Every time I walk through the Capitol Rotunda, I try to remind myself: Look up. It will take your breath away.
Sure, you have to be careful not to trip because the stones under your feet are worn in unexpected places from centuries of people walking on them before you. But above you is the dome — the stunning, frescoed dome with its dozens of exquisite windows, as old as the Republic but always new, the light changing with the weather and time of day.
Never forget, I try to remind myself, what a privilege it is to go to work every day in the United States Capitol, the seat of our democracy.
I’ve been coming to work in this beautiful building more days than not for the past 15 years, and I never, ever imagined it could be invaded by a violent mob of my own countrymen and women as it was on Jan. 6.
What happened that day shook me to my core: professionally, personally and as a citizen of the United States of America. One hundred days later, I’m still having nightmares, and I’m still wondering: Who are we?
I came to work that day feeling a vague sense of dread.
I sent a text to my husband: “Not going to lie ... I’m nervous about today.” I typed from the back seat of the car that was driving me to the Capitol because I didn’t want to park my own in the path of possible protesters gathering at a nearby rally in support of then-President Trump. (At 10:30 a.m., that’s still what we thought they would be: protesters.)
What happened that day shook me to my core: professionally, personally and as a citizen of the United States of America.
“You’ll be OK once you get inside,” he wrote back.
That’s what all of us who worked there always thought. Barring a catastrophic attack from a foreign power or a massive natural disaster, the inside of the U.S. Capitol was safe. We were protected. The Capitol building itself — and, within that, the very floors of the House and Senate — were some of the safest places you could be in Washington and possibly the world.
And that’s what was so shattering about what happened next.
When pictures first surfaced on social media of people climbing the walls and bashing the windows, I turned to my colleague Garrett Haake, who was set up at a camera about 20 feet away.
“Should we try to get back to the Capitol?” we wondered. We were in what’s called the Russell Rotunda, a beautiful space designed with a smaller dome that echoes the Capitol’s. Dozens of other cameras and correspondents were there, too. It felt like a less-protected target for pro-Trump assailants who, we would later learn, had written “murder the media” on the wooden doors off the House chamber. A tunnel that would lead us to the Capitol was four floors below us in the basement.
I sent more texts to my husband, a senior producer at Meet the Press. He was in the NBC News Washington bureau, just blocks from where I was. Someone needed to go be with our son, I said. He was only 16 months old, and we had to make sure he was safe.
While I reported live on-air, Garrett went down to see if we could flee to the relative safety of the Capitol. But the doors, he discovered, had been locked shut with massive chains.
We didn’t realize then that we would be the lucky ones. Our producer Haley Talbot — who just an hour before had been standing a socially distant 6 feet away, helping me with what both of us thought would be relatively routine coverage of the certification of our presidential election — had by this point gone into the House chambers.
She was inside when rioters tried to breach the doors.
“I kept thinking that even though we were all sheltering under our chairs, we weren’t under any real threat,” she would write later.
“And then the glass shattered.”
A working building
You can see the grandeur of the Capitol from the outside. What you can’t see is the mundane, regular life that goes on inside it. It’s not just a monument — it’s a working building, with a community of people whose professional lives are entirely centered on the place, like a small town with a main street.
Walking into work each day, I pass by and say hello to a half dozen members of the Capitol Police. Their faces become familiar, like that of Officer Billy Evans, who was known for joking with reporters and staff at the entrance he usually manned. He would die a few months after Jan. 6, in a different Capitol attack.
I often stop for coffee at a little shop inside the Capitol called the Refectory — a centuries-old name for a place where Civil War-era lawmakers would dine. Today, it’s staffed by cheerful cashiers who I recognize and who say hello, day in and day out.
The quickest route to an NBC News camera to do a live report is underground, and I rely on the subway drivers manning the trains connecting the Capitol with the Russell and Rayburn buildings. The tunnels they traverse run underneath the gracious avenues that line the National Mall.
If you keep exploring the bowels of the Capitol, you’ll find a barber shop, several post offices, dry cleaners, at least one independent restaurant, a number of chain eateries, an office supply store and several gift shops, all inside the campus occupied by lawmakers and the staff that serve them. A complex dedicated to tourists is entirely separate, offering food, souvenirs, exhibits and tours. The visitors’ complex has been empty since last spring, when the pandemic locked us all down.
The people who staff all these places come to work each day, standing at their posts and doing their jobs, no matter which party is in charge. Since I’ve been there, control of both the House and the Senate has flipped from one party to the other and then back again.
It’s lucky that so many of these workers were at home, and not at work, on Jan. 6. But many of them are essential, and those who were on Capitol Hill were attacked right along with our democracy.
I did my first stint as a congressional reporter in the winter and spring of 2007 when I was 21. It was a heady time to be there, because the most famous senators were running for president: Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and, of course, Barack Obama. I’d go on to cover the building for a small policy newsletter, a newspaper and then NBC News.
I never had the chance to interview President Obama, but as a cub reporter for the Associated Press, chasing down Sen. Obama in the hallways was one of my first assignments. (In this particular case, I cornered him in a crowded little ceremonial room behind an unmarked door on the first floor of the Capitol.)
I was astonished then, and I am astonished today, that a document written by our Founding Fathers now means I and the rest of the press corps are free to wander the halls of the Capitol essentially at will, asking whoever we want about whatever we want.
I have always felt a deep sense of patriotism and been inspired by our system of government. I was raised to believe America is an example and an aspiration to the rest of the world.
I have always viewed my job as being fundamentally about public service. Every American has a say in who runs our government, and no citizen can make an informed decision without accurate, relevant information about who wants to be put into power and why. In my view, it’s my job to think about what people want and need to know in order to have the tools they need to make the right decision for them and their families.
And I’ve tried to bring that ethos to my reporting every single day.
In my last decade covering political campaigns and Congress, I’ve encountered my share of scoundrels and cowards and just plain jerks. But I’ve also covered people on both sides of the aisle who are decent and serious, and who have come to Congress because they want to make a real difference in the world. Some even manage to hang on to those values after they get a taste of power, and those people deserve our gratitude and admiration.
But even so — the Jan. 6 siege and the 100 days since have deeply shaken a faith I’ve kept since childhood.
Trauma and resilience
When the siege had ended, after the sun had set, the rioters pushed back, the hallways cleared — the members of Congress returned to their chambers.
It was early in the morning on Jan. 7 when Congress voted to uphold the results of the election and certify Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States.
Everyone I spoke to that night conveyed a sense of resolve, of determination, to keep the faith. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s closest allies, went down to the Senate floor to condemn voting to object the election’s results, saying: “Count me out. Enough is enough.”
But in the months since, partisan politics has rapidly engulfed efforts to investigate what really happened, efforts to write a nonpartisan or at least bipartisan history of the events of the day. We may still get it, but it seems far away as ever.
Meanwhile, those of us who were there that day, because the Capitol is part of the fabric of our lives, still haven’t healed. We’re still grieving, still shaken, still trying to reckon with the trauma of Jan. 6.
When Trump’s second impeachment trial, for incitement of an insurrection, played out on television, I thought it might help me move past what had happened. For so many, Jan. 6 had been devastating, yes, but fleeting and not anything life-changing; the pictures on the news had been sudden, and maybe some hadn’t seen them at all.
But when evidence from that day was presented as part of a prosecution — that’s when everyone seemed to be paying attention. They could see the men with zip ties, the chants of “Hang Mike Pence!” and “Where’s Nancy?” — threats to kill then-Vice President Mike Pence, a Republican, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat.
Everyone was forced to watch it again. Including me.
I sobbed quietly, sitting in a director’s chair in front of a camera in the Russell Rotunda, in the same place where I had covered the siege a few weeks before. Our producer who’d been in the House chamber, Haley Talbot, was sitting a few feet away from me this time, pointing herself out in never-before-seen security footage, being evacuated.
I hoped the dozens of people watching in the control room didn’t hear or see me crying.
But my nightmares that had haunted me, my despair, my somber presence in the company of others — it all suddenly seemed to make more sense to my family, friends and colleagues who weren’t there. The sickening fear that comes with having your place of work attacked, and how that exploded my sense of patriotism and faith and general security in the world — it felt like that was more widely understood.
In the days since, I’ve struggled with how to cover the attempts from various politicians to rewrite the history of what happened on Jan. 6.
I was there. I saw what happened. I saw and heard how scared everyone was. I see now people standing in the way of an accounting of what happened because they have political ambitions or because they are concerned about the consequences to their own families or careers.
I’ve struggled with how to cover the attempts from various politicians to rewrite the history of what happened on Jan. 6.
I have to choose, every day, to keep the faith in the American project, the American dream. To keep the faith in a system of government that a handful of ambitious idealists believed in several centuries ago, so much so that they built the Capitol dome not just as a monument but a living place. A deeply flawed one, to be sure, but one that at least strove to form a better, more perfect union.
One hundred days after my home away from home was invaded by a violent mob intent on destroying the foundation of our democracy, I am choosing to believe in something so much bigger, so much more enduring, despite all of its flaws.