SF Chronicle: Fury, gloom and determination: Bay Area lawmakers process trauma as they press impeachment

By Tal Kopan

WASHINGTON — One Bay Area lawmaker tested hundreds of pens to see if they had ink. Another Californian made sure his life insurance policy was up to date. Some congressional staffers have trouble sleeping. Most describe feelings of anger, sadness and fear.

The Jan. 6 attack was timed to interrupt the certification of electoral votes cementing the president’s loss in November’s election, which meant that virtually all members of Congress were in the Capitol complex when the pro-Trump insurrectionists breached it.

Some were on the House floor, including Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee of Oakland, Zoe Lofgren of San Jose and Eric Swalwell of Dublin. Concord Democratic Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, who is at high risk for complications from the coronavirus because of chronic leukemia and a recent near-death illness, was with a few staff members in a room across from the House chamber. Others, like St. Helena Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson, were in their offices and had to flee to other buildings as rioters moved in.

As more information comes out about the riots, including how many white supremacist connections there were among people in the crowd, the emotional toll is setting in.

“After a day or so, I know a lot of members went through a lot of anxiety — still going through anxiety attacks and crying spells,” Lee said in an interview. “I have to steady myself and stop watching television. … Yeah, we’re leaders, we’re tough, we’re doing our job, but we’re still human beings, and we can’t forget that.”

Lee is a trained social worker and has experience with trauma, both on the receiving end and in helping others. She was in the Middle East as a congressional staffer in the 1970s and was pulled back from a cluster bomb moments before it exploded, and she fled the Capitol during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“This was probably the closest call and the most frightening in terms of imminent danger,” she said.

Lee said she was on the House floor when the chamber was put on lockdown, when members were told to get out gas masks, a woman trying to break in was shot by police, and then lawmakers were evacuated. She said she stayed calm, but that afterward as she felt the anxiety growing, she needed to focus on something else.

“I collect writing pens, and I have probably 300 or 400 of them, and a lot of them I know don’t write. I took every one of them and I just started writing names to see if the ink was out or not. So I wrote 400 names,” Lee said. “It helped steady me.”

Lee and her colleagues say they’ve been checking in on each other and staffers to make sure everyone is getting support they need. The Office of Attending Physician has scheduled trauma resilience webinars for all staffers, and the Office of Employee Assistance is offering counseling and other support.

DeSaulnier, who has been open about the importance of behavioral health since his father’s suicide in 1989, said that professional support is key. He said he is still processing the fact that rioters were Americans egged on by Trump.

“For Americans to do what they did and for the president to do what he did, I’m incredulous,” DeSaulnier said. “And that has been troubling for me. … I have just been in a really dark, gloomy mood ever since. But it also pisses me off, and I’m more determined to do whatever I can to help the country to get through this.”

DeSaulnier was waiting in a room across the hallway from the House chamber for his turn to vote when the Capitol was overrun. The Concord Democrat has a suppressed immune system and came close to death after a brush with pneumonia last year, and Pelosi gave him the side room to minimize his exposure. With two staff members, DeSaulnier watched through the windows as rioters approached the Capitol, stormed the barricades and waged a “very violent attack” below them.

“I could hear everything going on outside and I could hear them trying the door,” he said. Eventually, police came to evacuate them to where they had already taken other lawmakers from the House.

But that didn’t mean DeSaulnier was safe — he remains highly susceptible to the coronavirus and said that when he arrived at the large room where dozens of lawmakers and staffers were sheltering from the mob, including some Republicans who refused to wear masks, he “turned right around.”

DeSaulnier went to an adjoining room where Thompson was also waiting, and some of the mask-less Republicans tried to enter as well. Thompson told them to put on masks or leave, both men said, and the Republicans left.

“One of the things I think we’re all recovering from is first and foremost, the attack, but also the response by all of our colleagues to our health,” DeSaulnier said. “You know, in both instances, your life and your health was at risk, and yeah, it’s just hard to deal with. … To risk other people’s lives is just I think so incredibly selfish.”

Thompson is one of a group of military veterans in Congress and is helping colleagues process the traumatic events. He said the coverage of last week’s events is making it difficult to do so.

“I’m sad and I’m angry, and I only get sad and angry when I think about it talk about it, read about or see it on TV,” Thompson said. “I fought for our country, and this is what I fought against. This is not what I fought for.”

One California lawmaker, who asked to remain anonymous out of concern for his family and security, said he has made sure his life insurance is paid. Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Whittier (Los Angeles County), told MSNBC that while hiding from rioters, she told her husband where to find her will.

Staffers have also been feeling anxious. Lee said that she has heard from U.S. Capitol Police officers, especially African Americans, who are traumatized and “felt like they were in a war for hours.”

All the lawmakers who spoke with The Chronicle questioned the security lapses, including how law enforcement failed to recognize what was being plotted openly on social media.

“I knew something was going to go down that day,” Lee said. “Not necessarily this, but that’s why I wore my tennis shoes. … Because I remember on 9/11, I wore heels, and I had to run down Pennsylvania Avenue in heels.”

Lawmakers say all these feelings inform their decision to seek to remove Trump from office via impeachment, a vote that is likely to come Wednesday.

While the first impeachment of Trump in 2019 took months of hearings and investigation, they say this time, all the evidence necessary is in plain sight.

“You know, they say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I think that’s the case here,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Fremont. “In a way, though, the clumsiness of it, the ineptness of it, the failure of it, shows that they’re a very marginalized force.”

He added, “This is a rag-tag group of nutcases that don’t represent America, don’t represent American values. And that’s why I think it’s so appalling to have the president of the United States cheering them on.”

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