The Other Jan. 6 Tapes: Newly Obtained Videos Show Trauma Of Attack For House Democrats

Shock, last goodbyes and anger were still fresh in their minds in interviews conducted shortly after the insurrection attempt.

One House member texted his wife what he feared was a final goodbye. One recalled the look of pure hatred in the attackers’ eyes. Another would never forget the whine of a hundred gas masks, all operating at once.

For some House Democrats who were in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and experienced the insurrection from a unique vantage point — being the target of the attack — those were the memories that stood out shortly afterward.

Prior to Jan. 6, the U.S. Capitol had not been sacked since the War of 1812. But on that day, a pro-Donald Trump mob, many of whom marched to the Capitol directly from his speech urging them to “fight like hell,” clashed with police, broke into the building, and chased lawmakers and then-Vice President Mike Pence into hiding. The riot lasted for hours, with the mob arriving at the Capitol shortly before 1 p.m. and police clearing the building around 6 p.m. Five people died.

While the attack inspired bipartisan revulsion at the time, that consensus has eroded ahead of its three-year anniversary Saturday. Now, some on the right say too much has been made of the violence, pointing to protesters who walked into the Capitol well after the first groups of attackers.

But newly obtained video interviews of House Democrats who were at the Capitol on Jan. 6 show vividly how traumatic that day was. As mini time capsules, they include a level of detail and rawness that will be hard to replicate as Jan. 6 recedes further into the past.

The videos were the brainchild of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). As early as Feb. 2, 2021, she urged her fellow House Democrats to record their Jan. 6 memories, for “an accurate personal record and for the healing process for our Congress and, indeed, Country.”

Twenty-one Democratic members did so and HuffPost obtained several of them for the following account. The half-hour interviews were conducted in the Capitol by staff from the House historian’s office. Most were given in March 2021, with one in May and another in January 2022. They have remained largely, if not completely, unseen since they were conducted.

Before The Attack

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) was first elected in 1996 and had been through the ceremonial certification process before. On the morning of Jan. 6, he said he expected some hemming and hawing as opponents made objections to some states’ electoral ballots for Joe Biden, but not much more.

“I surely didn’t expect an insurrection,” he said.

As a former Marine, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) was just the opposite. He had been tracking violent rhetoric online. “I knew there was going to be fireworks,” he said.

Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), a freshman member for whom Jan. 6 was only her fourth day on the job, said she thought it would be a long day and night. But she also brought to work a bottle of champagne she planned to open later with fellow freshman Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Ga.), to mark Democrats’ upset sweep the night before of two Senate seats from Georgia.

“I was also in a very festive mood, wanting to celebrate what we had just done in Georgia,” she said.

‘Darn Right, We’re Prepared’

By the time the House began to discuss the first challenge to certification, an objection to Arizona’s electoral votes at about 1:20 p.m., attackers had already breached the bike rack fencing around the Capitol and had begun facing off with officers on the west side of the building.

Inside, though, most members were unaware of the situation. Several recalled being puzzled by texts or messages from family members and staff asking if they were OK.

The idea that members wouldn’t be safe in the U.S. Capitol, in the House chamber, seemed absurd.

“If I respond that I’m on the floor, that means both I’m working and that I’m in a very safe location. It’s not a place that I would think would be, that there could be, a problem,” Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas) said.

Reps. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), center, and Annie Kuster (D-N.H.), left, take cover as rioters attempt to disrupt the joint session of Congress to certify the Electoral College vote on Jan. 6, 2021.
Reps. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), center, and Annie Kuster (D-N.H.), left, take cover as rioters attempt to disrupt the joint session of Congress to certify the Electoral College vote on Jan. 6, 2021.
Tom Williams via Getty Images

Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), in the audience gallery one floor above and overlooking the House floor, left the room with then-Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) to check the situation for himself after one of his daughters sent him TV footage. They asked a Capitol Police officer if they were prepared.

“She said, ‘Gentlemen, we’re in the United States Capitol. This is the safest building in the country. And darn right, we’re prepared.’ Ten minutes later, we were back in the chamber and the speaker and the majority leader were removed,” he said.

During The Attack

‘I Expected Her To Be Right Back’

Prior to the leaders’ removal, there had been other signs of trouble. Jacobs, sitting in the House gallery for the first time, said she didn’t understand a phone alert saying the nearby Madison Building, which is a block from Capitol, had been evacuated. “I was so new that I didn’t know what that meant,” she said.

A little bit more than 50 minutes into the session, McGovern was asked by a Pelosi staffer if he could sub in for her in the speaker’s chair if she needed him to. He agreed and she thanked him as she left.

“She left her phone on the table, so I expected her to be right back,” he said. But Pelosi, along with Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) had been whisked off the floor by security.

The abrupt departure of the House leaders from the floor was when the gravity of the situation dawned on many members.

“I remember they took Steny Hoyer so aggressively he couldn’t even bring his papers. He tried to grab his papers as they were escorting him from the chamber and he couldn’t reach them,” Allred said.

‘We Couldn’t Open The Damn Thing’

Any remaining doubts were quickly dispelled by the House going into recess — and the announcement that insurrectionists were in the Rotunda, just a minute’s walk from the floor, and that Capitol Police had deployed tear gas.

Security officers locked the doors to the chamber and began barricading them with furniture. Members were asked to don gas masks that were stored under the chairs. But hardly any of them knew how to use them and just getting them out of the sealed packaging was frustratingly difficult.

“We couldn’t open the damn thing,” said Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.). “It’s like that paper that film used to come in but very heavy, metal. And we’re frantic. We think we’re going to die and we can’t open the damn thing.”

Gallego said the order to put on gas masks was when people started freaking out. As a veteran, he explained how to put them on and urged his colleagues to keep calm once they got them on.

U.S. Capitol Police hold rioters at gunpoint near the House Chamber inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.
U.S. Capitol Police hold rioters at gunpoint near the House Chamber inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.
via Associated Press

“You could put on a hood or a gas mask and if you’re hyperventilating, you’re basically just producing more carbon dioxide than you are actually taking in oxygen and you can pass out,” he said.

That’s when Phillips heard the whizzing sound he said he would never forget, as members put on their hoods, which included small fans inside.

“When about a hundred of them are being used at the same time, it sounds like a siren,” he said.

“It’s one of those sounds that you never quite forget. That’s what I remember more than anything else, the collective sound of the masks.”

‘Whatever Happens, I Love You’

Allred said the locking of the doors and the barricade brought home that lawmakers might have to make their last stand in the chamber.

“At that point, I thought that we may not have a way out,” he said.

He thought about his 23-month old son and his wife, who was seven and a half months pregnant at the time. Expecting he wouldn’t be back before bedtime, he’d told his son that morning he would see him the next day.

“I texted my wife, ‘Whatever happens, I love you,’ because I thought that might be the last thing I say to her,” Allred said.

He took off his suit coat, ordinarily a breach of floor protocol, and talked with Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) about what they might have to do to defend themselves. Two female lawmakers, then-Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said they’d stick behind Allred, who had been listed at 6’1” and 242 lbs. during his days as an NFL linebacker.

“I’ll do my best,” he told them.

‘Good Decisions’

Around that time, attackers began pounding on the north side door of the chamber, the one the president walks through to go down the chamber’s center aisle when he gives a State of the Union address.

“And it’s at that point that I started thinking about semi-automatic weapons and a mass shooting,” said Kuster. “I didn’t know if they had weapons, but I definitely didn’t know if they didn’t.”

Kuster’s voice began to break as she recalled the day and she gently wiped a tear from her right eye.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘You have to think rational thoughts, don’t get frantic, just make good decisions. This is life or death.’”

Kuster said she grabbed Jacobs, in her “crazy tall high heels,” and pulled her to the floor with her so they would be less visible if the attackers breached the chamber. They crouched and made their way across the gallery to the other side of the chamber.

An officer led them out of the gallery to an elevator but once in, they worried where it would go. What if the doors opened and there was the mob?

The officer reassured them. “He was just so incredible. He stood up like this and said, ‘Ma’am, I am here to protect you,’ and he just blocked the door,” Kuster said.

‘What The Hell Is Wrong With You People?’

Before Kuster and Jacobs left the gallery, the members and staff on the House floor were evacuated out of a door that opened into the Speaker’s Lobby, a large anteroom right outside the chamber.

A combination door and glass partition sealed the lobby from the attackers. It was a break in that glass partition that Ashli Babbitt tried to climb through when she was fatally shot, only a few feet away from a door that opened directly into the chamber.

Hearing the shot, Jacobs said she thought it was a flash-bang grenade.

“I remember sitting and thinking to myself, ‘Those doors are going to open and there’s going to be someone with a machine gun, and we’re all done for.’ And trying to think of what I needed to send my team, so that they could at least do something good with that death,” she said.

“I have been in pretty tough places. I worked [for] the State Department, the U.N., armed conflict. And it was definitely the closest I ever felt to feeling like I was going to die.”

McGovern and Gallego recollected trying to ensure no one was being left behind as the floor was evacuated, making them among the last to leave. As they entered the lobby, McGovern said he felt a surge of anger as looked to his left to see the attackers trying to break the glass.

“These people were breaking things, in this historic building. What the hell is wrong with you people?” he recalled thinking. “What I was really thinking was I wanted to turn and give them the middle finger and utter something that I don’t want to repeat here.”

The look in their eyes was what he said stayed with him.

“They seemed, like, manic, or it was like they were almost possessed in terms of just this anger. If looks could say, ‘I hate you,’ that’s the way I felt they looked at me,” he said.

‘Like Something Out Of The French Revolution’

Gallego said he had a personal reason as well for wanting to do all he could to save his fellow members. He said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from combat.

“One of the things I’ve always regretted, from my time in the war, were when I think [about] things I should have done that could have had better outcomes. I always carry that weight with me,” he said. He then paused as his eyes began to well up.

“So that day, I just knew that whatever I was going to do, I was not going to carry regrets again like that,” he said.

Allred said as he left the floor he saw a staffer grabbing the decorative inkwells on the speaker’s podium and another taking the ceremonial House mace, the two oldest objects in the House. The inkwells date from 1819 and the mace from 1841, replacing the one the British burned in 1814.

“It was like something out of the French Revolution or something, grabbing these kind of priceless heirlooms of our democracy and trying to preserve them from the mob.”

‘Being Taken Hostage Would Have Been The Best-Case Scenario’

According to the report by the congressional committee that investigated Jan. 6, the House leaders had been removed at about 2:25 p.m., a little over an hour after the session had started. The floor had been evacuated by 2:38 p.m. and the members in the gallery, who had to wait longer to get out, were gone by 3 p.m.

The lawmakers and staff and even some reporters were led through the Capitol grounds’ network of tunnels to a safe room in one of the three House office buildings. But that room had big windows, and members complained it didn’t feel very safe, so they were quickly relocated to a large room in another building.

But they weren’t out of the woods. There were still fears of attackers in the office buildings as well, and members worried their hiding place might be discovered.

Former Vice President Mike Pence returns to the House chamber after midnight, Jan. 7, 2021, to finish the work of the Electoral College after a mob loyal to President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol in Washington.
Former Vice President Mike Pence returns to the House chamber after midnight, Jan. 7, 2021, to finish the work of the Electoral College after a mob loyal to President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol in Washington.
via Associated Press

While there was broad, bipartisan support for going back into session to finish the electoral vote counting as quickly as possible, there was also talk of simply continuing the count in the room, Jacobs and Gallego said.

Gallego wasn’t sure they should have even left the House floor. “We should have not shown we had fear and stayed there and continued to vote,” he said.

But as time passed with no signs of danger, lawmakers began to settle in. Many members took to their phones to call friends and loved ones to let them know they were all right, even if they weren’t sure they could say that.

“I thought that being taken hostage would have been the best-case scenario. I didn’t share that with my family at the time, of course,” Phillips said.

‘I Can’t Breathe’

By the time the building and grounds had been cleared by police pushing the attackers back, a job finished around 6 p.m., the stress had begun to wear.

Kuster said she turned around to notice a Republican lawmaker next to her was not wearing a COVID mask. She offered him one from her stock of extras in her purse.

“There’s a lot of people in this room, you shouldn’t be without a mask,” she told him.

“And he just looked at me. He declined and he said to me, ‘I can’t breathe.’”

“And I thought, ‘I can’t believe you just used those words,’” she said. The phrase had been a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement that reemerged in the summer of 2020, and which many Republicans had rejected.

After The Attack

‘Hard To Take’

When lawmakers returned to the chamber at 8 p.m. after about five hours away, it was a mess. The windows of the doors had been broken and glass was strewn everywhere. One member said a faint smell of tear gas could still be made out.

Democrats had assumed that because there was near-unanimity on returning to the floor as soon as possible and finishing the count, Republicans would also give up on their state-specific vote challenges. When that turned out not to be the case and objectors spoke up to dispute Pennsylvania’s results, tempers flared.

“People who I know and who I knew were frightened for their lives when we were in the secure location got up and made an objection. I think 140-some odd voted to object, and that was shocking to us. That was hard to take,” Kuster said.

At 3:32 a.m., the final objections had been dealt with and Biden was officially declared the 2020 winner. Jacobs, who returned to the chamber because “I didn’t want it to become this big scary place I was afraid to go to,” said she had expected more fanfare.

“I’ll be honest, it was a bit anticlimactic,” she said.

‘I’m Still Pissed At A Lot Of Them’

With three years’ hindsight, some of the takeaways in the interviews sound startlingly prescient, from lingering feelings of betrayal to uncertainty about what would be the impact of the attack.

“I’m still pissed at a lot of them,” McGovern said of his Republican colleagues. “All these weeks later, I really have a hard time looking at them. I mean, I don’t want to get into an elevator with them. I’m afraid I will say something that I will regret.”

Jacobs said her past in international affairs showed her the importance of there being consequences for attacks like Jan. 6.

“Having worked in a lot of countries that have been torn apart by violence, how your political leaders act in the wake of that violence is one of the most important things,” she said. She added it was important Trump had been impeached — even though he was not ultimately convicted — for his actions in allegedly inciting the attack.

“When you look historically at coup attempts or this kind of political violence,” she said, “if you don’t have accountability for the first attempt, you’re much more likely to get subsequent attempts.”

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