that position … and I know that I am capable of doing that if necessary,” he said—but decided against it.

When he’s in Ranger mode, Crow said, “I just kind of box up my emotions and my feelings and put them aside.” But, eventually, those feelings come out. Crow says he’s been trying to harness the anger, anxiety, and fear prompted by the attack into action as Congress works to hold Donald Trump and his allies accountable for the attack. But the “hypervigilance” Crow remembers from his military service is back—even though it’s been 15 years since he felt it last. “I never thought the person I was then, and who I had to be as a combat leader, would ever come back and converge on my current life,” he said, noting that he’s had two children since leaving the Army. “But that is what happened. I had to tap back into that, and those two lives converged again.”

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As some of his colleagues have dealt with symptoms of traumatic stress, Crow has reminded them that what they’re enduring is a normal human response to surviving a life-threatening assault. “I feel a responsibility to destigmatize the experience,” he said.

For Kuster, that experience has included “a level of anger that I am unfamiliar with,” she told me when we spoke the week after the attack. “I don’t swear, and honestly, I’ve dropped more F-bombs in the past week than I think I have in my lifetime.”

Some members of Congress, forced to quarantine after being locked down for several hours with their colleagues—including many Republicans who refused to wear masks—were not present at the Capitol in the days immediately following the riot. Those who were, though, were subjected to what was described to me as a kind of secondary trauma, as several Republican colleagues bypassed metal detectors, aggressively confronted law enforcement officers, and asserted their intentions to remain armed with deadly weapons in the workplace. The day after the inauguration, Rep. Andy Harris, R-Maryland, made an ostentatious attempt to bring a gun onto the House floor, taking the GOP preoccupation with triggering the libs to its most literal extreme. Rep. Nancy Mace, R–South Carolina, has said that she plans to bring a firearm to work because she felt “like a sitting duck” during the riot, and the only reason she wasn’t carrying that day was because her concealed-carry permit hadn’t yet come through.

“The scariest part is that there are likely colleagues of ours who were helping the very people who were trying to take our lives,” Jacobs said. “It is hard to know who you can trust.”

It’s not just the politicians dealing with the emotional fallout. Aides, reporters, custodial staffers, and law enforcement personnel are all trying to recover. A few days after the attack, Crow talked to one Capitol Police officer who was trampled by a mob of Trump supporters after fighting for nearly an hour to hold them back. As he was being kicked and beaten, the officer told Crow, his immediate thoughts went to the members of Congress who still hadn’t been evacuated. Crow has thought about that officer as he’s watched the Capitol Police force return to the building to protect Congress, including Republicans who berate them and try to circumvent their security checkpoints. “Frankly, their selfishness, to focus more on political grandstanding than the safety and security of the Capitol complex, but also retraumatizing the Capitol Police, is astounding to me,” Crow said.

A woman lays on the floor with one hand to her chest and the other holding onto the hand of a man who is crouching down next to her.
Rep. Jason Crow comforts Rep. Susan Wild while taking cover. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call Inc via Getty Images

Republicans were victims of the attack, too, and not all of them have been carrying guns around the Capitol. Mace is taking a both/and approach: She’s getting ready to arm herself at work, and also, with Crow, co-leading a bipartisan effort to get House employees better access to mental health resources. I contacted several Republican members of Congress to see how they’ve been processing the attack. None responded. But Kuster told me that many were “equally terrified,” and Crow says some came crying to him after the assault, fearing they’d be killed by Trump supporters if they voted to impeach the man who incited the riot.

I asked Kuster if she was able to access empathy for those Republicans frightened by the riot, knowing that they had a hand in causing it. “It’s as though you’ve been reading my text messages,” she said. “That is precisely the struggle.” In her eight years in Congress, Kuster has enjoyed a collegial working relationship with many House Republicans. But “this experience has torn that fabric of trust.”

Kuster is proud that Congress pushed on to certify the election the night of the attack, and she’s glad that members of both parties moved quickly to impeach Trump. But she doesn’t want the Capitol riot to be flattened into yet another political talking point as it moves from real-life horror to the impeachment trial evidence pile. Even as the legislative agenda rolls on and the standard proceedings resume, the victims of a terror attack can’t simply turn the page. “I’m a human being, too,” Kuster said.