By Lisa Hagen
Police officers who responded to the Jan. 6 attack reconstructed the dangerous and traumatic events of the day at the first hearing of the Democrat-led select committee to investigate the Capitol riots. But they also used their time in the hot seat to condemn those – namely elected officials – who downplay, mischaracterize or seek to move on without proper accountability.
Tuesday’s hearing formally launched the House’s investigation and spotlighted four officers from the Metropolitan Police Department and U.S. Capitol Police forces who delivered emotional, gripping and graphic testimony about their personal experiences. They recounted the severe injuries they sustained and recovery process, the derogatory and racist remarks shouted by rioters and the persistent trauma. U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell said Jan. 6 was more terrifying than when he served in Iraq, comparing the area to a “medieval battlefield.”
But during more than three hours of testimony, the officers notably highlighted the members of Congress they protect whom they believe are minimizing the violence and horrors of the day – without specifically naming them or referencing political affiliation. Meanwhile, the only two Republicans on the committee called out those in their own party for not wanting to participate on a panel with the aim of preventing another Jan. 6 whenever there’s a transition of power.
The emotions and anger were palpable among the officers who noted that they typically shy away from engaging in politics – which effectively helped do Democrats’ jobs for them.
“I feel like I went to hell and back to protect them and the people in this room, but too many are now telling me that hell doesn’t exist or hell actually wasn’t that bad. The indifference shown to my colleagues is disgraceful,” Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone said loudly, pounding the table. “Nothing has prepared me to address elected members of our government who continue to deny the events of that day and, in doing so, betray their oath of office.”
One name that came up repeatedly was that of former President Donald Trump, who held a rally hours before rioters stormed the Capitol to stop Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory. Officers Daniel Hodges and Harry Dunn frequently evoked Trump’s name, whether it was a reference to his supporters who breached the building, flags bearing his name or chants of “four more years!”
Dunn, who works for the U.S. Capitol Police, recounted rioters talking about wanting their vote counted. He responded to them that he voted for President Joe Biden, asking them, “Does my vote not count?” He said after deciding to break his silence on political matters, rioters joined in on a chorus of boos and yelled racial epithets at him – something Dunn, who is Black, said he’s never experienced while wearing his uniform.
More than six months later, plus an unsuccessful attempt to establish a bipartisan independent commission blocked by many Republicans, the Democrat-heavy panel is investigating the origins of the riot, the security and intelligence lapses and any political influences. The first hearing leaned heavily on personal accounts and footage documenting the violence but the panel is expected to start issuing subpoenas for testimony and documents that could be directed at lawmakers, former officials and key players involved in breaching the Capitol.
“A peaceful transfer of power didn’t happen this year. A violent mob was pointed to the Capitol and was told to win a trial by combat,” said Chairman Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat. “As chairman, I will not give that lie any fertile ground.”
The select committee is comprised of seven Democrats and two Republicans who were appointed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California: Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who are both outspoken critics of Trump, his false claims about the 2020 elections and his response to the Jan. 6 attack.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California initially appointed five Republicans to the committee, including a few who objected to the certification of Biden’s win. But Pelosi has veto power over GOP selections and wouldn’t seat Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio. McCarthy ultimately pulled the rest of the members from participating on a panel that most Republicans have deemed as a partisan ploy.
At one point during the hearing, Dunn referenced a comment McCarthy made hours after the attack. The officer, who pointed out that he protected the GOP leader that day, agreed with McCarthy’s sentiments that it was “the saddest day I’ve ever had serving in this institution.”
Early on in the wake of the attack, McCarthy had also said that Trump bore some responsibility for the riots. But in the months since, the minority leader has largely ignored questions from reporters about whether he still believes that Trump shares some blame.
Aside from officer testimony taking aim at those who downplay the attack, Cheney used her opening statement to ding members of her own party who engage in revisionist history of Jan. 6. She also expressed her hope that the nascent investigation will uncover what exactly happened at both the Capitol and the White House leading up to Jan. 6 and on that day.
“On Jan. 6 and in the days thereafter, almost all members of my party recognized the events of that day for what they actually were,” Cheney said. “No member of Congress should now attempt to defend the indefensible, obstruct this investigation or whitewash what happened that day. We must act with honor and duty, and in the interest of our nation.”
Kinzinger, who got emotional before asking the officers questions, added that he agreed to join the select committee “not in spite of my membership in the Republican Party, but because of it.”
But Republicans are seeking to cast the Democrat-led panel as a completely partisan endeavor and one they argue is an instrument to attack the former president, especially in the lead-up to the 2022 midterm elections.
House Republicans held a press conference prior to the hearing, praising police officers for defending them and the complex and seeking to instead place the blame on Pelosi for security failures. The Capitol Police Board, however, is the body with the authority over security.
“Jan. 6 should have never happened,” McCarthy said Tuesday morning. “We should have prepared and been prepared for the officers, made sure they have the training and the equipment that they needed.”
While Tuesday’s hearing strayed away from being overtly political, future ones are likely to stir up more frustration from Republicans, especially if the committee decides to subpoena any of their members, Trump or his former aides.
But the officers made it clear that they expect answers from the panel, even if it involves those with political influence. When asked what the committee members can do going forward, Hodges, who works for the Metropolitan Police Department, said he wants to know who exactly played a role in Jan. 6.
“I need you guys to address if anyone in power had a role in this, if anyone in power coordinated or aided and abetted or tried to downplay, tried to prevent the investigation of this terrorist attack,” Hodges said. “Because we can’t do it.”