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John Bresnahan spent January 6 watching a pro-Trump insurrection ransack the building he’s worked in for decades.
The congressional reporting veteran was in the House gallery when a colleague texted him that the Capitol’s exterior security fence had been overrun. As soon as he stepped into the hallway, he heard the roar of the crowd as they warred with police officers trying to protect the Capitol’s perimeter.
He then saw MAGA-clad assailants try to smash open the east doors of the Capitol into the Rotunda before officers with M-16 rifles screamed at him to clear the area. Bresnahan moved to a perch on the floor above Statuary Hall, watching for an hour as rioters flooded through an entrance door they had broken open. At one point, he ran downstairs to help an officer back to his feet who’d been knocked down in a scuffle with rioters. He said he only felt personally threatened once during the insurrection—when rioters briefly cut off his exit route.
It was unlike anything Bresnahan had seen in his nearly three decades on the Hill. But what stunned him most came hours later, once the rioters were dispersed.
As tear gas still wafted through parts of the Capitol, with broken glass and blood staining the building, the House reconvened to certify President Biden’s Electoral College victory—and a majority of House Republicans voted against confirming his wins in Arizona and Pennsylvania.
“That was the thing that surprised me most of the entire day: They’d just gone through this, and they were still fucking objecting,” Bresnahan told VICE News. “I was shocked at that vote. I was shocked that they did that. I was shocked, after everything that just happened.”
Bresnahan, a Navy veteran who has covered Congress since 1994 and co-founded the D.C. newsletter Punchbowl News, said returning to the Capitol after the riots was difficult.
“The next day, I was so angry. So, so angry,” he said.
Reporters have discussed their personal experiences in the days immediately following the Capitol insurrection. But few have publicly talked about the lasting effects in the months since—the toll that day took on them, the difficulty some have faced in returning to a site where they experienced trauma, and what it’s been like covering a Congress still deeply divided on the events of that day.
“I’m still not sleeping like I used to, even to this day.”
Though the physical reminders of the Capitol riot are slowly being erased—the 26,000 National Guard troops who flooded the building for inauguration are long gone, the heavy-duty security fence is down, and the final permanent exterior fence will begin to come down on Thursday—small details remain: a shattered plastic guard sits on one of the officers’ desks and a few broken windows haven’t been replaced. House members still have to go through metal detectors to vote.
And the emotional scars are still there. Six months after their office was attacked, the Capitol Hill press corps is grappling with how to cover the insurrection’s fallout, as well as its impact on them personally and professionally.
Some reporters who were there won’t go back into the building. A number have sought therapy to deal with the trauma. One longtime Capitol Hill reporter opted for early retirement shortly after living through the riot. Many still aren’t sleeping well.
“I’m still not sleeping like I used to, even to this day,” said PBS NewsHour correspondent Lisa Desjardins. “I became kind of an insomniac.”
Even the journalists who don’t feel personally impacted say they’re still dealing with covering a Congress where members and staff are coping with their own emotional fallout.
Democrats remain furious at what happened, and aghast at what they see is a deliberate attempt to undermine investigations, while mainstream Republicans bristle at accusations that they’re not taking an event that put their lives in danger seriously enough, and rail that Democrats are weaponizing a communal horror for political reasons.
More hard-line conservatives are incensed that they and former President Donald Trump have been blamed, and think the attacks are being overhyped. Some who used to have relatively friendly rapport with the media have largely stopped talking to reporters.
“It’s eerily back to normal. But sometimes it feels like one of those horror movies, like the end of Jaws. Everything feels copacetic on the beach. But you wonder if there’s anything out there.”
“The harder part for me is to know how emotional the lawmakers are,” said Desjardins. “It’s like when you know your parents are bitterly, abusively fighting, and you go into a room and can sense their hostility, and can sense nobody’s figured out a way out.”
This isn’t all new: The Trump years exacerbated tensions between the parties, and between lawmakers and reporters. COVID made it even worse, as a significant contingent of Republican members refused to wear masks to keep everyone safe (many, especially in the House, still refuse to get vaccinated). But the attack has made things even worse.
And all of the reporters interviewed for this story are worried that the riots won’t be a one-off attack.
“It definitely could happen again. It’s something that’s on my radar. We’ve become very complacent in thinking the U.S. is different,” said Bloomberg News reporter Erik Wasson. “It’s eerily back to normal. But sometimes It feels like one of those horror movies, like the end of ‘Jaws.’ Everything feels copacetic on the beach. But you wonder if there’s anything out there.”
Making it through the day
Wasson was in the gallery overlooking the House chamber at the moment rioters broke into the Capitol, filing reports for the pool of reporters who had banded together to share information during the coronavirus pandemic. He realized something was wrong when lawmakers nearby got text alerts of a possible threat. Minnesota Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips jumped to his feet and yelled down to Arizona Republican Rep. Paul Gosar, who was speaking to object to certifying his state’s votes, “This is all because of you!”
Officers barred the doors, and told the reporters and lawmakers trapped in the gallery to put on gas masks because tear gas had been deployed. Then the rioters started banging from the outside. When they busted through the windows of the House floor with flagpoles, he thought they had guns and dove to the floor, thinking that the rioters were going to start shooting. Shortly afterward, he heard a shot outside—what later turned out to be the officer’s bullet that killed rioter Ashli Babbitt.
“It was traumatizing,” he said.
But he kept reporting.
“I shut my emotions,” Wasson said. “If I went down, I was going to go down fighting. I’m going to do my job.”
He was back the next day, pressing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at her first press conference for answers about how security could have failed so badly and whether she would fire the officers in charge.
“It was traumatizing.”
But in the weeks after, Wasson said he experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder—depression, short-tempered irritability that led to fights with his wife over nothing. This went on for nearly a month.
“I do remember just feeling unsafe in my house,” said Wasson. “It occurred to me, like, I wonder if some protesters could be tracking me or could show up at my house. There was definitely a moment of fear, and just trying to assess whether there was actually any danger to me and my family.”
Wasson said he’d had guns drawn on him by Cambodian soldiers when he was working overseas. Desjardins has covered a war, earthquakes, and hurricanes. Ginger Gibson, a politics editor at NBC News, has covered natural disasters and murder scenes.
But this was different.
“That day we weren’t just observers; we were one of their targets,” said Gibson. “A lot of us reporters are having a tough time with that.”
Gibson has spent a decade covering the Hill. And while she hadn’t been up there as much in recent months—her new role as an editor coupled with COVID meant she was usually behind a desk—NBC was short-handed because of coverage of the previous night’s big Senate runoffs in Georgia. She volunteered to help, and rolled her eyes when family members had expressed concern about her going in.
Early in the riots, before she could tell how bad things were getting, her husband—a former Republican Capitol Hill staffer—called her in alarm.
“He was more panicked than I was. I couldn’t see the footage outside the building,” she said. “I actually said, ‘There are men with guns who will shoot anyone who tries to come inside. I’m in the world’s safest building.’”
But she could hear the ominous sound of the crowd echoing through the Capitol, and listened as it shifted from a dull roar filtering through the windows into the immediate, alarming noises of shouts and sharp, echoing footsteps in the halls. A police officer told her to take cover, the building had been breached. She retreated to her press gallery, in the attic of the Senate, and went into NBC’s closet-like booth.
Then she heard the sounds of rioters, much closer this time.
“I hear the sound again—but it’s outside the door. I turned the lights off, closed the door, and sat with my back pressed against the wall. It sounded like they got inside,” she said. “I was terrified.”
After a minute, Gibson realized, with relief, that the rioters weren’t right there. The Huffington Post’s Igor Bobic was outside her door watching the now-iconic video he’d just recorded downstairs of officer Eugene Goodman leading a mob of insurrectionists away from the Senate floor, where senators had yet to escape. She bolted outside and offered Bobic a hug, relieved they both were safe—at least for the moment.
A number of reporters retreated to that press gallery—including Matt Laslo, a freelance reporter, managing editor of The News Station and a former VICE News contributor, who was on assignment that day for The Daily Beast.
Laslo has covered the Proud Boys before, and some had sent him death threats. He was worried what might happen if he got caught by someone who recognized him. They were among the most violent and most organized instigators of the riot; more than two dozen have been arrested for their role in the insurrection.
He watched out the windows as insurrectionists bear-sprayed police, then overran the building. He saw senators being rushed by police back into the Senate chamber. He retreated upstairs at the sound of “gladiator screams” in the building.
Laslo used a stray suit jacket to cover the sign identifying the space as a press gallery so it would be harder for rioters to hunt them down. He took off his jacket and tie and ripped his undershirt to flash his tattoo so he wouldn’t be as easily identifiable as a reporter, and pocketed a wrench he’d found and a wooden door stopper with a jagged edge he could use as a weapon. He went downstairs at one point to try to find gas masks in case tear gas became a problem.
“I put my head out in the hallway, and my first thought was ‘awesome, we’re safe. I’ve never seen these [plainclothes] officers blend in so well.’ And then I realize those are guys with flagpoles and MAGA stuff, they’re not cops,” he said.
Laslo scrambled back upstairs. An hour later, a police officer offered to escort him and another reporter out, warning that there was still fighting going on.
“They took us down to the first floor where a battle was raging,” Laslo said, recalling being led past lines of officers in hand-to-hand combat with rioters.
He made it safely to the cafeteria of a House office building, where he huddled with hundreds of other reporters and staff until it was safe to leave.
Desjardins was on the House side when the insurrection began.
As rioters began to make their way into the building, Desjardins tried to interview them. Two stopped for a brief conversation that was aired live on PBS. She then ducked back into her press gallery to get a backup phone battery, and was told she couldn’t leave—they were in lockdown. She convinced him to let her back out, and heard the door lock behind her.
“When I saw his eyes that was one of the only times I recognized I was scared.”
Her original plan was to head down to Statuary Hall, which protestors were moving through on their way to the House. But it sounded much more ominous than it had been just a minute earlier.
“I went to that staircase but there was so much shouting from down there and there were no cops, so I decided not to,” she said. “I was thinking about the guy who let me out of lockdown. If something happens to me, that’s going to hurt him. I can’t do that.”
Desjardins instead stayed on the third floor, just behind the House gallery, posting up behind a desk to have some physical space between her and the rioters who had now flooded the area. Many yelled at her, asking who she was. Her response to defuse tension was to yell back “PBS—Sesame Street! Big Bird!”
It mostly worked—rioters laughed and moved on. But one man, who appeared to be drunk, lunged and grabbed her by the shoulder as he tried to take her phone camera. Luckily, another rioter pulled him away.
“When I saw his eyes, that was one of the only times I recognized I was scared,” she said.
Dealing with the fallout
Every congressional hearing about the riots brings back painful memories for the journalists that witnessed it. For some, it’s been particularly frustrating to hear the handful of Republican lawmakers who have pushed lies that it was antifa, or the FBI, stirring the riot.
And GOP leaders have tried to move on, from their votes against impeaching Trump in February to the successful efforts by both House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to torpedo a bipartisan, blue-ribbon panel to investigate the riots—even after one of McCarthy’s own committee chairmen had negotiated a compromise.
Capitol Hill’s press corps has often operated with a shrugging acceptance that some politicians are liars, but some reporters feel differently after Trump’s Big Lie about the election led to an attack on democracy itself.
“We’re so used to it, the wink-and-nod lie, you’re talking to a member and they lie to you and we just move on,” said Bresnahan. “Now it’s all changed. And I do think January 6 was the zenith of that. We cannot fail to call it what it was: It was an insurrection. They tried to destroy democracy.”
He still works hard to treat lawmakers fairly, but that doesn’t mean letting them off the hook.
“I’m not here to judge these people. That’s not my mission in life. But I also can’t ignore what happened. That would be foolish as well,” added Bresnahan. “It is important to describe exactly what’s going on, and you can’t hide behind euphemism and soften what’s happened.”
He says looking back on it, he should have covered events like the early days of the Tea Party movement differently. At one early Tea Party rally he heard a protestor use the N word, but he decided against writing about it because he didn’t think it represented the broader crowd.
“We used a lot of euphemisms. That was white rage and we should have covered it as white rage, and we didn’t, we covered it as conservative backlash. They were booing John Lewis, for god’s sake,” he said.
Laslo has struggled with moving past the day.
“It’s my office, the building I love most in the fucking world. I used to call the Capitol my girlfriend. I’ve devoted 15 years of my goddamn life to that building,” he said, choking up. “Now? Instead of being there every day,I’m there once a month. I don’t want to be there.”
He used to have rapport with many right-wing lawmakers, speaking with Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz about marijuana policy, or interviewing Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley about social media regulation and internet policy.
“Instead of being there every day, I’m there once a month. I don’t want to be there.”
But Hawley led the objections on the Senate side to Biden’s victory. Gaetz lied the night of the riot that it was left-wing antifa radicals, not pro-Trump militants, who’d stormed the Capitol. Now, Gaetz is blaming the FBI.
“I don’t fucking interview him now,” Laslo said of Hawley. “With this, I just don’t give a fuck about what your thoughts are on tech shit anymore.”
Wasson said he felt more scared going back into the Capitol for the inauguration than he had on January 6.
Though he pushed his emotions aside during the riot itself so he could keep doing his job, Wasson said he grew edgier in the following weeks, spending hours researching how to survive a riot, learning to remove his jacket and tie so no one could grab him or strangle him with it, and how to use a metal pen as a weapon.
“The inauguration itself was an event that was a bit nerve-wracking,” he said. “What's going to happen? How am I going to game this out? What’s my escape route?”
Bresnahan said he kept “waiting for the other shoe to drop” between the riot and Biden’s inauguration. And he was shocked at how he felt when the House impeachment managers showed the first long video of the Capitol riots in February.
“I didn’t realize I had buried those emotions. I was wildly emotional,” he said.
Desjardins was in the Senate chamber covering the event, and chose to train her eyes on those in the room to watch their reactions rather than watch it herself.
“I was watching the officer in the back of the press gallery. He’s a tough guy, and he was tearing up, had his head to the ceiling, his hands in prayer. It was tough watching him—but it was easier watching him than thinking about it myself,” she said.
Gibson didn’t realize how much danger she’d been in until she watched that video.
“The hardest part was covering the impeachment a month later, in part because there were details I didn’t know,” she said. “It was the first time that I saw that they were in the hallway outside, where they could have gotten to us—that they were that close.”
Wasson is still on the Hill every day, but he has focused on economic coverage and let his colleagues lead the way on coverage stemming from the January 6 riots.
“My strategy is just to avoid it because I’m worried about being biased. And fortunately I’ve had other colleagues who’ve stepped up,” he said. “I’m worried about whether I can do it fairly.”
But Gibson says she thinks people who personally witnessed the riots can add a lot to the ongoing coverage. They know exactly when and how lawmakers are being disingenuous, if and when they misrepresent the riots.
“Anyone who doesn’t want to come up here again, I don’t blame them at all, even a little bit, one iota.”
“Those of us that were inside that day will forever have a perspective that is slightly differently informed than anyone else who’s ever covered Congress,” she said. “It's not my job to divorce myself from the emotional feeling. It's my job to let it inform me in a way that’s constructive, while still being fair.”
And while these reporters, and many others, have kept working, there’s been extensive conversations among journalists about burnout, frustration, and dismay about the state of the country.
"I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with reporters of ‘I don’t know if I want to do this anymore, I’m not sure if I want to be here anymore.’ But I’m not one of those people,” said Desjardins.
“Anyone who doesn’t want to come up here again, I don’t blame them at all, even a little bit, one iota,” said Bresnahan.