I have a lot of guilt about Jan. 6. I was assigned to cover the certification of the election that day and I expected it to be rowdy—D.C. is a protest town, after all. What ultimately unfolded that afternoon was the stuff my nightmares had been made of for weeks. A sickly anxiety bubbled up in me for the first time in earnest last September during a White House press conference, former President Donald Trump said openly that he wouldn’t commit to a peaceful transfer of power.
I wasn’t naïve. I covered his presidency from its inception. I knew who he was, I knew what he was capable of. I had listened to him baselessly cast doubt over mail-in ballots for months before the attack on the Capitol. I remembered his self-proclaimed jest about abolishing presidential term limits during an interview with Chuck Todd.
And I knew how devout his voters were—some of them had spit on me in 2016 for the sin of doing my job in their presence when I covered one of his rallies. I spent many weekends and late nights privately discussing how dangerous I believed the cult around him had become since the early days of his campaign.
So, as we careened toward January 2021, I quietly and often wondered if America was approaching a dangerous cliff. To my ear, Trump wasn’t just bloviating after his defeat. He was forecasting with his ‘Stop the Steal’ blathering. He was angry. And few things are scarier to me than a bitter man with great power and a historically absent sense of humor. Trump is not a man who takes losing well because his giant ego simply cannot allow it.
But I didn’t want to sound alarmist. I didn’t want to give him more power than he already had. He was, after all, a Mango Mussolini. His presidency and his powers were waning, so of course, I told myself, he would go down whining all the way.
But his cries of fraud came faster and clearer. I started questioning if it were truly possible for the U.S. to fall over some ragged edge into an autocracy. I feared the cowardly obedience of sycophants and the corrupt acquiescence of officials who would torch democracy, flawed though it may be, on little more than empty promises from a longtime charlatan.
By early November, I was spent emotionally and physically. I gave myself some cold comfort when writing a piece the month before about the so-called guardrails built into the Constitution. I trusted the voices I interviewed on and off the record, but the nagging gnawing worry was still there.
I would go to sleep most nights having dreams where Trump’s voice reverberated in my head, though his words were incomprehensible.
I’m getting paranoid, I’m overdoing it, I thought. I needed a break. I was working full time and had been caring for my dying mother. So, I cashed in some vacation hours for the days around the election.
That way, I told myself, when the day finally rolled around, I would go out, cast my vote, take my mom to vote, and go home. I wouldn’t be knee-deep in the shit. I would instead listen from a distance. I would bake bread. I would knead dough until my knuckles hurt. I had done my duty for four years, I told myself. I was sitting out election night. I did not feel bad about that.
It was “self-care” and for just a while, I felt light.
Then the votes were counted and eventually, Biden was declared the rightful winner. There was exhalation.
I returned to work. The heaviness returned with me.
After election night, after tabulations, more and more I imagined Trump prowling the Oval Office, pacing or cursing his cronies as they gathered about him to offer their reassurances or schemes. Or both.
Then it was Jan. 6. There had been promises of wild protests to come. My anxiety was ratcheted up.
I stayed up late the night before the assault. I checked and rechecked my camera a hundred times if I did it once, before finally crawling into bed. It was charged. My backup batteries were ready. I packed my bag neatly with a first aid kit stowed inside, as well as a small tube of pepper spray.
The first aid kit now came with me everywhere after spending a summer covering mass protests in response to the police killing of George Floyd. The pepper spray was a new addition.
During the Floyd demonstrations, I rarely if ever felt unsafe. I never hid my press badge. The only harm to befall me during those many weeks was when police pepper-sprayed me and others as I reported on those exercising their right to assemble.
But on the eve of Jan. 6, I worried about pro-Trump street brawlers. They had been in Washington in December and a month before that, I recorded a caravan of his devotees speeding down the highway in considerable number. Two days before the certification, I noticed such an inordinate number of cars in my Northern Virginia neighborhood with out-of-state plates—Georgia, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Florida—that I started to tally them up on scrap paper between red lights each time I saw them in.
What is going on? I would say aloud to no one in particular.
My trust was low, my cynicism high.
I dressed on the morning of Jan. 6 in jeans and a black hoodie and a leather jacket and shoved my press badge down my shirt. I wanted to blend in the best I could. I felt the hard plastic stick to my chest. Unlike the Floyd demonstrations, I didn’t want anyone to know off the rip that I was press.
I traded out my surgical mask for one that looked like the U.S. flag. I got one for Jack Rodgers, my friend and fellow reporter who would cover the day with me. I shoved $20 in my shoe in case of an emergency. I wrote my mother’s name and cell phone number on my forearm in marker. I shoved my camera into my jacket and hid the strap under the bulk.
While it was barely light out, I drove to Maryland to pick up Jack and we hauled it into D.C., talking about how long the day would be.
I asked Jack to remember that day recently and he described the morning perfectly in an email to me: “cold, windy, overcast,” he wrote. It was “a day that settled into a generally uneasy haze,” he recalled.
We knew many Republican legislators would object to the counting of electoral votes and we expected, after grabbing some photos and interviews outside of the Capitol that morning, to spend the day in the press gallery in the House of Representatives, writing until our fingers cramped.
When we finally got into the district and approached a parking garage near the Capitol—street closures were in effect—we saw Trump’s supporters everywhere, walking, driving, emerging from train stations.
Jack recalled recently to me the rows of boarded-up shop windows.
“We saw cars and trucks around us, some painted with anti-Biden language in washable dye on their doors. But what most of the vehicles had in common were that they were from out of state—Georgia, Texas, North Carolina,” he said.
Pulling into a garage, we queued behind a line of trucks adorned with Trump paraphernalia. Supporters were streaming in and out of the garage on foot.
“I saw cars were following one another down a spiraling, underground garage. The thought of navigating a winding, underground space if something were to go wrong didn’t sit well with me, as we slowly approached the initial ramp into the unknown,” Jack wrote to me this week.
We didn’t want to get stuck underground, but options were few. As our turn with the parking attendant was coming up and we considered the subterranean option, we noticed a lone empty spot near the ground level exit right next to the attendant’s station.
We joked to each other: How much does that spot cost?
We greased the attendant with $20.
We parked in it and popped out into the street with crowds already building and flowing in a chaotic mass toward the Ellipse. It was a sea of black, blue, and red with giant pops of yellow from Gadsden flags fluttering high on makeshift flagpoles. I noticed men wearing shirts honoring the confederacy or heralding Trump’s 2020, 2024, and 2028 presidencies. Three Percenter insignia and ubiquitous symbols of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers were never far from view. There was a lot of camouflage.
If I stared too long at anyone, trying to assess how to approach for an interview, my gaze was often met with a furrowed brow or hard eyes. I looked through my viewfinder at one point, scanning throngs walking toward the Ellipse. I focused my lens on a group of men who then stared in my direction. They signaled to each other and then to me before walking my way. I moved quickly into the crowd to lose them.
“We took refuge near a federal building,” Jack remembered. “We were conscious about being near a law enforcement officer or some federal structure. We wanted to feel like we were protected.”
I reemerged in the middle of a street and this time, bumped into an elderly woman with a dark cowboy hat. She was with her husband and as waves of people passed by, she asked me to take their picture. Smiling with noses tinged red from the cold, they were euphoric. Their mood was so light and so in contrast with the more foreboding characters around them, that once the ice was broken with a photo, I started interviewing.
They were there to support their president. He asked them to be there, she said.
She was beaming.
I asked if I could take a picture of my own and without hesitation, they huddled together and let me snap their photo. That was the last and probably most normal thing I remember seeing that day: an older couple lovingly holding each other and smiling for a camera.
We walked further into the crowd. There were whiffs of beer, cigarette smoke, and occasionally, the faint aroma of marijuana. There were loud whoops and yells of excitement. There was music somewhere. There was a muffled voice yelling angrily through a speakerphone in the distance. There were chirps from police cars somewhere, trying to direct traffic.
The crowd was overwhelmingly white and male. Some men wore flak jackets. I saw a few men with helmets on. I remember a man with kneepads. Another with elbow guards and gloves and rope dangling from his waist. It took a split second to reconcile in my brain that they were wearing the gear for their protection. The rope didn’t register at all. I looked in the crowd for police and saw very few.
During the Floyd protests, I couldn’t swing my arm without hitting an officer.
“I remember the busyness of it all, the throngs of eventual rioters seeming to swirl into the street in a searching, grasping manner. The underlying feeling of trepidation and uncertainty as the nation lurched through a state of purgatory in anticipation of President Joe Biden’s inauguration. The fear of being seriously harmed for doing my job,” Jack said.
It was around this time I felt a shift in the air. It’s hard to describe and harder yet to believe when it is described, but when you have spent many months covering protests or otherwise large events, you attune yourself to energetic shifts in a space. Sometimes there’s an electricity in the air. Sometimes there’s that ‘pregnant pause.’ Sometimes there’s a sudden hush that falls.
In these moments, I’ve learned to start looking around.
I saw shoulders hunched high at the neck. I saw mouths pulled tautly and eyes darting around. I watched hand gestures flail wildly and observed fists clenching and opening. I could hear people cursing. There was a bad feeling and Trump had not even spoken yet. It was almost as if a message had swept through the crowd for them to tighten up and forgo the revelries.
That euphoria I saw on the older woman’s face was nowhere in the faces around me now.
We kept walking for a short moment and as we did, I locked eyes with a man passing by with straggly blonde hair and a white puffer coat hanging wide open.
He had a face mask covering his mouth though not his nose. And on the mask was a giant red, unmistakable swastika. He rushed right past me, and then another man blew by, this one with Nazi ephemera sewn to a bag he had draped over his arm. His forearm was exposed, and I noticed an SS tattoo.
I stopped in my tracks, and I turned to Jack.
I had been pushing myself so hard to get to this moment, to see the end of this presidency, to close this chapter. But every instinct in my body was now screaming at me to self-preserve at all costs.
Who would care for my mother if I get hurt today? played on a loop in my head.
“I have a bad feeling,” I said. “I think we should get a few more photos and get the hell out of here.”
I pulled out my camera to assess what I had shot so far. The battery light blinked twice and the camera died. I cursed it, grabbed a fresh battery pack, and slid that into place. The camera turned on. I started to flip through the images. I cursed again. The photos were too dark. It had been overcast and I didn’t have a flash. I checked the shutter speed—it was set too fast. How did that happen? I had been so careful.
In the middle of telling Jack the bad news about our photos, my camera died again. I was livid now. I fetched yet another battery. I slid that one into place. Now the camera wouldn’t come on at all. It didn’t make any sense.
We were making a slight spectacle of ourselves standing there. There was still time until certification and I live just over the Potomac, so I suggested going back to my house where I could get new batteries and upload whatever salvageable photos I had before returning to the Capitol.
On the walk to the garage, there were fewer people on the street. They had mostly congregated by the Ellipse and were preparing to listen to Trump’s remarks—remarks that would eventually earn him an incitement to insurrection charge in his second impeachment. Remarks that nearly got some of my friends killed. Remarks that led to the deaths of police officers and to hundreds of injuries. Remarks that inspired Ashli Babbitt to breach a federal building thinking she was invincible. Remarks that led her to disregard multiple verbal warnings as she tried to breach a congressional chamber. Remarks that left her bleeding on the floor, sucking for air as her life needlessly drained from her body and her compatriots mostly stood around, watching her die.
Long before Babbitt’s death, when we were finally at my house, Trump’s rally and the morning’s speeches were unfolding rapidly.
We listened to Rudy Giuliani call for “trial by combat” and we looked at each other. Few things could really shake us at that point in Trump’s presidency but this rhetoric was so baldly inflammatory in light of what we had seen that morning that a surge of goosebumps ran up my arms.
It didn’t feel safe to return. We worried about bomb threats. Our concern would prove perfectly reasonable in no time when pipe bombs were later discovered at the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee buildings.
Maybe once the crowd had dispersed from his speech at the Ellipse, we could head back for the count itself, we said. We didn’t realize people were already on their way to breach the Capitol at this time.
Jack was assigned to cover Trump’s speech. He sat at my desk in my home office to write while I fleshed out paragraphs for the impending certification story.
Trump droned on for over an hour, spewing lie after lie about election fraud. We flipped between video feed from his speech and the House and Senate chambers where certification of Joe Biden’s electoral victory would soon be underway.
The next sequence is a blur. Pence released a letter saying he would not object to the count, I hurriedly wrote two pieces at once. The proceedings were going and I next remember Rep. Jim McGovern standing at the dais and calling for order before abruptly recessing.
There was a commotion. The commotion was the mob.
The next few hours we spent writing and watching in shock while updating our story every few minutes. We texted friends inside the Capitol. People texted us to ask if we were okay. Jack remembered in our recent conversation how we received emergency broadcast alerts on our phones detailing statewide curfews in Virginia in response to the insurrection.
We were safe. But it was only chance, only dumb luck, that had brought us to this safe harbor. I apologized to Jack profusely, not knowing what had happened with the camera. I still don’t know. He was reassuring and grateful not to be hurt.
We ate pizza in my living room with our eyes glued to CSPAN and listened closely when Mitch McConnell, if but for that moment, finally divorced himself from Trump, saying there was no fraud, the election was not close and the electoral college margin was almost identical to what it was in 2016.
For the rest of my life, I will be able to hear Jacob Chansley’s guttural scream during the breach of the Capitol when I call that day back in my head. I didn’t know who or what it was when I heard it the first time. His yell carried in the background noise of live footage that afternoon that was being broadcast by CSPAN. But it was so out of place, so raw. It is seared into my brain.
The next time I heard Chansley’s voice was when I reviewed footage from inside the Capitol by The New Yorker. It was unmistakable. He was unmistakable.
The rioters broke something sacred that day and I will forever associate Chansley’s moan as the signifier of that break.
Now, almost a year later, I find myself still struggling with guilt. I should have been in the Capitol. I should have had another battery. Why did this happen? I pride myself on being prepared and having contingencies for my contingencies. Yet everything fell apart that day.
“Neither you nor I will ever have a story about pushing furniture against the door of a Congressional office to prevent incensed Trump supporters from breaking through. We’ll never have to live with the sound of rioters trying to break onto the House floor, like Rep. Jason Crowe, Rep. Bennie Thompson or Rep. Peter Welch, to name only a few,” Jack said to me recently. “What I still reflect on is the guilt both of us felt. The regret for having not been with our colleagues and members of Congress as they endured one of the most terrifying and paralyzing moments in our nation’s history. The ostracizing feeling of having watched some of our friends endure potential violence from the security of home.”
I only managed to get one picture off my memory card that was even remotely usable. It was so dark I had to use Photoshop to brighten it and it was of such bad quality that my editor didn’t care to use it even when we ran the story that day:
Now the first anniversary of the insurrection approaches. Talking about this piece, Jack said it was easier to look back now and dismiss the feelings of guilt.
“The individual responsibility of reporting what we saw and what we knew about the moment, weighed heavily on both of us after a month of traveling to the District and reporting on the racial justice movement in D.C.,” he said.
Like me, he’s done some introspective searching. That guilt is an “ongoing project,” he said.
“Like most truths, I think multifaceted reasons exist: I’m over-conflating responsibility to whatever I understand is my duty as a reporter, for example,” he said.
Sifting through the memories with me, some of the other details have grown fuzzy. It’s harder to recall what his family said when they texted him, frightened for his safety. It’s harder for him to remember what we discussed over a beer in that miserable afterglow of the attack.
”But I’ll never forget the underpinning feeling of uncertainty of that day or the National Mall vibrating with angry, insidious activity,” he said.
Some things are quite different now. Some things are very much the same.
Now I cover the insurrection at the Capitol on a regular basis, but I do it for a new organization. Now when I go out into the field, I won’t write my mother’s name on my arm but instead I choose someone who is alive to bail me out or identify my body. I don’t get to write with Jack all the time anymore or decompress with him, one of the few people who experienced this time in history with me up close.
Now, I get off at a decent hour. Now, I sleep a lot better. For now, my every waking moment is not consumed by a man hellbent on retaining power at all costs.
Amid all these many changes, however, there is a frightening consistency since Jan. 6: Many of the people who were willing to endanger our democracy a year ago are still very much in the ranks of our government today.