Feeling safe at the Capitol isn’t simple a year after Jan. 6
Lawmakers and staffers say they still worry
Jason Crow never imagined he would be crouching in the House gallery on Jan. 6, 2021, as police aimed their guns at insurrectionists pounding on barricaded doors. But there he was, switching into “Ranger mode.”
The Army Ranger turned congressman, who served three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, saw his past and present meet during those minutes he took cover, holding the hand of Rep. Susan Wild as a pro-Trump mob tried to force its way into the chamber. He shut off his thoughts and focused on survival. A year later, he’s still making sense of it.
“I’m not the 27-year-old Ranger doing combat deployments. I’m a father and a member of Congress. It was almost a different lifetime ago for me,” said the Colorado Democrat. “Having that collide again and come back into my life on that day was a very surreal experience, and one that I still process.”
The last year has brought constant reminders of the dangers members and their staff face while working at the Capitol, a place that functions as both an office and a symbol of democracy. Though most say they’re confident law enforcement could repel another Jan. 6-like event, each new security concern or pandemic surge adds to a feeling of unease that’s not easy to shake.
After the riot, Crow and about 20 other Democratic House members began meeting virtually, talking through their experiences and bringing in professionals to help navigate the trauma. In those sessions, Crow opened up to the group about his experiences in combat and how his body felt tired and bruised in the aftermath of a firefight.
“Immediately when I said that, I got tons of acknowledging faces in the Zoom because almost everybody was feeling that physical response,” he said. “They were wondering, is there something wrong with them? Are they sick? And I said, ‘No, it's actually a normal human response.’”
The so-called “gallery group” has stuck together in the months after the event, corresponding in chat threads and swapping family pictures. They’ve even had potlucks together — he can’t live down a “famous Key lime pie incident,” Crow said.
It helps, but one year out from the mob attack, it’s not as if an anniversary suddenly offers closure, a neat and tidy ending. The Capitol was like a combat zone that day, and then swarming with National Guard soldiers and ringed by razor wire-topped fencing for months afterward. It could take some time to see it any other way.
A lot happened over the past year to keep the Hill on edge. A driver rammed his car through a barricade in April, killing Capitol Police Officer William “Billy” Evans, an 18-year veteran of the force. Four months later, a man threatened to blow up his truck near the Library of Congress, forcing staffers to evacuate.
Every time the memories of Jan. 6 start to fade, something makes them flare up again, several congressional staffers told CQ Roll Call, asking for anonymity to speak candidly.
“The most telling thing is when friends and I talk about it or share stuff, they always include or say ‘trigger warning,’ still to this day,” said a Democratic House staffer. “I think it’s especially present among my female friends that are staffers and POC.”
Another recent reminder: A Capitol Police officer in December missed seeing a loaded Glock 9mm handgun in a bag during a security screening and let the owner, a House employee, walk into the Longworth Building.
Asked whether they feel safe in their workplace right now, some gave an enthusiastic yes. “Safest place in the world to work — besides when I was at the White House,” said a House Republican staffer who rode out Jan. 6 in their office.
Others said it isn’t that simple. Guarding against physical attacks is one thing, but enduring a charged atmosphere day after day can feel like a hazard too.
One House Democratic staffer remembers how proud she was to launch her career several years ago, but her idealism about public service vaporized as soon as she got her first warning about a potential active shooter in the Capitol. She hid under a desk in a dark office.
These days, those police alerts no longer send her running for cover, even after Jan. 6. Instead, she thinks less about intruders and more about how the past year has frayed relationships between Republicans and Democrats inside the building, with the pandemic only making things worse. As virus infections spiked in December, smashing daily records in Washington, some people in the queue waiting for COVID-19 tests in the Capitol still refused to wear masks, defying posted signs.
“I think that tension is deeply connected to the fact that a lot of GOP lawmakers either cheered Trump on or said something lukewarm about the threat, and then walked it back,” the staffer said of the poisonous atmosphere on the Hill after Jan. 6. The two parties seem to live in starkly different realities, and that’s what makes her worried.
For her, it’s all connected — Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, Republican lawmakers who say Jan. 6 wasn’t really that bad, the unmasked faces she sees in the Capitol hallways and the unease she feels when she goes to work. Making the Capitol “safer” would mean not just beefing up police presence or hardening physical defenses, but stamping out misinformation.
Shows of strength
Anyone who’s worked at the Capitol for a while can remember other scary times, like the months of fear after Sept. 11 and the anthrax attacks of 2001, or the slaying of two Capitol Police officers in 1998. More recently, a gunman targeted GOP lawmakers at a baseball practice in 2017.
Sen. Susan Collins recalls running to the police station on 9/11, desperately seeking information on staff set to fly from Maine to Washington at the same time terrorist hijackers got on their flights. Going through something like that helped prepare her for Jan. 6, she said, though it was little comfort. While she stayed relatively calm during the mob attack, she wasn’t ready to go home at the end of the night.
“It was like 2 or 3 in the morning, and Lisa Murkowski invited me to stay at her townhouse where her husband was, and he greeted us with two great big glasses of wine when we arrived,” the Maine Republican said in a December interview. “He had a roaring fire in the fireplace and we stayed up for yet another hour, just processing what had occurred that day. And so maybe that helped me come to grips with it.”
After the insurrectionists were repelled from the building, Congress returned the same day to finish its work certifying the election. It was a show of resilience that echoed other trying events like 9/11. This year, the Senate is once again expected to be in session on Jan. 6, sending a message — intentional or not — to rioters that they can’t shut down the Congress.
Collins, like other lawmakers who spoke with CQ Roll Call, said she still feels safe in the Capitol. But after talking to staff and even some newer Senate colleagues, she believes the decision to schedule a session for the anniversary wasn’t the right call.
“I think it would bring back a flood of anxiety for them that we could avoid,” she said, explaining that she worries people will try to mark the anniversary with violence and the day should be one of reflection.
Lawmakers and staffers from both parties expressed confidence that an event like Jan. 6 would play out very differently today.
Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz is among those who have called for the Capitol to reopen to the public, saying it’s long overdue. While the imposing fencing that went up around the campus eventually came down, access to the “People’s House” remains limited, thanks to a mix of pandemic and security concerns.
“I think there have been meaningful reforms to enhance the Capitol Police's intelligence-gathering ability and ability to respond to violent threats,” said Cruz, who sits on the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. “That being said, the fact that a violent attack was able to be carried out on the Capitol on Jan. 6, and people were able to penetrate the building, is completely unacceptable.”
In December the Senate sergeant-at-arms announced it would relax the ban on public tours, allowing small staff-led groups to tour a limited area on the Senate side. Otherwise, the timeline is murky, with people around the complex describing a sense that whatever the new normal will be, it hasn’t arrived yet.
Some staffers who spoke to CQ Roll Call said they feel physically safe on the Hill, but aren’t sure how they may react if they see another large-scale demonstration forming around their workplace. There simply hasn’t been an event yet that attracted the same kind of massive crowd, and they wonder what feelings will come up. The combination of an ongoing public health crisis and lingering concerns about security make them suspect that the complex will never be quite the same again.
One staffer who works for a House office said they were grateful for the heroism rank-and-file law enforcement showed on Jan. 6, and pointed to other slowly unfolding periods of change following a crisis, like construction of the underground Capitol Visitor Center in the early 2000s, designed to screen and funnel tourists in the post-9/11 era. But even if they’re reassured by months of reports and investigations on how to improve the security of the Capitol, incidents that sow doubt keep popping up.
“We’re almost a year on, and someone gets in the Longworth Building with a loaded gun and can wander around for 12 minutes,” they said. “You would hope they would have tightened things up, and not let such a high-profile and serious event occur.”