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What we saw the day the Capitol was attacked

On Jan. 6, for the first time in more than two centuries, Congress was attacked and overrun, this time by its own citizens. The PBS NewsHour’s anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff talks to correspondents Lisa Desjardins, Amna Nawaz and Yamiche Alcindor about what they saw as they reported from inside the Capitol, the grounds that surround it and the White House, respectively– and what they and other Americans will remember from that day.

Watch video of the conversation here.

PBS NewsHour is supported by https://www.pbs.org/newshour/about/funders

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What we saw the day the Capitol was attacked

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    On January sixth, thousands came to Washington D.C. to protest the results of November's election. The day started peacefully but quickly descended into chaos. After an angry, provocative speech from the President

  • President Trump:

    Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore.

    A mob of Trump supporters stormed the United States Capitol building — shattering windows, fighting police- and eventually forced their way onto the floor of the House and the Senate, where members were in session.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    They have broken the glass to the door to the U.S. Capitol.

    For hours, chaos and uncertainty. Members of Congress, journalists and staff sheltered inside the Capitol. Law Enforcement Outnumbered. One Woman Fatally Shot.

    Eventually, order was restored, but the damage was done. For the first time in more than two centuries – the People's House was attacked and overrun, this time, by its own citizens.

  • Vice President Mike Pence:

    To those who've wreaked havoc on our Capitol today, you did not win. Violence never wins.

    In this episode, we hear from my NewsHour colleagues who were on the ground in Washington, reporting on an unprecedented day inside and outside the Capitol building and from the White House.

    From The PBS NewsHour, this is America, Interrupted. I'm Judy Woodruff.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Hello. It is so good to see the three of you, especially after this week we've just been through.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Hi, Judy

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Hello, Judy.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Hi, Judy

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Following Wednesday's events, I talked to my NewsHour colleagues Lisa Desjardins, Amna Nawaz and Yamiche Alcindor about their experience reporting on the protests and storming of the Capitol.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We don't get many opportunities to have a conversation like this one, but what a week it has been. I wanted to hear from each one of you about what it was like as we experienced this day that is going to be in the history books. And Lisa, let's start with you. You were inside the Capitol covering what was supposed to be a relatively routine, although this was going to be a little different, set of procedures for counting the electoral votes, but that's not the way it turned out.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right. I walked in there, Judy, thinking it was going to be a historic day, but maybe a pretty long and boring one. I didn't really, I thought all the drama was what would be speeches. And instead, you know, shortly after that electoral session began, we got notification that one of the House office buildings had been breached by, at that time we called them protesters, but they clearly became rioters. And then a second House office building had been breached. And I had to make the decision. Do I go into the House chamber and cover this debate about the presidency or do I go to that event? And I went to cover it because I thought, OK, everyone can see the debate, but maybe not everyone can get and see what's happening with these protests. That situation died down at those office buildings, but by the time I came back to the Capitol, I spoke to Capitol Police at the Capitol at that time, asked them, "hey, what's going on at those office buildings," they didn't know anything about it. I walked around the corner from where those Capitol Police officers were standing outside the House chamber. I was in the middle of the Capitol and I was looking at the front door to the U.S. Capitol, brass door, as thick as you can imagine, bulletproof glass, triple panes of glass and faces of that mob pressed right up against the glass trying to break in. Initially, there were — it looked like sort of SWAT police trying to keep them away. But eventually, most of those SWAT police made their way out of that mob pushing against the glass.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You mean on the outside?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    On the outside, on the other side. I was on the inside. And this was the mob that had come up the steps. And I did see initially Capitol Police officers in the black SWAT outfits, you know, maybe three, four people thick in front of the door on the outside trying to block protestors. But then they went away, I went downstairs to look around, I came back up. And then by that point, those officers had gone and it was just the mob trying to get in. And they started breaking the glass, which I didn't think was going to be possible. They were using all kinds of implements, including the end of an American flagpole. And I stood there looking down, I was on a marble balcony, I felt safe up there but there were very few people there — myself, two other reporters, and two doorkeepers who really just help tourists get around the Capitol. No security officers that we saw, though, I think there may have been a couple beneath us that we didn't see. And sure enough, you could hear the brass door, that giant brass door wince and creak under the strain. And eventually a hand came through, we saw the hand, there became a gap, more hands pushed open the gap, and we looked at each other and said, they're going to break through this door. One of the door keepers, I have to say, in one of the most surreal and brave moments that I saw just stood on that balcony unarmed, you know, nothing but, you know, just a basic tie and shirt on. She yelled, "stop it, go back, stay away." She had nothing else she could do but she wanted them to stop. Of course, they kept coming. They were climbing over each other. I saw a few leftover SWAT police make their way back inside. And I saw one lone police officer who was in a suit and tie indicating that he's someone probably attached to a detail of a dignitary. He was the only person — I saw him run and hurl his body over that gap in the door to try and stop what looked like dozens and dozens of protestors and rioters coming in. He was not able to do it and sure enough, they climbed over and made it into the Capitol.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Meantime, Amna, you are outside watching. And I think from watching you, you were positioned more on the Senate side of the Capitol, but you were still able to see this group gathering outside.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right. We were on the Senate side and we'd been out there, our NewsHour team, for most of the morning doing what we do when we arrive at scenes like this. We talk to people, we get a sense of who they are, where they're from, what brought them out there. What was striking, Judy, in talking to the folks to find out why they had gathered there was it was like walking through a hall of mirrors, talking to people there. It was just a festival of misinformation. I mean, there were people who were so clearly just divorced from facts and from any evidence. They believe that President Trump had won the election. They believe that this election was stolen and they had flown in at their own cost, they had driven long distances to stand out in the freezing cold weather because they believed that this is what they needed to do to, in their words, to save their country, to protect their democracy. And we heard a lot of the kind of conspiracy theory language we've all covered and we've all heard over the past several months and years. We heard a lot of the same language we've heard from President Trump mimicked again and again about the press, about the election, about draining the swamp, about Joe Biden. And it was generally a calm crowd. We got heckled occasionally as press do in large groups of Trump supporters. There was a lot of ridiculing that we were wearing masks, probably some of the only people in the entire crowd wearing masks. And then something changed. And all of a sudden you heard a lot of yelling coming from one part of the grounds. And we went over to try to figure out what it was and you just saw a wave of people coming up the hill from around on the House side and they'd clearly been breaching barriers and they were now walking undeterred up to a line of just a handful of Capitol police. And I think what was so striking to us was you could see from the get go, they were vastly outnumbered. There were way more protestors, way more now rioters than there were law enforcement there to meet them. And what was incredible to watch was just how completely undeterred they walked. They pushed down the green wire fencing, they moved aside the media barriers and the metal barriers that were there and just a flow of people, a flood of people, were suddenly moving down in front of the Capitol in an area that you and I and any of us, we have to show credentials to be able to walk. We get stopped.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Absolutely. Yeah.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    before we are allowed access to this area. It was just such a remarkable scene, you couldn't believe that it was happening there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yamiche, you were at the White House following what President Trump had done. And it was just a short time before all this happened that he had been speaking to his supporters who he had invited to Washington. So from your perspective, how did you see this come together?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    What happened with all of these riots and all of this violence was really, I think in some ways, a slow moving train that was driven by President Trump. The morning started on a day that the President had feared and dreaded his entire life, and especially his political life as presidency, he was going to officially lose the White House. He was waking up to the official repudiation of all of his ideals, all of his policies, all of his rhetoric, and having to come face to face with the fact that despite all of his disinformation, Congress was going to count the votes and he was going to be gone. And then he went to the rally where he saw the jovial crowd of people who were welcoming him, who were eating up his collage of lies and who were egging him on and he was getting energy from that. You could see that the President, when he started to speak, he started to say some of the things that we know he has said, things that we know to be false. He said that the election was stolen from him, that it was rigged. The Democrats had all sorts of conspiracy theories that they had gone through with alleging false voter fraud. But the thing that really got this started, the thing that really changed this was the fact that the President said, "we are going to fight, we're not going to concede and we're going to march to the Capitol." And it was in that moment that the President justified people taking that anger that they had over at that rally and taking it over to the Capitol. And the President himself had said that he was going to march to the Capitol with them. And, in fact, what the President did was return to the White House. And I was standing along with where the president was, he was in the residence and not anywhere near reporters, but you saw the security bubble at the White House. Things were calm. You could hear the protestors, you could hear sirens, you could hear in the mood and in the wind that things were clearly getting dark because, of course, the Capitol isn't that far from the White House. But we were in this moment where the President was in some ways shielded from the chaos that he had created, and when they breached those walls, the President and White House staff, they didn't come out and say, "we need to stop right now," they didn't come out and condone it, only afterwards did the President say he understood their pain, he loved them, he then told people to go home hours, hours, hours after all of the different chaos and all of the different things that happened. So the President in some ways just was someone who was feeding this to people, but who didn't have to deal with the consequences in the way that Lisa and lawmakers and so many other people had to deal with when that fierce mob broke through those doors.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So these messages from the President, from Republican members of Congress, from the other speakers at that rally, those messages were ringing in the ears of these people who ended up going to the Capitol and like a mob and assaulting the building. And, Lisa, these are the people who came, pushed their way through the door and made their way inside that building when you were there.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You know, looking into the eyes of those rioters, they were operating operating on anger that they were turning into hate and then that they were turning into a sense of completely abandoning any sense of responsibility and deciding that they themselves, that they were so right and they had so much propriety over the rest of the world and in fact, the U.S. government itself that they were right to break into this building and that it was not violence. You know, I spoke to two of the rioters shortly after they came in and asked them why they did it and how could they explain this violence. And they said, you know, we don't really want to be violent. but we came up here and look, we were at the door and we could do it and this is our building, and then they said the American Revolution, there was violence there. And that was honestly a really tricky moment for me because, except I've been in situations like this before, so I know you can't push back in that situation because you're putting yourself in danger if you're too confrontational. And so you just have to listen and you have to make yourself relatable. But in my mind, when they said this is like the American Revolution, you know, had I been in a studio, just me and them and I knew that I was secure, I would have said, this is like the French Revolution. This is where a society becomes unraveled, these kinds of things. But they see themselves as heroes and they have determined to just absolve themselves of any responsibility because they are right and in fact, they are more important than other people. But I will say this also, you know, all of these words I'm saying, it sounds like they're sort of these large, like, literary themes, you know, almost like Dickens is writing this story. But when you're talking to these people, it was really pretty random. You know, they didn't have a goal. They didn't really know what they wanted to do. They wanted to stop the election from being certified. They want Trump to be president again. But they didn't know what they were going to do when they got in the building, a lot of them were looking for the bathroom, and they just kind of they were lost, which from a security standpoint, I knew right away was an advantage for me. I knew that if a large group came to where I was, I would have an advantage because I knew my way around the building and I could get around much more quickly than they could. But they had a lot of trouble finding the chamber and figuring out where the big offices were. They did, you know, within a few minutes. But those first five to ten minutes, you could see they just really had no idea what they were doing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Amna you were saying a number of them were reluctant to talk to you. You're a reporter, you're there with your colleagues. Did some of them want to engage in conversation to tell you, to sort of unburden themselves, to share here's why I'm here?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Very few, very few were interested in talking to us, particularly after they asked where we were from and we'd say the PBS NewsHour and they would say fake news and then the heckling would ensue. There were a couple of really wonderful people we met who at least said, you know, "yeah, sure, I'll talk to you" after we kind of chatted with them for a little bit and said, this is why we're here, we just want to talk to you and hear your story and understand why you're here. And so we ended up doing a few interviews, but mainly, especially as time went on and tensions started rising and you could just feel the atmosphere kind of change, suddenly, every interaction became much more hostile. And at one point we kind of got surrounded by a group that had gathered and were waiting to see, and this was the thing, people were just waiting, as Lisa said, there was no real intention behind their presence. They believed President Trump, when he said he was going to be out there with them and that rumor had been circulating, they're all saying, oh, "maybe he's going to show up soon, he said he was going to come soon." And as tensions kind of rose, we found ourselves surrounded by this one group where one couple said, "sure, we'll talk to you," first. And then all of a sudden they said, "why are you wearing a mask? Take that mask off. This is ridiculous." And I said, well, "I'm wearing a mask to protect myself and you." And they said, "well, who'd you vote for? Where are you from? You're fake news. No, I'm not going to talk to you unless you tell me where you're from." And then everyone else in the group and around them kind of starts to join in and the atmosphere just changed where it suddenly wasn't safe for us to be kind of mixing and mingling in the crowd. But also, to Lisa's point, I just want to say, when people, we heard about the breach, we saw folks rush up to the stairs and it was just this moment where you couldn't quite process what you were seeing because the Capitol Police basically stepped aside in a few instances and there were just suddenly hundreds of people occupying the stairs and trying to breach the doors on the side we were on, on the Senate side, having already breached the doors on the House side. And the people we were talking to, everything just kind of got elevated and suddenly the whole atmosphere changed, and the police started responding and there was tear gas and flash bangs and it just in an instant, it changed. You couldn't believe that you were standing on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. And I said this to you on the day and it's resonated with me since, I have covered so many of these scenes, I've covered so many instances like this, elections abroad, unrest in other countries. This happened here. And for all the talk about how this doesn't happen in America, this isn't who we are. This happened here. It is who we are. And it's not everyone, but we have to be able to reckon with the fact that this is something that unfolded on our soil that's been unfolding, as Yamiche pointed out, for a long time, and it's here now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Yamiche, how much of this were you and others at the White House aware of this and following this? Clearly on the outside, they had access to television, they were watching, and the Internet, how closely were they following what was going on?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The White House was closely following what was happening. The President was doing what he often does, which is spending his afternoons watching TV. He was in the residence for most of that. At some point, he moved to the Oval Office the entire time he was monitoring this. And I'm told that the President had mixed feelings. He was excited, I'm told, in some ways almost excited about the idea that he was having this power over people that this was a confirmation that he had this influence over people when it came to the information that he was giving them. And as I was watching those images, the thing that came to my mind was false accusations, they have consequences. Conspiracy theories have consequences, continuing to enable people and make them feel entitled to misinformation, to disinformation that has consequences. And that's what President Trump was seeing unfold. It was the culmination, really, of President Trump's lies, his allegations, all of the false things that he's been telling his supporters. He was watching it play out. And people close to the President tell me that while the President did not want the Capitol to be burned down, he did have this sense that he wanted to hold on to power by any means and this was the "by any means." The President really never got around to condemning these people in a full throated way on camera with questions. What we've seen from the President so far in the multiple videos and tweets is the President at some time finally saying after multiple videos that he does not like the idea of violence, that these people do not represent him. And he's now saying that he wants to have a seamless transition of power. But, Judy, we all watched and we can never call the election of 2020 and the transition of 2021 a seamless or orderly thing. In fact, it was deadly and it was chaotic, with five people at least losing their lives because of all of the things that these people did. The other thing that I was thinking about as I was watching President Trump, his rally, and then, of course, the violence that followed is I did a piece for the NewsHour talking to immigrants who immigrated to America from countries that had political instability, places like Haiti and Venezuela and Afghanistan and all these other places that came to America because we had a democracy that was stable. They had been so scared watching President Trump refusing to concede, and I was thinking about those people and realizing that the country that they had trusted with their hopes and their dreams, that it was being challenged and tested. I remember an immigrant from Haiti telling me democracy is fragile and Americans need to learn that, and I think we all saw democracy almost break. We saw democracy really, really tested. And of course, it didn't go all that way. It didn't break. We saw the Congress, of course, do what it came to do very late into the night, but it was a moment where President Trump who has demonized immigrants really tested the country that has welcomed so many immigrants who are fleeing just the kind of chaos that was created.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I think it's true that we came right up to the brink, right up to the brink of seeing our democracy broken in a way we have never seen before by Americans. This was not a terrorist attack by people from outside this country. These are people from the United States of America. There is so much to think about and we're all still processing what happened, but as all of you think about this and you all, I'm sure you talk to your families about it, what do you think you're going to look back on in, I don't know, 10, 20 years from now — what's going to stand out the most to you about this day? Lisa?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Wow, it is a hard question. I think the moment that was most shocking to me was when I, not when I saw the rioters crashing through the door, which was the most shocking moment I had seen in the Capitol to that point, but even worse than that was when I left that area, because there were more rioters coming in and I needed to get a second piece of equipment and I wanted to make sure that I was safe, but when I left that area and I went to the House chamber and I was going to where my desk is, which is near the House chamber, and I remember thinking in my head, OK, I know where the police are stationed there. There are four police officers in that next hallway. I'm going to see those police officers. I've got my mask on. I'm holding up my badge to show them that I'm with the press and I'm going to be in a good position right there. And I'll find out, maybe they'll tell me something. And when I, hearing the rioters behind me, as I made my way to that area right outside the House chamber, you know, starting to hold up my badge to show them, and there are no police officers there. There's no one there, and I was alone. That's a moment that I think I'll remember a lot, the actual absence of people and then having to really quickly figure out what I would do next, because I never thought that Capitol Police officers would leave their posts like that. We'll find out in days ahead what their orders were, why this happened, but I also never thought that the House of Representatives would be completely unguarded, which is what I saw, you know, and that's going to be a memory I'll have for a long time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, your reporting was extraordinary as it certainly is Amna's and Yamiche's was, but to watch Lisa make her way through the Capitol and confronting officers with guns drawn, it was a really frightening moment. And Amna you've, as you mentioned, I mean, you've covered, you've been around the world, you've covered insurrections and riots in other places. As you look back on this years from now what do you think you're going to remember most?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You know, we talk so much about the consequences of the election and the consequences of our leader's words, and I think all of us as journalists think about the consequences of our work. Right. What you say and what you do and how you handle yourself in those moments where you are tested. And I just, I think long term, whenever I think about consequences of work, I think about my kids. I do, because they're curious about my work and they're curious about what I do every day. And I have to say, this year I have really struggled to explain to them what is going on in this country we call home. And I think that that day is no exception. I think we're all still very much processing what it means and what the consequences of that day will mean and what will change, if anything. And I find myself struggling to answer very basic questions about what exactly happened that day and what it all means. And you know, that for me, as someone who makes a living in explaining things to people and trying to convey what we know to be true, that's a very difficult thing to reckon with and honestly, in all the stories that I've done and all the places that I've been, I've never, ever found it as difficult as it is right now to explain to my girls what's going on.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's going to take a long time, I think you're absolutely right. We're going to process this for a long time. And Yamiche, this is a president you've covered since he was running for president. You've seen him up close day after day after day. This was, I think we would all agree, the worst day of his presidency and there have been a lot of days that have been difficult. What do you think, for you, as you look back on this that you're going to most remember?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The thing I'm probably going to most remember is how much the consequences of President Trump's rhetoric he didn't have to deal with. It was surreal to be at the White House and realize the stillness, to realize how safe we were on the White House complex, how barricaded the president was, as he could watch on TV, the consequences of his conspiracy theories, the consequences of him egging people on and rallying them up and then abandoning them to do what they may with the U.S. Capitol. We've seen this President for years play with fire, and we've seen people close to the president who people would say should know better enable him and he made people feel entitled to be able to break into the U.S. Capitol. And in the moment where his words were having physical manifestations, the President didn't have to at all deal with those physical manifestations. And I think that when you think about the world, you think about, I'm going to say it, dictators and tyrants and authoritarianism, you realize that in a place like Haiti, I think about, there are dictators who wreak havoc on people and then they can be, they can go and live in Paris or they can go and be somewhere else where they don't have to deal with their consequences and President Trump did not have to deal with the consequences. If someone was going to die, President Trump's life was never at risk. And that to me, is the thing that sticks with me. Power in the wrong hands, power in the hands of someone who turns it on a mob of people who incites them to do these things, it can corrupt and it can be really, really deadly. And that can happen in the United States and this is us, this is who Americans can be if they are pushed and if they are given information and if they are not at all told the right things and taught how to lose.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I honestly think something I'm going to remember from that day is your voices, the voices of the three of you, because I had my earpiece in. And so whenever I was looking for a place to be, I was trying to find safety, I didn't know what was going to happen, I was hearing your reporting and it was so important to me to hear that and to hear your voices and to feel like I was grounded and how important it was, how steady you guys were, and I think I'm going to remember that and I'm really grateful.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    I think that that is something that's going to stick with me, when I think about this experience, listening to Lisa, genuinely being scared for Lisa, genuinely being scared for Amna, and then wanting in some ways to look at Judy and say, OK, if Judy can keep this together, then I can keep it together. I think that's something that's going to stick with me, because I was, of course, at the White House at times really wanting to get emotional. At times I almost cried and none of you cried, so I didn't cry, and that that's something that is a gift that you all gave me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    None of us cried on camera. I think we can all say that. None of us cried on camera.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's right. I just want to say two quick things that I think I will take away is somebody who first went to the Capitol as an intern while I was in college to work for my congressman. This was back in the late 1960s so it was a long time ago. That building is a place of reverence, it's the center of the government, yes along with the White House, but it's where all of the people are represented. It's the People's House. And to see it defiled the way that it was on Wednesday, to see people climbing on the building and breaking in and breaking, defiling the place. So I take that away and I'll remember that for a long time. The other thing I'll remember is how far misinformation, falsehoods, lies, the whole stew of rumor and conspiracy theory can fuel something like this. It's just, we've watched it, we've watched it, and this time it led to something really horrible and tragic. And I'm going to remember that, of course, we all are for a long time. But you three are simply remarkable and you inspire me every single day. Yamiche Alcindor, Amna Nawaz, Lisa Desjardins, what a great conversation. Thank you.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Thanks so much.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We love you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This episode was produced by Rachel Wellford and Vika Aronson, and edited by Erica R. Hendry and Emily Carpeaux.

    Music by Blue Dot Sessions.

    Our thanks to Gretchen Frazee, Travis Daub, Vanessa Dennis, James Williams, and Maura Shannon.

    Our Executive Producer is Sara Just.

    You can watch video of our conversation on our YouTube channel and follow all of our coverage on air and on our website: pbs.org/newshour.

    Thanks for listening.