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‘This is how I’m going to die’: Police detail violence during Jan. 6 attack

Capitol Police Sergeant Aquilino Gonell (left) and Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone supported one another.
Capitol Police Sergeant Aquilino Gonell (left) and Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone supported one another.BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — One officer described how rioters attempted to gouge out his eye and called him a traitor as they sought to invade the Capitol.

Another told of being smashed in a doorway and nearly crushed amid a “medieval” battle with a pro-Trump mob as he heard guttural screams of pain from fellow officers.

A third said he was beaten unconscious and stunned repeatedly with a Taser as he pleaded with his assailants, “I have kids.”

A fourth relayed how he was called a racist slur over and over again by intruders wearing “Make America Great Again” garb.

“All of them — all of them were telling us, ‘Trump sent us,’” Aquilino A. Gonell, a U.S. Capitol Police sergeant, said on Tuesday as he tearfully recounted the horrors of defending Congress on Jan. 6, testifying at the first hearing of a House select committee to investigate the attack.

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One by one, in excruciating detail, Gonell and three other officers who faced off with the hordes that broke into the Capitol told Congress of the brutal violence, racism and hostility they suffered as a throng of angry rioters, acting in the name of President Donald Trump, beat, crushed and shocked them.

More than six months after the assault, the accounts of the four uniformed officers — as precise as they were cinematic — cut through a fog of confusion, false equivalence and misdirection that Republicans have generated to try to insulate themselves politically and placate Trump.

They provided a set of gripping first-person narratives that brought home the harrowing events of Jan. 6, when Trump’s supporters, urged on by his lie of a stolen election, stormed the Capitol to disrupt the official counting of electoral votes to formalize President Joe Biden’s victory.

House Republican leaders who have opposed efforts to investigate the assault boycotted the inquiry and dismissed it as a partisan ploy, so they were absent as the officers relived their trauma in a Capitol Hill hearing room.

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“This n—r voted for Joe Biden!” Officer Harry Dunn of the Capitol Police told the panel a rioter had screamed at him, prompting a crowd to turn on him with shouts of “Boo! F—g n—r!”

Later, Dunn begged the lawmakers leading the inquiry to uncover the full extent of Trump’s role.

“There was an attack on Jan. 6, and a hit man sent them,” he said. “I want you to get to the bottom of that.”

Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a leading critic of Trump and one of two Republicans named by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to serve on the panel, used the proceedings to chastise her GOP colleagues for refusing to investigate the worst attack on Congress in centuries.

“Will we be so blinded by partisanship that we throw away the miracle of America?” Cheney demanded. “Do we hate our political adversaries more than we love our country and revere our Constitution?”

The two top congressional Republicans later said they had been too busy with other work to watch.

The testimony, punctuated by video montages of the rampage — including some footage from the body cameras of police officers who testified — was a riveting reminder of the brutal reality of the day. In the hearing room and across Capitol Hill, officers, lawmakers and aides who lived through the riot were glued to cellphone or television screens watching it unfold.

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“A violent mob was pointed toward the Capitol and told to win a trial by combat,” Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the chairman of the panel, said as he opened the session. “Some descended on this city with clear plans to disrupt our democracy. One rioter said that they weren’t there to commit violence, but that, and I’m quoting, ‘We were just there to overthrow the government.’”

The refusal by most Republicans to participate in the hearing was just the latest indication of how a party that portrays itself as the champion of law enforcement has worked to thwart attempts to investigate the attack.

“We still don’t know exactly what happened,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, the other Republican afforded a seat on the panel by Pelosi. “Why? Because many in my party have treated this as just another partisan fight. It’s toxic, and it’s a disservice to the officers’ families.”

Fearing its political implications for their party, Republicans succeeded in blocking the creation of an independent, bipartisan panel in the style of the 9/11 commission to handle the inquiry and fiercely opposed the creation of the select committee. Then, after Pelosi refused to seat two Trump allies put forward by Republicans — both of whom had amplified the former president’s false claims of election fraud and disparaged the inquiry — the House Republican leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, said his members would simply not participate.

Instead, McCarthy called his own event in the shadow of the Capitol before the hearing to try to preempt the officers’ testimony and divert blame for the assault onto Democrats. Ignoring those who organized, encouraged and carried out the attack, he and other Republicans faulted Pelosi, who on Jan. 6 was forced to flee the Capitol as armed members of the mob roamed the corridors calling out, “Where are you, Nancy?”

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“Nancy Pelosi bears responsibility as speaker of the House for the tragedy that occurred on Jan. 6,” said Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, who became the House’s No. 3 Republican when the party ousted Cheney from the position for speaking out against Trump.

Congressional leaders hire the law enforcement personnel responsible for Capitol security, but are typically not involved in day-to-day decisions about security protocols. Security at the Capitol is controlled by the Capitol Police Board, which includes the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms and the architect of the Capitol.

While the hearing was underway, senators announced that they had reached a bipartisan deal on a supplemental spending bill to repay the National Guard for its deployment costs, pump $100 million into the embattled Capitol Police and allocate another $300 million to harden defenses at the Capitol.

Even as the police officers testified about having been brutalized by the rioters, a group of far-right Republicans was publicly siding with those who breached the Capitol. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Paul Gosar of Arizona and Louie Gohmert of Texas held a news conference outside the Justice Department to object to the treatment of the rioters charged in connection with the attack, calling them “Jan. 6 prisoners” who had been mistreated because of their political beliefs.

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Both McCarthy and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the top Senate Republican, said they had not watched the hearing. Pressed to address those within his party seeking to deny or distort the attack, McConnell merely pointed back to comments he made last winter, shortly after orchestrating Trump’s impeachment acquittal on the charge that he incited an insurrection, when he said Trump was “practically and morally responsible” for it.

“I don’t see how I could have expressed myself more forthrightly than I did on that occasion, and I stand by everything I said,” said McConnell, who later led the Republican effort to block an independent bipartisan investigation of the riot.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Senate Republican, called the officers “heroes,” and said, “We should listen to what they have to say.” Like McConnell, Thune helped marshal Republican opposition to the investigation.

The only two Republicans who appeared eager for answers about the assault were Kinzinger and Cheney, who greeted the officers warmly in the hearing room, gripping their hands and embracing them.

Cheney said the panel should move quickly to issue subpoenas to uncover any potential ties between the rioters and the Trump administration and campaign. Lawmakers must learn “what happened every minute of that day in the White House: every phone call, every conversation, every meeting leading up to, during and after the attack,” she said.

After the hearing, Thompson said that subpoenas would be issued “soon” and that another hearing could come within weeks.

But on Tuesday, the focus was on the nightmare experienced by the police officers who responded that day.

Michael Fanone, a Washington police officer who was beaten unconscious and subjected to repeated shocks with his own Taser by the mob, suffering a heart attack and a brain injury, said he heard rioters calling for him to be killed with his own gun.

Lawmakers played Fanone’s body camera video, in which he could be heard pleading for mercy — “I have kids,” he muttered — before being carried off by fellow officers and losing consciousness.

“I feel like I went to hell and back to protect them and the people in this room,” Fanone said. “But too many are now telling me that hell doesn’t exist, or that hell wasn’t actually that bad.”

“The indifference shown to my colleagues is disgraceful,” he added, his voice rising to a shout as he pounded the witness table in anger.

Gonell said what he went through on Capitol Hill that day had been more fearsome than any experience patrolling bomb-infested roads during an Army deployment in Iraq, denouncing what he called a “continuous, shocking attempt to ignore or try to destroy the truth of what truly happened.”

Officer Daniel Hodges, another member of the Washington police, described how the mob descended into “terrorism,” booing and mocking the police as they hoisted American, Christian and Trump flags. He said he had been crushed in a door, bashed in the head and nearly had an eye gouged out.

“To my perpetual confusion, I saw the thin-blue-line flag — the symbol of support for law enforcement — more than once being carried by the terrorists as they ignored our commands and continued to assault us,” Hodges said.