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‘We Have to Relive It’: Images Revive Painful Memories in Senate

By Damien Gosling , in Politics , at February 11, 2021

The nation’s most powerful lawmakers became a captive audience at Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, as video footage forced them to absorb the enormity of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

WASHINGTON — The lead impeachment manager in the trial of former President Donald J. Trump issued a warning as the proceedings began on Wednesday: not appropriate for young children.

“We do urge parents and teachers to exercise close review of what young people are watching here,” Representative Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland, said before showing video of the “shocking violence, bloodshed and pain” inflicted by the violent mob on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6.

Mr. Raskin’s message was ostensibly for parents watching at home. But the subtext was not lost on those in the Senate chamber, where Mr. Trump was facing an impeachment trial for the second time: House managers who were victims of the attack were speaking to senators who themselves had survived the violent assault. Around them were their staffs who had cowered behind office desks as the mob rampaged through the building. Above them in the balcony, scribbling in notepads, were journalists who were equally traumatized and security officers who had been there to ward off the attackers.

The humming rhythms of Capitol Hill do not easily allow for prolonged moments of reflection, let alone in the aftermath of an insurrection. But the video evidence procured by the impeachment managers turned the nation’s most powerful lawmakers into a captive audience, forcing them to absorb the enormity of the attack and render judgment on whether Mr. Trump deserved blame for what they had witnessed.

“We have to relive it,” said Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, though he predicted some staff members would most likely avoid watching video of the deadly attack again. “It’s painful. It brings up a very traumatic moment. But it also helps to bring closure, so I think it’s something that we have to go through. But it reminds us just how tragic a day it was.”

The senators watched mostly in silence as the images of the mob played in the chamber, the audio of the rioters’ profane taunts and threats echoing off the walls. As the footage played, some appeared to involuntarily trace the path they took away from the chamber as it became clear how close they had been to the mob.

Among the videos was previously unreleased footage of Officer Eugene Goodman, who has been widely praised as a hero, redirecting Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, away from the mob; rioters coming within steps of Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader; and others beating on the door of an office in which members of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s staff had barricaded themselves.

“I was very fortunate indeed that Officer Goodman was there to get me in the right direction,” Mr. Romney told reporters afterward.

Ms. Pelosi’s staff watched the video together and later recounted how the sound of the mob stays with them: their screams in the Rotunda and the force with which the rioters beat on the door.

“You were just 58 steps away” from the mob, Representative Eric Swalwell, Democrat of California and one of the impeachment managers, told the senators.

Aides to Speaker Nancy Pelosi  watched video from the Jan. 6 breach of the Capitol during the impeachment trial.
Erin Schaff/The New York Times

The pleas from overwhelmed police officers filled the marble chamber, the noise from the video almost deafening in a room where a pen click can be audible.

Seated in the chamber, several senators appeared visibly distressed: sharp intakes of breath during footage of rioters cursing at Ms. Pelosi, tightened fingers on armrests and in the case of Mr. Schumer, slow head nods as he watched himself flee the mob. Several left the chamber for a dinner recess with red eyes, visibly emotional and avoiding questions.

“I just want to give tremendous credit to the Capitol Police officers,” Mr. Schumer told reporters.

But in stark contrast to Mr. Trump’s first impeachment trial last year, where senators in both parties were eager for any opportunity to weigh in on the proceedings, lawmakers were notably reticent about reflecting on the trial arguments.

Even the videos that have long been available publicly were new for several senators. And while it is easy to miss the latest video or scroll past the graphic details, the rules of the trial kept most senators frozen in place.

“We were witnesses to that in some ways, and in a lot of ways we weren’t — we weren’t watching that live on TV like other people were,” said Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, after the first day of the proceedings concluded on Tuesday. “That’s probably the longest time I’ve spent actually watching video on that topic. It reminded me of what a horrendous day it was.”

The effects of the Jan. 6 breach are still emerging. This week, 27 Democratic senators, led by Michael Bennet of Colorado, Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, requested additional resources to support the mental health of employees working in the Capitol complex.

The senators wrote in a statement that “demand for existing mental health programs has surged” since the attack, and they called for expanding the emotional and behavioral health services and resources available to congressional staff members, janitorial and food service workers, the press corps and the Capitol Police.

Mr. Cardin recalled his personal experience on Jan. 6, when he was whisked away to a secure location and his family grew “very much concerned” about his safety. He said no one was supposed to know where his hideaway was, but his granddaughter found him using a phone locator app.

“She told my whole family where I was,” Mr. Cardin said.

“It was one of the roughest days of our life,” he said. “We didn’t realize how much at risk we were. You knew we were at risk, but we didn’t know it was that much. I mean, literally, we could have been all wiped out.”

Nearly 140 police officers from two departments were injured during the violence, including officers who sustained brain injuries, smashed spinal disks and one who is likely to lose his eye. Five people died during the rioting.

Senator James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, who had planned to question the election results before backing off after the mob attack, appeared to grow emotional in the chamber as he watched video of an officer being crushed in a door. Afterward, he called the video “painful to see.”

Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

“Who in God’s name thinks, ‘I am going to show that I am right by smashing into the Capitol’?” Mr. Lankford asked.

As they revisited the horrors of the day, senators said they would not be swayed by emotion and would allow facts and logic to dictate their decisions — even as they acknowledged the visceral impact of the images.

Susan Collins of Maine, one of six Republicans who joined 50 Democrats to move forward with the trial, said the presentation “reinforces my belief that it was a terrible day for our country and that there’s no doubt that it was an attempt to disrupt the counting of the electoral votes.”

She added that she was “proud of the fact that we came back that night and finished our constitutional duty — we did not let the rioters accomplish their goal of disrupting the vote.”

Senator Richard J. Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat, said the videos shown in the Senate were “more explicit than anything I’ve ever seen on television.”

But Mr. Durbin said no video will ever be as emotionally taxing for him as attending the service last week of Brian D. Sicknick, the Capitol Police officer who died from injuries sustained during the riot.

Mr. Durbin spoke to Officer Sicknick’s parents after the service to tell them how much he appreciated their son’s service.

“I can tell you no part of it will be any more difficult than the memorial service for this officer,” he said.

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