Congressional Staffers Say They’re Suffering in the Wake of Capitol Riots: ‘A Flood of Emotions’

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Virginia Chamlee
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Tasos Katopodis/Getty Rioters at the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6

According to a new report, staffers on Capitol Hill say they're suffering from emotional and mental trauma in the wake of the Jan. 6 pro-Trump riots and an altercation earlier this month in which an officer was killed after a driver rammed a barricade.

Congressional aides told USA Today that morale is low in the wake of the violence and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has spurred further divisions among lawmakers.

"How much worse does it get?" one Democratic staffer asked the paper, which interviewed those on both sides of the aisle following the April 2 car attack.

It's been just over 100 days since the Jan. 6 insurrection, when throngs of former President Donald Trump's supporters stormed the Capitol — after he encouraged them to march on the building — as Congress worked to certify the election of President Joe Biden.

There was more violence earlier this month, when, authorities say, a driver rammed a barricade outside of the Capitol and then exited the vehicle, brandishing a knife before being fatally shot.

Two officers were involved in the altercation, police said. One died and one was injured.

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Though congressional staffers offered differing reasons to USA Today for why morale at the Capitol has sunk so low, most agreed that the mood, in general, is one of exhaustion.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the paper that, during the events of Jan. 6, she was more afraid for the safety of others than for herself, adding that many staffers are now undergoing counseling.

"I was afraid for everybody else, and I'll never forgive them for the trauma that they caused to the staff and the members," Pelosi said. "Many are still dealing with the aftereffects and have sought counseling. ... I do think it will have an impact on how people decide to come to work here or stay to work here and the rest."

In the view of one Democratic congressional staffer, those on the Hill are grappling with both the event itself and the response by lawmakers, some of whom have lent credence to Trump's baseless argument that the election had been stolen from him — the same claims he and his allies made at a rally just before the rioting.

Getty U.S. Capitol building

"I think there's the actual trauma of what we watched on [Jan. 6] and how awful that was, and then there's the daily frustration of continuing to work with people who are lying about it and making it worse," the staffer told USA Today. "I mean, morale is very low. It's hard to put into words."

This person added that some staffers have been known to "cry, and have cried, every day after Jan. 6."

Democratic Rep. Haley Stevens added that one of his own aides called him after the riots, saying, "I'm having a panic attack about this."

Stevens said: "It's just bringing back a flood of emotions after a post-traumatic stress event."

USA Today obtained an email that offered counseling for all staffers after Jan. 6. But a progressive aide, who asked not to be named, told the paper they have not yet had time "to process or heal in the way that some people obviously would want to after an event like that."

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Most of the GOP staffers who spoke to USA Today stopped short of saying low morale was a side-effect of the insurrection, with one saying, "We function in a high-stress, high-stakes environment" to begin with.

Some conservative aides to lawmakers attributed the mood on the Hill instead to the coronavirus pandemic, which had led to an increase in remote work and less of a sense of community at work.

Heightened partisanship — due to a it's 50-50 split in the Senate and slim 218-212 Democratic majority in the House of Representatives — has also affected the mood, with one aide comparing a day at work to "suiting up for ... warfare."

Meanwhile, Gus Papathanasiou, the chairman of the United States Capitol Police Labor Committee, told the paper that officers were also "still reeling" from both attacks.

The violence on Jan. 6 led to the deaths of five people, including Capitol Police Officer Brian D. Sicknick, 42.

The officer killed in the April car attack, William F. "Billy" Evans, was honored in a ceremony at the Capitol last week.

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Papathanasiou hypothesized about the potential for a "mass exit," noting that at least 500 Capitol officers are eligible for retirement in the next five years.

"That could have happened to any one of us," he told USA Today.

Some lawmakers have also spoken candidly about the emotional scars of the January attack.

Michigan Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee told NBC News earlier this month that he had begun seeing a therapist and experienced changes in his mood and labored breathing, among other symptoms, after the riots.

Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives in January and charged with inciting the insurrection. The Senate acquitted him.

While Pelosi had earlier announced a 9/11-like independent probe of what led to the riots, support for such a commission has dwindled in recent weeks.