'The physical violence we experienced was horrific and devastating': Officers recount harrowing events of Capitol insurrection
By Clare Foran, Jeremy Herb, Lauren Fox and Annie Grayer, CNN
(CNN) -- The House select committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol kicked off its first high-profile hearing Tuesday with harrowing testimony from officers who experienced firsthand the violent events of that day at the hands of a pro-Trump mob.
The vivid testimony puts witness accounts on the record and a national spotlight on the insurrection, once again forcing a reckoning over the tragic events of January 6 for lawmakers on Capitol Hill as well as the American public. Regardless of the testimony's raw power, entrenched partisan battle lines in the months following the attack and during the shaping of the select committee have ensured that few minds are likely to be changed. Democrats have denounced the Capitol riot as an attack on democracy, while Republicans have almost uniformly downplayed and dismissed the insurrection's implications, especially former President Donald Trump's incitement of it.
The committee heard gripping and emotional accounts from four officers -- DC Metropolitan Police Officers Daniel Hodges and Michael Fanone and Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn and Sgt. Aquilino Gonell -- and will use the testimony as a jumping-off point for embarking on a probe that could lead to seeking testimony and documents from the former President, his aides and even Republican members of Congress.
The officers described the horrors they witnessed and endured as rioters stormed the building after Trump incited them to do so, and recounted the assault they faced on January 6 -- including being beaten with their own equipment, getting crushed in a doorway, being the target of racial slurs and facing rioters who tased them. Their gripping testimony drove multiple lawmakers on the committee to grow emotional as part of their questioning.
"I never expected today to be quite as emotional for me as it has been" said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, one of two Republicans on the committee, who appeared to get choked up during his initial remarks. "I've talked to a number of you and gotten to know you."
The witnesses made clear that the trauma and injury of the insurrection have had long-lasting consequences that they are still struggling to deal with now. They spoke of how painful it has been to see attempts to whitewash the insurrection, including by members of Congress, and called for a rigorous investigation to get to the bottom of what happened to ensure it is never repeated.
"The physical violence we experienced was horrific and devastating," Gonell told the committee. "My fellow officers and I were punched, kicked, shoved, sprayed with chemical irritants and even blinded with eye-damaging lasers by a violent mob."
"I was particularly shocked at seeing the insurrectionists violently attack us with the very American flag that they claimed they sought to protect," he said.
Fanone said that he was "grabbed, beaten, tased, all while being called a traitor to my country," and "was at risk of being stripped of and killed with my own firearm as I heard chants of 'kill him with his own gun.' I can still hear those words in my head today."
Taking aim at efforts to rewrite the history of the insurrection, he said, "What makes the struggle harder and more painful is to know so many of my fellow citizens, including so many of the people I put my life at risk to defend, are downplaying or outright denying what happened."
"I feel like I went to hell and back to protect them and the people in this room, but too many are now telling me that hell doesn't exist or that hell isn't that bad," Fanone said. Visibly upset, he said, "The indifference shown to my colleagues is disgraceful."
Many Republican fmembers of Congress have sought to downplay the insurrection in the weeks and months since it occurred, even some who forcefully denounced the events in the immediate aftermath of the attack.
In one notable example of that, GOP Rep. Andrew Clyde has compared some scenes of the insurrection to a "normal tourist visit."
Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the other Republican lawmaker serving on the committee alongside Kinzinger, said in her opening remarks, "On January 6 and the days thereafter, almost all members of my party recognized the events of that day for what they actually were," and then said, "No member of Congress should now attempt to defend the indefensible, obstruct this investigation or whitewash what happened that day."
In his comments, Kinzinger sought to dismantle misinformation and call out his own party for trying to delegitimize the efforts of the select committee.
"For all the overheated rhetoric surrounding this committee, our mission is very simple: it's to find the truth and it's to ensure accountability," Kinzinger said. "Many in my party have treated this as just another partisan fight. It's toxic and it's a disservice."
'The task of this committee will require persistence'
The hearing started with a warning from Democratic Chairman Bennie Thompson that "we cannot allow ourselves to be undone by liars and cheaters," while Cheney, one of two GOP members on the panel, called for prompt enforcement of subpoenas.
"The task of this committee will require persistence," Cheney said in her opening remarks. "We must issue and enforce subpoenas promptly. We must get to objective truth. We must overcome the many efforts we are already seeing to cover up and obscure the facts."
In a reference to Trump's role in January 6, Cheney said it is imperative to "know what happened every minute of the day in the White House. Every phone call, every conversation, every meeting leading up to, during and after the attack."
At the start of the hearing the committee showed video footage with graphic content depicting the violent storming of the Capitol, including rioters making threats directed at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Vice President Mike Pence.
"These rioters were organized. They were ready for a fight ... they came close to succeeding," Thompson said in his opening statement. "It's frightening to think about how close we were. A few inches of wood and glass. An officer turning left instead of turning right."
As he denounced the "Big Lie" spread by former President Donald Trump that the election was stolen, Thompson said, "We know that efforts to subvert our democracy are ongoing, and a major part of the Select Committee's work will be to find ways to eliminate that threat."
Officers recount vicious attack
Body-camera footage shows how Fanone was pulled into the crowd and tased repeatedly with his own stun gun. Gonell was beaten with a flagpole and his hand was sliced open. Dunn has spoken out about the racist attacks he and other Black officers faced that day. And Hodges was the officer in one of the most harrowing and well-known scenes from the riots, when he was writhing and screaming in pain while crushed in a doorway by a crowd of rioters.
"The two sides were at a stalemate at a metal door frame," Hodges said during his testimony as he recalled the horrific scene. "I inserted myself so the frame was at my back in an effort to give myself something to brace against," he said, describing how his arms became pinned and "a man seized the opportunity of my vulnerability, grabbed the front of my gas mask and used it to beat my head against the door."
Hodges described the rioters as "terrorists" and likened the mob to a "cult," saying at one point during his testimony, "terrorists pushed through the line and engaged us in hand-to hand combat ... one latched onto my face and got his thumb in my right eye, attempting to gouge it out. I cried out in pain and managed to shake him off."
Dunn, who is Black, testified that the rioters repeatedly targeted him with him vicious racial slurs and called him the n-word.
"In the days following the attempted insurrection, other black officers shared with me their own stories of racial abuse on January 6," he said.
At one point, he recalled growing emotional and yelling, "Is this America?" as he began sobbing while other officers tried to console him.
Long-lasting consequences of the assault
Testimony during the hearing underscored how the aftermath of the insurrection continues to have a devastating effect on front-line responders and those who witnessed the events firsthand.
Recalling the violence, Fanone said, "Doctors told me that I had suffered a heart attack and I was later diagnosed with a concussion, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder."
"I have been left with the psychological trauma and the emotional anxiety of having survived such a horrific event," he said. During an interview with CNN's Don Lemon later Tuesday, Fanone said he had received an angry voicemail with a number of profanities and slurs aimed at him while he was testifying earlier in the day.
Dunn said in his testimony, "More than six months later, January 6 still isn't over for me ... I'm now receiving private counseling therapy for the persistent emotional trauma of that day."
He added, addressing fellow officers specifically, "There is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking professional counseling. What we went through that day was traumatic."
Calls for a rigorous investigation and what comes next
At the end of the hearing, Thompson asked the officers what they hope the committee will accomplish.
Hodges implored the committee to take action, saying, "As patrol officers, we can only deal with the crimes that happen on the streets ... you guys are the only ones we've got to deal with crimes that occur above us."
"I need you guys to address if anyone in power had a role in this. If anyone in power coordinated, or aided or abetted, or tried to downplay, tried to prevent the investigation of this terrorist attack because we can't do it."
The emotional testimony marks the start of the committee's investigation into the circumstances surrounding the attack as Democratic leaders look to set the tone for a panel that congressional Republicans have dismissed as a political sideshow created merely to discredit the legacy of the former President.
The hearing will be just the beginning. In the weeks ahead, the panel of seven Democrats and two Republicans, all appointed by House Pelosi, will contend with how they can make the biggest impact, how to choose which documents to seek and, perhaps most importantly, to decide whether they will try to force Trump -- as well as some of their Republican colleagues who spoke to him that day -- to testify.
Democrats had pushed for an independent commission to get to the bottom of how pro-Trump supporters breached the Capitol in a deadly riot, attacked police officers and disrupted the certification of Joe Biden's November election win. After Senate Republicans blocked the commission, Pelosi moved forward with a select committee.
Pelosi has sought for the select committee to be able to provide an exhaustive accounting of the events surrounding the attack, the former President's role, how extremist groups were able to organize and how security failures resulted in the deadly clash. But the California Democrat has also taken steps that have infuriated House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, including shutting down two of his picks for the select committee because of their past statements and actions that bolstered Trump's false narrative about the election being stolen.
Pelosi named Cheney to the select committee, and after she rejected Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Jim Banks of Indiana, McCarthy pulled the rest of the Republicans from the committee. Pelosi responded by adding Kinzinger to the panel, in an effort to give it bipartisan credibility even without McCarthy's participation.
Cheney and Kinzinger have faced sharp blowback for joining Pelosi's committee, with conservatives arguing that they should be removed from their other committee slots. The two members have said those threats won't deter them.
"If the conference decided or if Kevin decides they want to punish Liz Cheney and I for getting to the bottom and telling the truth, I think that probably says more about them than it does for us," Kinzinger said Monday.
This story and headline have been updated with additional developments Tuesday.
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