Fear, anger and trauma: How the Jan. 6 attack changed Congress
WASHINGTON — A year later, the House of Representatives can still look like a crime scene some days.
Five metal detectors ring the outer doors to prevent weapons from getting onto the chamber floor, including one that stands just a few feet from where a Capitol Police officer shot and killed a Jan. 6 rioter trying to crawl through a door just off the House floor.
But the detectors aren’t there to deter armed insurrectionists. Instead, those detectors are there to prevent lawmakers or their staff from trying to commit violence against each other.
Trust in one another, whether to clinch a critical legislative deal or to protect each other from violence, seems to be at an all-time low one year after the pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol with both Democrats and Republicans in their crosshairs.
The Democratic majority, which ordered that the metal detectors be put in place a few days after the attack, grew so frightened of some GOP colleagues that they stripped two of their committee posts after learning of violent social media comments directed at high-profile Democrats. A third is awaiting a possible similar punishment.
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it. We never were threatened with people who carry guns and had to set up machines by which to detect whether or not we were armed,” said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., a 31-year veteran of Congress, standing next to one of the detectors.
“This is — it’s kind of scary.”
Republicans, rather than reining in their most controversial members, have dug in with their support for them and now accuse Democrats of a massive overreaction to the threats against the Capitol.
Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., who voted to certify Joe Biden’s win and supported an independent commission to investigate Jan. 6, accused Democrats of painting every Republican with an overly broad brush and stoking fear that any lawmaker actually wants to commit violence. And Davis contends that Democrats overlooked their own poor actions — Waters encouraged protesters to get “more confrontational” if a Minneapolis jury acquitted a police officer last April — while only punishing Republicans.
“They manufactured a false narrative about Republican members being a threat to Democrat members and passed a rule requiring members to go through magnetometers or face fines. In practice only Republican members have been fined,” Davis said during a Dec. 17 hearing of the House Administration Committee.
But fear, and the trauma from last year’s attack, continue throughout the Capitol. Some lawmakers and staff continue to receive help from counselors to deal with post-traumatic stress. Shouting matches are common occurrences, with the potential for actual physical confrontation lingering.
Interviews with more than 20 members, including Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate, revealed a Congress that remains on edge and where worries about more violence are front of mind for many — and for good reason.
Threats against lawmakers are at an all-time high, with 9,600 being recorded in 2021, according to U.S. Capitol Police Chief Thomas Manger, continuing an alarming trend. In 2017, there were fewer than 4,000 threats against lawmakers, a number that rose to more than 8,600 threats in 2020.
The raw feelings are most evident in the House. A handful of House Democrats, for instance, are a year into a protest in which they vote against any legislation whose main sponsor is a Republican who opposed certifying President Joe Biden’s election, even noncontroversial matters such as naming post offices.
The tension is less palatable in the Senate, a traditionally more chummy place, where Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., one of the highest-profile objectors to Biden’s election, believes he just had his most bipartisan year ever.
But the anger is still there. A pair of the most bipartisan Democrats, Sens. Christopher Coons of Delaware and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, said they cannot forget that day. Coons went more than six months without saying a single word to the eight Senate Republicans who voted against signing off on Biden’s clear victory, and Klobuchar said she thinks about their Jan. 6 votes “every time I see them or work with them.”
Some lawmakers sense the tensions easing a bit.
In the days following the Jan. 6 attack, House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., questioned whether the rioters had inside information because they found his somewhat hidden office on the third floor of the Capitol.
But in recent weeks, the highest-ranking Black member of Congress felt a shift in tone. Rank-and-file Republicans, who months ago would have ignored him, have been greeting him with a smile, calling him “Mr. Whip,” and acting differently from the GOP leadership team’s lockstep march with former president Donald Trump.
“I see a lot of Republicans who are not in that mix, whose interactions with those of us on the other side of the aisle have improved significantly in recent years, and it’s much better,” Clyburn told The Washington Post.
“I have seen that in the last four, six to eight weeks, while at the same time you see Kevin McCarthy acting like a dunce,” he added, referring to the House minority leader.
Some Democrats are less worried about the state of current tensions than the future, viewing last January’s attack as an opening salvo by Trump and his supporters that laid the groundwork for bigger clashes to come.
“There’s a great alarm about how they will behave after the 2024 presidential election,” Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, said.
Democrats generally fall into two categories when it comes to their level of anger about the attack: those who still have trauma about the events and fear that something similar might happen again, and those who simply cannot believe that the Trump-inspired attack has not dampened his support among Republicans.
Many Democrats have directed their ire over the GOP’s continued embrace of Trump at McCarthy, R-Calif., who in the hours and days afterward blamed the then-president for encouraging his supporters to go to the Capitol. A week later, as the House voted to impeach Trump, McCarthy even offered a censure resolution blaming Trump instead of a full impeachment, because his presidency had only seven days remaining.
But with an eye on the 2022 midterm elections, McCarthy soon did an about-face and abandoned his criticism of Trump and began courting his support when it became clear the former president remained overwhelmingly popular with Republican voters despite his role in the attack.
That move radicalized some of the most centrist Democrats, the type who usually brag about their bipartisan credentials, and hardened them toward their Republican colleagues.
“I don’t know what’s going to kind of wake us from this slumber. It’s hard to square. The division within our own caucus is one thing, but what’s happening to the Republican Party, I mean, it’s a wholly owned subsidiary of Trump Inc.,” said Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., a leading figure among the centrist New Democrat Coalition.
Rep. Sean Casten, D-Ill., expressed disbelief that some of the Republicans who faced the greatest threats on Jan. 6 still fall in line behind Trump.
“Greg Pence didn’t vote to throw out Arizona but he did with Pennsylvania, after we learned that they wanted to hang his brother,” Casten recalled in a recent interview, noting that the Republican congressman from Indiana, brother of then-Vice President Mike Pence, voted with Trump after spending hours in hiding with the vice president and the Secret Service.
A few weeks after the attack, Casten informed Democratic leaders that he would force votes on noncontroversial bills that usually get approved without a roll call, if the sponsor was one of the 139 Republicans who voted to oppose Biden’s win in Arizona or Pennsylvania. He has been joined over and over by Waters and Reps. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas; Jesús “Chuy” García, D-Ill.; and Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas.
If no one else objects, they will. On Dec. 8, for instance, those five joined with 15 of the most conservative, pro-Trump Republicans to vote against the Improving the Health of Children Act that would help prevent childhood birth defects.
The bill’s author, Rep. Earl “Buddy” Carter, R-Ga., voted against Biden on both Jan. 6 votes.
Democrats have grown most concerned about a group of fairly new Republicans who focus on being provocateurs and promoting Trump rather than any legislative agenda. Several of them, including Reps. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo.; Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.; and Thomas Massie, R-Ky., have highlighted weapons in social media posts and made public statements that Democrats said have made them fearful.
Waters, 83, said she thinks the metal detectors might not be enough of a security measure. “I’ve been thinking about if someone got in a heated argument on the floor, someone could run out and run through here with their gun and shoot somebody. I really think about that,” she said.
Davis, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, believes that Democrats have consistently overstated security concerns in and around the Capitol, creating a culture of fear on that end of the building while the Senate continues to function in a more normal fashion.
He points to the cancellation of the House legislative session on March 4, a day when pro-Trump conspiratorialists had been predicting he would be reinstated as president, the original date of inaugurations. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., shuttered her chamber after a concerning bit of intelligence.
On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate stayed in session — even calling in Vice President Kamala Harris to cast a tiebreaking vote for Democrats.
Obviously, Davis said, the threat wasn’t that dangerous; otherwise, Harris would not have been allowed anywhere near the building.
Davis summed up his views of House Democrats in a few words: “We can’t live in fear.”
But some Republicans have warned the increase in threats against lawmakers are worrisome and should not be ignored, noting they are coming from all over the nation and are reported to a Capitol Police force that is unable to conduct far-flung investigations or protect lawmakers when they travel to their home districts.
“We are confronted with a concerning, and frankly dangerous, security posture when we consider these numbers relative to the limited resources available,” Rep. John Katko of New York, the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, said at a Dec. 17 hearing.
A handful of Democrats, to advance policies they say will help the country, have put aside their anger to work with Republicans who are most supportive of Trump and dismissive of the attack.
One of the leading liberals, Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., has not let Jan. 6 get in the way of his strange-bedfellows coalition, working with Trump’s biggest backers in the House on reining in the Pentagon’s powers.
It sometimes means he is working hand in hand with Republicans who were more than passive supporters of the effort to overturn the election.
“I will not let the legacy of Donald Trump dictate the efforts to pass legislation or move forward for the American public,” Khana said in an interview, explaining how he can “disagree vehemently on the election of 2020” with these lawmakers yet still work with them. “I mean, John Lewis worked with people who did much worse,” he said, referring to the civil rights icon and longtime congressman from Georgia who died in 2020.
Coons also had a John Lewis moment, back in the summer as he prepared remarks for one of the bipartisan prayer breakfasts he co-chairs, thinking about how Lewis forgave people who assaulted him during his days as a civil rights activist.
The next morning, as he looked into the audience, Coons saw several senators he had not spoken to since they cast votes against Biden’s election and thought he needed to find a way to deal with his anger toward them.
“If I want to hold up John Lewis as a role model,” Coons said in an interview, “this guy didn’t beat me over the head, but he cast a vote to invalidate Biden’s election. I’m mad, I’m really mad, and I’m still mad, but I have to start.”
One of his best friends in the Senate, James Lankford, R-Okla., is the other co-chairman of the prayer breakfast, and the duo run the Ethics Committee, a highly sensitive job traditionally given to two of the most trusted senators.
But on Jan. 6, Lankford stood with those objecting to Biden’s victory, ready to support challenges to six states’ electoral count, enough to deny him the 270 votes needed to be certified as the winner. Lankford was speaking that day when Pence was evacuated from the Senate and the proceedings stopped, as rioters stomped outside the chamber doors.
During the five-hour delay to secure the Capitol, Lankford and a few other Republicans withdrew their support for challenging the election, while the others agreed to limit the objections to just Arizona and Pennsylvania.
Only eight Senate Republicans voted against Biden on either of those votes, a small amount compared with the two-thirds of House Republicans who opposed Biden. Lankford believes that by only challenging the two states, every Senate Republican certified Biden’s victory, because even if Arizona and Pennsylvania’s results were not accepted, he still had more than 270 votes, enough to win.
“At the end of the day all 100 senators all certified the election. Every one of them. Because you have to challenge enough states that day to be able to challenge the election,” Lankford said.
That approach infuriates many Democrats, who view any vote against those two states as supporting Trump and his insurrectionists. “Whatever you need to tell yourself to sleep at night,” Casten said of Lankford’s logic.
But Klobuchar found the actions by Lankford and those few other Republicans to be courageous, switching sides when they realized how out of control things got in the Capitol.
“They could not stomach being on the side of an insurrection. And that actually brings me great solace,” she said.
That tone in the Senate — with Pence delivering a very bipartisan speech at the start of the evening session after the riot, followed immediately by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. — set a foundation that led to fewer enduring grudges.
“I would say it’s been our, I think, maybe our most productive year in working across the aisle,” said Hawley, one of the lead objectors to Biden’s election. He has not felt ostracized, joining Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., on legislation to force the military to better investigate sexual assaults and Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., on cybersecurity.
“It’s been a pretty productive year that way, bipartisan,” Hawley said.
Republicans who completely turned on Trump — 10 voted to impeach in the House, seven voted to convict in the Senate trial — have faced the most isolation.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., one of the seven, lost friends and supporters back home, but also found deeper bonds. “People who no longer take a phone call. People whom you formerly had lunch with, who frankly don’t want to have lunch with you anymore. But there’s other people who kind of seek you out. And one Republican put a yellow ribbon around my tree right afterward,” Cassidy said.
He spent the spring and summer working with a bipartisan group that wrote an infrastructure bill that Biden signed into law. Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C., a staunch conservative who voted to impeach Trump, said he’s considering working with the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of centrist lawmakers not typically from the South.
“I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” he said.
There is one issue related to Jan. 6 on which lawmakers in both parties have recently found common ground: beefing up their own security in the event of another attack.
On Dec. 22, Biden signed into law the Capitol Police Emergency Assistance Act. It allows for the chief of the U.S. Capitol Police to call for assistance from the D.C. National Guard and federal law enforcement agencies without first seeking approval from the four-person police oversight board.
Delays in getting Guard troops to the Capitol surfaced quickly as a key lapse that helped lead to that day turning more deadly, including confusion about the Capitol Police Board’s process for requesting help.
The measured passed the Senate on Dec. 13 by unanimous consent, sending it to the House for consideration the next day.
No one even asked for a recorded vote, and it won unanimous approval.
“Every minute counts during an emergency,” Klobuchar said in a statement.
The Washington Post’s Rhonda Colvin contributed to this report.