By Richard Cowan and Sarah N. Lynch
Four police officers on Tuesday told lawmakers they were beaten, taunted with racial insults, heard threats including “kill him with his own gun” and thought they might die as they struggled to defend the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 against a mob of then-President Donald Trump’s supporters.
Often tearful, sometimes profane, the officers called the rioters “terrorists” engaged in an “attempted coup.” During a 3-1/2 hour congressional hearing, they also criticized Republican lawmakers who have sought to downplay the attack.
“I feel like I went to hell and back to protect the people in this room,” said District of Columbia police officer Michael Fanone, referring to lawmakers. “The indifference shown to my colleagues is disgraceful,” Fanone added, slamming his hand onto the witness table.
It was a dramatic first hearing for a Democratic-led House of Representatives committee tasked with investigating the worst violence at the Capitol since the British invasion in the War of 1812.
Some Democrats have suggested that Trump be called as a witness. The officers recounted how the rioters fought on the Republican former president’s behalf as they sought to prevent Congress from formally certifying now-President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory after Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen through widespread voting fraud.
“He himself helped create this monstrosity,” Capitol Police Officer Aquilino Gonell said of Trump as he described rioters wielding weapons including police shields, batons, sledge hammers, flag poles, Taser devices, chemical irritants, metal pipes, rocks, broken table legs and metal guard rails.
Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson and Representative Liz Cheney, a Republican panel member, warned against “whitewashing” a riot in which more than 535 people now face criminal charges even as Trump allies try to minimize the incident and accuse the committee of political motivations.
Cheney, stripped of her House Republican leadership post after denouncing Trump’s false election claims, said she hopes the nation does not become so blinded by partisanship that “we throw away the miracle” of American democracy.
The committee is expected to explore questions surrounding the organization behind the riot, how it was financed and law enforcement’s lack of preparedness.
The panel heard the most detailed public account to date of what police faced during the rampage. More than a hundred officers were injured by the hundreds of rioters.
Fanone said he was pulled into the crowd, beaten, shocked repeatedly with a Taser, robbed of his badge and knocked unconscious, with doctors telling him he suffered a heart attack. Fanone said he heard a rioter say “kill him with his own gun.”
“What we were subjected to that day was like something from a medieval battlefield,” Gonell said, adding that his family wondered if he was alive as they watched the violence on television.
Capitol police officer Harry Dunn, who is Black, said rioters repeatedly called him a racial slur. Dunn said he challenged their claims that no one had voted for Biden by telling them that he himself had done so.
Gonell, a naturalized American citizen born in the Dominican Republican who served in the U.S. Army in Iraq, recalled rioters calling him a traitor and saying he should be executed. Gonell said he thought to himself, “This is how I’m going to die.”
Washington officer Daniel Hodges called the rioters terrorists, citing the term’s legal definition. He said they told him: “You will die on your knees!”
Hodges said the rioters appeared mostly to be white nationalists. While his Black and Hispanic colleagues faced racial slurs, Hodges, who is white, said rioters tried to recruit him, asking, “Are you my brother?”
The officers urged lawmakers to determine what happened at the riot including whether Trump or others helped instigate it.
“There was an attack carried out on Jan. 6, and a hit man sent them. I want you to get to the bottom of that,” Dunn said.
Four people died on the day of the violence, including one rioter shot by police and three others who died after medical emergencies. A police officer who was attacked by rioters died the following day. Two others later committed suicide.
The rioters stormed the Capitol, sending lawmakers and then-Vice President Mike Pence scrambling for safety. The riot followed Trump’s speech to supporters repeating his false election claims.
“Some people are trying to deny what happened, to whitewash it, to turn the insurrectionists into martyrs,” Thompson said. “And all of it for a vile, vile lie.”
House Democrats created the panel after congressional Republicans blocked the formation of an independent bipartisan commission to investigate the riot.
Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican, tried to shift blame onto Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, calling her responsible for Capitol security arrangements.
Democratic congresswoman Stephanie Murphy asked Hodges what he was fighting for as he confronted the rioters.
“Democracy,” Hodges replied.