Reporter’s Notebook: Capitol riot hearing proves ‘everything is different, but nothing has changed’

'This is how I'm going to die,' said USCP Officer Aquilino Gonell, 'defending this entrance'

It doesn’t take much to trip a trigger on Capitol Hill when it comes to the Jan. 6 riot.

The first hearing by the House Select Committee on the melee on Tuesday took care of that.

Those who work around Capitol Hill found themselves plunged back into the same despair and anguish prompted by the riot itself. They listened to chilling testimony from U.S. Capitol Police (USCP) and Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police (MPD) officers. They viewed and re-viewed the horrifying videos of the Capitol under siege.

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Some sobbed privately. Some cried. Some just went home.

Again.

This is how it is on Capitol Hill. Especially for those who work at the Capitol and barricaded themselves in the House chamber. Locked themselves in a broom closet. Hid for hours under a desk.

This is true even for some of those lawmakers, aides, journalists, Capitol maintenance workers and police who weren’t even around on Jan. 6.

The U.S. Capitol is where they work. Where they build friendships. Where they serve their country.

The mayhem at the Capitol in the middle of certifying the election for the president of the United States was an ugly chapter in American history. Moreover, this is the U.S. Capitol. A special, hallowed place. Not an office park in a tree-lined suburb.

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The unthinkable happened at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

And everyone still can’t stop thinking about it.

The Capitol plaza is open again. People jog through. Do yoga. Walk their dogs. The security fence erected after the riot is gone. That led some of the officers testifying at the hearing to question just how safe the Capitol truly is. It’s as though the fence helped form both a protective layer for the Capitol – and a psychological barricade, too. Once you’re inside, you’re reasonably safe.

But now, the Capitol – and psyches – are raw. Exposed. Vulnerable.

Chilling testimony from the hearing didn’t help things.

"They tortured me," testified MPD Officer Michael Fanone about Jan. 6. "They beat me."

Thugs repeatedly tased Fanone, triggering a heart attack. He finally pleaded for mercy.

"I yelled out that I had kids," said Fanone.

"This is how I’m going to die," said USCP Officer Aquilino Gonell, "defending this entrance."

Jan. 6 is a distant memory for some. Some don’t even believe it happened or believe it was a false flag operation. Others think the riot came and went.

"For most people, January 6 happened for a few hours," said Gonell. "But for those of us who were in the thick of it, it hasn’t ended. That day continues to be a constant trauma for us, literally every day. Whether because of our physical or emotional injuries. Or both."

Jan. 6 morphed the U.S. Capitol into a chamber of horrors. That’s why the officers testified that there should be consequences for those responsible. Another trigger. Who or what provoked the riot.

"If a hit man is hired and he kills somebody, the hit man goes to jail. But not only does the hitman go to jail, but the person who hired them does," said Dunn to the committee.

Democrats accused Republicans of twisting the truth about Jan. 6.

"Some people are trying to deny what happened. To whitewash it. To turn the insurrectionists into martyrs," said Select Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. "But the whole world saw the reality of what happened on Jan. 6."

The video evidence is hard to contest. Even Hollywood would fall short of generating such petrifying scenes.

To date, the federal government has charged at least 543 people in connection with the riot. Charges range from obstructing an official proceeding of Congress to assaulting police officers. The government is holding anywhere from 10-50 suspects. At least 23 have pleaded guilty to a variety of charges.

Tempers flared at the hearing. A fuming Officer Fanone showed nothing but contempt for some of the very lawmakers he rushed to assist at the Capitol that day.

"I feel like I went to hell and back to protect them and the people in this room. But too many are telling me that hell doesn't exist. Or that hell actually wasn’t that bad. The indifference shown to my colleagues is disgraceful!" seethed Fanone, violently slamming the witness table with his right fist. Onlookers in the hearing room, buried in their phones or looking down, snapped to attention as Fanone’s fist echoed off the arcade ceiling.

One of the two Republicans tapped for the committee by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., tried to console the officers.

"But you guys won. You guys held," struggled Kinzinger, fighting backing tears, his voice hollowing out. "Democracies are not defined by our bad days. We're defined how we come back from bad days."

Pelosi vetoed two Republican picks for the committee by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.: Reps. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and Jim Banks, R-Ind. Banks took aim at Kinzinger.

"He’s in deep hatred of Donald Trump," said Banks of Kinzinger on Fox. "That’s why he took this assignment."

Pelosi’s other Republican pick for the panel: Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo. Cheney voted to impeach former President Trump earlier this year. The House Republican Conference also bounced Cheney from her leadership post in May.

"If Congress does not act responsibly, this will remain a cancer on our constitutional republic, undermining the peaceful transfer of power," said Cheney. "I pray that we all remember our children are watching."

McCarthy has now taken to characterizing the duo of Kinzinger and Cheney as "Pelosi Republicans."

"Speaker Pelosi will only put people on the committee that will ask the questions she wants asked," said McCarthy.

While Democrats focus on former President Trump, Republicans say it’s Pelosi who deserves scrutiny.

"Questions that need to be answered about why Speaker Pelosi didn't make sure that Capitol Police had all the tools they need to be prepared for that day," said House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La.

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The GOP wants to investigate Pelosi, noting she was ultimately in charge of security in the House on Jan. 6. Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, who McCarthy picked for the Jan. 6 committee and Pelosi accepted – before pulling all of his members, alleged that former House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving hasn’t been cooperative in the inquiry.

But note that Republicans say little about the responsibilities of now Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., still majority leader on Jan. 6. That’s to say nothing of former Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Stenger. 

Officials fired both Irving and Stenger after the riot, along with former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund.

Democrats weren’t tolerating the criticism of Pelosi.

"The fact that Kevin McCarthy continues to blame Speaker Pelosi is just such a sick and cynical act of diversion and distraction," charged House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. "We know that the person primarily responsible for the insurrection that occurred on Jan. 6 is the former, twice-impeached president of the United States, Donald Trump."

Jeffries added that Pelosi wasn’t concerned "about what a few crackpots" might make of the Jan. 6 inquiry.

It’s unclear what future hearings by the Jan. 6 committee might cover. Tuesday’s hearing was a reset for Congress. A stark reminder of what went down in January. It again prompted partisan divisions about the riot and exposed old wounds on Capitol Hill.

"Everything is different, but nothing has changed," said Officer Dunn.

And the sores of those who were at the Capitol on Jan. 6 still aren’t healed.