Four U.S. police officers told a congressional investigating committee in tearful, gripping detail on Tuesday how an angry mob of supporters of then-President Donald Trump rampaged into the U.S. Capitol last January 6 in a futile attempt to block certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in last November’s presidential election.
The officers – two on the U.S. Capitol Police force and two with the Washington city police department — said they feared for their lives as about 800 rioters stormed past outmanned law enforcement authorities, taunted them with racial and political epithets, fought hand-to-hand with police, sprayed chemical irritants at them and grabbed for their shields and sidearms.
Their testimony came on the first day of public hearings on the deadly mayhem more than six months ago, the worst attack in more than two centuries on the U.S. Capitol, often seen as the symbol of U.S. democracy. Seven Democratic members of the House of Representatives and two Republican lawmakers on a select committee listened raptly to the testimony– along with a national television audience.
During the three and a half hour hearing, U.S. Capitol Police officer Aquilino Gonell testified, “The rioters called me a ‘traitor,’ a ‘disgrace,’ and shouted that I (an Army veteran and police officer) should be ‘executed.’”
“What we were subjected to that day was like something from a medieval battlefield,” Gonell said. “We fought hand-to-hand and inch-by-inch to prevent an invasion of the Capitol by a violent mob intent on subverting our democratic process.”
Gonell said at one point he was crushed by the onslaught of rioters.
“I thought, “This is how I’m going to die,’” he said.
Washington police officer Michael Fanone told lawmakers, “I was grabbed, beaten, tased, all while being called a traitor to my country. I was at risk of being stripped of and killed with my own firearm.”
“I was electrocuted again and again and again with a taser,” he recalled. “I’m sure I was screaming but I don’t think I could hear even my own voice.”
In the months since the chaos at the Capitol, numerous Republicans, in attempting to exonerate Trump’s admonition to his supporters to “fight like hell” to overturn the vote showing he had lost to Biden, have minimized the violence at the Capitol. One lawmaker said the 800 who entered the Capitol were much like tourists, while some Republicans voted against honoring police for protecting the Capitol.
Republican leaders have maintained that the riot is being adequately investigated by law enforcement agencies and other congressional committees, arguing that the latest investigation is simply a political exercise designed to cast the Republican Party in a poor light ahead of mid-term elections next year.
Pounding his hand on the witness table, Fanone exclaimed, “The indifference shown to my colleagues is disgraceful.”
Washington police officer Daniel Hodges, who was crushed between a door to the House floor and a door frame, said one rioter shouted at him, “You will die on your knees!”
He said police were unable to hold the line against the surge of protesters. He said one rioter “put his thumb in my eye and tried to gouge it out.”
As he was pinned in the doorway, Hodges said, “I screamed for help” and “thankfully, more and more police” came to his rescue.
U.S. Capitol policeman Harry Dunn, who is Black, said the rioters unleashed vile racial epithets at him after an exchange in which he acknowledged having voted for Biden.
“I’m still hurting from what happened that day,” Dunn said. He asked for a moment of silence to remember fellow officer Brian Sicknick, who helped defend the Capitol on January 6, but died of natural causes a day later.
One rioter was shot dead by a Capitol policeman during the mayhem, three rioters died of medical emergencies and two other police officers committed suicide in the ensuing days. More than 500 of the rioters have been charged with an array of criminal offenses.
Dunn said the memories of January 6 are “still not over for me, physically and emotionally,” and that he is undergoing psychological therapy.
But he had a last thought for the protesters: “You all tried to thwart democracy that day and you failed.”
Senate Republicans blocked creation of a bipartisan investigative commission to consider why and how the deadly chaos of January 6 unfolded.
Instead, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who heads the Democratic-controlled chamber, appointed the nine members of the House select committee, including two vocal Republican Trump critics, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, over the objection of House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy.
McCarthy had named five Republicans to the panel, but Pelosi, as was her prerogative, rejected two staunch Trump supporter –, Congressmen Jim Jordan of Ohio and Jim Banks of Indiana — as biased against the investigation. McCarthy then withdrew his other three appointments.
As he opened the hearing, the chairman of the panel, Congressman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, said, “Some people are trying to deny what happened. To whitewash it. … Let’s be clear. The rioters who tried to rob us of our democracy were propelled here by a lie,” that Trump was defrauded out of a second four-year term in the White House.
Trump, to this day, makes unfounded claims that he, not Biden, was the legitimate winner.
McCarthy on Monday derided Cheney’s and Kinzinger’s participation on the Democratic-led investigative panel, calling them “Pelosi Republicans.”
But Cheney, the daughter of former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, rebuffed the claim that the investigation was pointless.
“If those responsible are not held accountable,” she said at the outset of the hearing, “and if Congress does not act responsibly, this will remain a cancer on our constitutional republic.”
In the weeks ahead, the investigative panel could subpoena numerous witnesses, possibly including Trump, to testify about what they knew ahead of the confrontation and as it was unfolding.