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‘I didn’t think I was going to go home that day’: Congressional staffers recall the lingering trauma of the Jan. 6 attack

Congressional staffers held up their hands as Capitol Police Swat teams secured the area last year. The memories of their workplace being violated continue to unsettle many in D.C.OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Sarah Groh, chief of staff for Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley, still does not know what happened to the panic buttons.

One year ago Thursday, when supporters of then-president Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol, Groh taped brown cardboard paper over the Boston Democrat’s nameplate outside her office in a nearby building so they could not target her. Then Groh, Pressley, and Pressley’s husband, Conan Harris, quickly piled water jugs and office desks and chairs against the door to barricade themselves inside.

Next, Groh pulled out gas masks and searched for the panic buttons attached to furniture throughout the office that allowed her to call Capitol Police at a moment’s notice. But they had been torn out. Every single one.

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Their disappearance is one of many details from the Jan. 6 insurrection that remain under investigation, and a memory that continues to haunt her.

“There were so many things about that day that were deeply unnerving,” Groh said. They come back in vivid flashbacks, in nightmares or when the Capitol complex goes on security lockdown, as it has many times since then.

“There is that kind of collective reflex of just not feeling super safe in your workplace,” Groh said.

The repercussions of that day continue to ripple through Congress and Washington in interactions large and small. Lawmakers, politicians that they are, have been outspoken about the events of that day. But the attack didn’t just target them. It struck the workplace of janitors and journalists, police officers and food service workers.

And in the offices of lawmakers, about 10,000 staffers, eager to help move the wheels of democracy from behind the scenes. For many of them, the trauma has somewhat dissipated, though not entirely subsided.

On some days, it is hard to do the job — to return, morning after morning, to the scene of a crime, to walk past windows that were once shattered, on the floors that were strewn with feces and garbage from the rioters, through metal detectors installed in the aftermath to protect lawmakers — from each other as much as intruders.

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In interviews, staffers said they are marking the anniversary of the attack with solemnity and reflection. Some are logging off social media and will not watch the news. Some hope not to be on the Capitol grounds at all.

“I see it in staffers who were there and staffers who weren’t there,” Groh said of the impact on workplace culture and morale. “You can just tell that this is a specter in all of our interactions.”

People sheltered in the House chamber on Jan. 6, 2021, as rioters tried to break into the House Chamber at the US Capitol in Washington. Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

Groh clearly recalls sitting in Pressley’s office in fear on Jan. 6, unsure of every knock on the door and the shuffle of footsteps in the halls. Security had always been part of the job for Groh, who had fielded death threats and kept a binder full of mugshots of potential attackers after Pressley became a favored target of Trump, one of four progressives and women of color self-dubbed “the Squad.”

The chief of staff had used the panic buttons in her office multiple times before, when people who had made threats against the congresswoman had stopped by, for example, and had recently trained her staff on how to use them.

Groh has not found out why they were missing on the one day they were needed the most.

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For Henry Connelly, head of communications for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the most chilling part, what he cannot forget, are the sounds he heard while barricaded in a nearby conference room with other staffers while rioters trashed her offices.

“We were huddled in the dark, listening to the screams of people trying to find our boss,” Connelly said. In his mind, he can still hear the pitched battles under the majestic dome in the Capitol Rotunda, the loud bangs as one of the attackers broke through an outer door, just outside the conference room, and the clatter of metal that crashed against the marble floor.

People evacuated the House chamber as rioters tried to break in on Jan. 6, 2021.Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

They hid for more than two hours.

Still, Connelly said his recovery from the trauma has been easier than for so many of his colleagues, especially women and people of color. “Personally I consider myself luckier than most — despite it all, my mind did not wander as far down into the what ifs,” he said.

Leah Han, another Pelosi staffer who waited out the attack with Connelly, recalled them crouching under a table as the crowds drew near.

“I was thinking, ‘If they find us are they going to keep us hostage? Are they going to . . . torture us? . . . Am I going to get raped? . . . Am I going to get shot? Do they have weapons?’ ” Han recounted in the HBO documentary “Four Hours at the Capitol.” “I didn’t think I was going to go home that day.”

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Five people died in the Capitol attack or as an immediate result of the it, the most violent assault on the citadel of democracy since the British torched the building during the War of 1812. They included a rioter who was shot by officers and a police officer who succumbed to his injuries a day after rioters beat him. Roughly 140 officers were hurt.

Four officers who responded later took their lives.

A pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. It was the same day a joint session of Congress met to certify the electoral votes from the 2020 presidential election. ERIN SCHAFF/NYT

The events of Jan. 6 began on a cold morning, in the muddy Ellipse south of the White House, where Trump and other Republican speakers spewed lies about widespread election fraud and egged on thousands of people to “stop the steal.”

Hundreds of Trump supporters, white supremacists, and insurrectionists made their way to the Capitol in an effort to block the counting of electoral votes that would certify Joe Biden as president. The rioters wielded Trump and Confederate flags. They chanted “USA” and scaled walls and hit officers with poles and scaffolding they had ripped off an inaugural stage. They mobbed officers who attempted to push them back.

The violent attack resulted in Trump’s second impeachment, and has spurred multiple investigations by law enforcement agencies, a series of congressional hearings, and a probe by a bipartisan House Select Committee that has interviewed nearly 300 people, some voluntarily, others through subpoenas.

Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney, one of two Republicans on the select committee, said members had received “firsthand testimony” that Trump watched the chaos unfold in the White House dining room as his closest advisers, including his daughter, Ivanka, implored him to stop the riots.

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For many Democratic staffers, the investigations and the prosecutions have not been enough. They want the Department of Justice to limit misdemeanor plea deals, pursue tougher penalties for offenders, and aggressively tackle white supremacist extremism, while Republicans argue the cases are going too far.

“While the commission can do a lot, the DOJ can do so much more,” Groh said.

In the days after the attack, staffers said, it appeared that legislators from both parties would come together as more information emerged and those in the Capitol realized just how much danger they had faced. But the toxicity and partisanship has only escalated. And for some, efforts by Trump and some Republican lawmakers to rewrite the narrative and falsely paint the mob as persecuted patriots have further compounded the trauma and frustration.

Violent insurrectionists loyal to Donald Trump tried to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Billy Hennessy, who works with the media as a special assistant to Massachusetts Democrat Seth Moulton of Salem, said he cannot look at many of his Republican colleagues the same way — legislators who continue to perpetuate the lies of a stolen election or staffers who stand behind them.

“You put partisan politics aside because [what we do] is a public service, and we should be pulling on the same end of the rope for this country,” Hennessy said. But, “I actively believe that they put my life at risk that day and having to walk the halls with them . . . it is a feeling I can’t really describe.”

For Rich Luchette, a former senior adviser for Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline, the violent attack solidified his decision to leave politics. On Jan. 6, he was waiting in line for a COVID vaccine at a Capitol building, his anxiety climbing as he heard the calls for help on a police officer’s radio grow increasingly frantic.

“The whole time it is going off with people screaming about the location of the rioters,” he recalled, and yelling orders like, “‘We need more people on the west front.’”

A nurse had to tell him to relax three times. Back at Cicilline’s office, Luchette remained on edge as they received information that officers were investigating pipe bombs at the nearby headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

A year later, what worries Luchette is how many people still do not seem to understand the gravity of the attack or how it could spawn further threats to elections. One friend in Cincinnati whom he has known since they were boys has referred to the rioters as tourists and still refuses to believe what Luchette saw with his own eyes.

It is one thing to see Tucker Carlson deny it on TV,” said Luchette, who now works for a marketing agency. “It is something else to see someone in your own personal life who is denying the reality of that day.”