The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Reliving the Capitol trauma during impeachment, and beyond

Violent rioters, loyal to President Donald Trump, storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 with hopes of overturning the 2020 election. (John Minchillo/AP)

It is clear from this week’s impeachment hearings that lawmakers who were in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 when insurrectionists attempted to overturn the results of the 2020 election were moments away from experiencing great physical danger.

When the son of Rep. Norma J. Torres (D.-Calif.) called her after hearing about the riot, she ended the call quickly:

“Sweetheart, I’m fine, and I’m running for my life. I cannot talk to you right now,” she recounted in the 19th.

That could have longtime ramifications on how they go about doing their jobs moving forward — and living their lives outside of work.

House Democrats closed their impeachment case Thursday arguing that former president Donald Trump’s violent rhetoric led to his supporters storming the Capitol, causing a traumatizing experience that ended at least five lives and would affect the lives of those who survived forever.

Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D.-Md.), the lead House impeachment manager, asked:

Why did President Trump not tell his supporters to stop the attack on the Capitol as soon as he learned of it?
Why did President Trump do nothing to stop the attack for at least two hours after the attack began?
As our constitutional Commander-in-Chief, why did he do nothing to send help to our overwhelmed and besieged law-enforcement officers for at least two hours on January 6th after the attack began?
On January 6th, why did President Trump not, at any point that day, condemn the violent insurrection and insurrectionists?

At least two police officers who were present at the riot committed suicide not long after the incident.

“He wasn’t the same Jeff that left on the sixth,” Erin Smith said of her late husband, D.C. police officer Jeffrey Smith. “I just tried to comfort him and let him know that I loved him.”

“I told him I’d be there if he needed anything, that no matter what we’ll get through it,” she told The Washington Post’s Peter Hermann. “I tried to do the best I could.”

Those who study workplace trauma agree about the lasting effects.

Steve Hydon, a clinical professor at the University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, said that the pain and discomfort that those trapped in the Capitol felt that day doesn’t end there — and could have a permanent effect on their ability to do the work they were sent to Washington to do.

Among the challenges that those who were fearing for their safety may now regularly face are difficulty concentrating, working in the same environment or even working with their fellow lawmakers.

“At one point in time, these were previously safe spaces to work in,” Hydon said discussing the House floor where lawmakers hid. “Now these spaces remind you of the traumatic incident that happened, so you might avoid it or you might be looking out of the corner of your eye or not able to clearly focus on a lawmaking decision or listening to testimony or all the activities you used to do in those rooms because you’re reminded of those incidents that happened.”

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D.-Calif.) shared that the House was abruptly recessed before a security announcement advised lawmakers and their staff to get under their chairs as rioters had entered the Capitol Rotunda.

“As I heard that announcement on the floor, I saw the new House chaplain just on her fourth day on the job walk to the front podium unannounced and amidst the chaos, she started to recite a prayer of peace,” the House impeachment manager said Wednesday. “Uncertain what would happen next, I sent a text messages to my wife: ‘I love you and the babies. Please hug them for me.’ I imagine that many of you sent a similar message.”

The lawmaker’s experience was one of several shared this week as Democrats reminded the jury of senators about how traumatic the episode was — and how much more deadly it could have been for those involved. For more than a month, Democrats have tried to communicate to the public and those on the other sides of the aisle that the violent rhetoric of Trump — and GOP lawmakers who support him — almost cost them their lives.

Just days after the riot, Rep. Mondaire Jones (D.-N.Y.), a freshman lawmaker, told me:

I was on the House floor along with approximately 200 other members of Congress and staffers and including people in the gallery overlooking the House floor, when not just the Capitol was overtaken, but when it was not clear that we would be protected from these insurrectionists on the other side of the door into the House chamber, where there was only a sprinkling of law enforcement agents to protect us from dozens of terrorists who were banging on the door. And who eventually did get into the House chamber after we were evacuated to another location. Many of us, myself included, thought that we would have to physically fight for our lives yesterday and were unsure that we would survive.

While that traumatic episode may have occurred in the workplace, the harm that it caused is not limited to the walls of the work environment. Those who experience workplace trauma often see the effects of that in their personal life.

“The reality is we don’t turn off our jobs when you get in your car or get on the Metro,” Hydon said. “We don’t just shut it down. We still carry a lot of that work at home with us. We don’t necessarily want to but that process becomes challenging when we experience such a traumatic incident compartmentalizing becomes difficult.”

Multiple lawmakers sought to make the pain they endured during the riots more widely known by sharing their stories on the House floor last week. And comments by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) went viral after she shared in detail how close she was to danger — an account that triggered criticism from Rep. Nancy Mace (R.-S.C.), who implied that the Democratic lawmaker was embellishing her experience.

The riot “was a traumatic experience and I’m not going to discount that for anyone who lived through that day,” Mace said last week on Fox. “But we have to separate fact from fiction.”

Like most things in the current political climate, recounting the riot — and just how traumatizing it was — has become political. And how lawmakers respond to the incident — or don’t respond, will be at least in part shaped by politics.

Regardless of the outcome of the Senate trial, the healing process for many of those who were involved first hand is not over — and in some cases is still in the beginning stages. While the discussions in the Senate largely revolve around a specific incident, the conversation about workplace trauma that has captured the nation’s attention extends beyond the walls of the U.S. Capitol.