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'How much worse does it get?': Trauma from Capitol riot, car attack taking toll on Hill staffers

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For many working at the Capitol, trauma from attacks is taking a toll.

For many working at the Capitol, trauma from attacks is taking a toll.
BILL CAMPLING/USA TODAY ILLUSTRATION and GETTY IMAGES

WASHINGTON – Exhaustion. Anxiety. Fear. 

Those feelings, paired with declining morale, have haunted congressional staffers in the just more than 100 days since a pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6. They were revived just weeks ago, when a car rammed into a security border outside the building.

Staffers who spoke to USA TODAY described widespread concerns on the front lines of the Capitol — both within the United States Capitol Police force and among congressional staffers — that began around a year ago when the COVID-19 pandemic started. And divisions in the ways members of Congress approached the deadly virus have continued to grow.

But the plunging morale among those working on Capitol Hill — all levels of the rank and file — has been exacerbated by ramped up rhetoric, inconsistencies between lawmakers’ offices on COVID-19 precautions, and now, two deadly attacks on their place of work within months of each other. 

“How much worse does it get?” a Democratic congressional staffer asked.

USA TODAY interviewed Republican and Democratic staffers from Capitol Hill in the days following the April 2 attack that left both Capitol Police Officer William Evans and the suspect dead, and another officer injured. Most interviewed asked to not be named so they could share their thoughts candidly.

Largely, opinions on morale differed based on political party: Democratic staffers said the mood among Hill staffers started deteriorating at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, but the low morale has been enhanced by the attacks. Republicans largely disagreed the attacks would be the root of a current problem.

More: 1 officer killed, another hospitalized after man drives car into barrier near US Capitol. Suspect dead.

Overall, many people operating behind the scenes working at “the People’s House” are struggling, often silently, from anxiety, burnout and other mental health issues. Another House Democratic aide said people are “pretty exhausted.”  

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told USA TODAY she “was never personally afraid because I had so much security for myself.”

“I was afraid for everybody else, and I’ll never forgive them for the trauma that they caused to the staff and the members,” she continued. “Many are still dealing with the aftereffects and have sought counseling. … I do think it will have an impact on how people decide to come to work here or stay to work here and the rest.” 

Footage from the Capitol riots shows Nancy Pelosi’s staffers barricading themselves

Staffers of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., are on video barricading themselves in an office just before the mob arrives in the Jan. 6 riots.

USA TODAY

Fallout from insurrection attempt and threats

When thousands of supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol in an attempt to stop the counting of the electoral votes that named Joe Biden the winner of the presidential election, staffers hid in their offices under desks and behind barricaded doors as the violent mob smashed its way through the complex.

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For many, the distress from that day has lingered.

“I think there’s the actual trauma of what we watched on (Jan. 6) and how awful that was, and then there’s the daily frustration of continuing to work with people who are lying about it and making it worse. I mean, morale is very low. It’s hard to put into words,” one Democratic congressional staffer told USA TODAY. 

The staffer said they “have co-workers who cry, and have cried, every day after January 6.” 

An aide to a progressive House member told USA TODAY they know of two senior-level staff members who quit after the incident. 

Kameelah Pointer, the president of the Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus (SBLSC) — the oldest staff association on the Hill — told USA TODAY there is a feeling of “perpetual trauma” and “many people have felt like, ‘OK, the Capitol is my home, it’s a safe haven. It’s a place where I can go and I don’t have to worry about much,’ ” but the insurrection made them question the safety of the institution.

Congress staffers barricade themselves after Trump supporters stormed inside the US Capitol in Washington, DC on Jan. 6, 2021.

Congress staffers barricade themselves after Trump supporters stormed inside the US Capitol in Washington, DC on Jan. 6, 2021.
OLIVIER DOULIERY, AFP via Getty Images

That trauma from the insurrection attempt was compounded last month when a vehicle drove into a barrier outside the Capitol, and the complex was again put under lockdown.

Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Mich., said that during the recent attack, “One of my staffers called and he’s like, ‘I’m having a panic attack about this.’ It’s just bringing back a flood of emotions after a post-traumatic stress event.” 

But most staffers who spoke to USA TODAY agreed that while tragic, the magnitude of the attack on Good Friday was less severe than Jan. 6, given the nature of the incident: The January riot was an unprecedented, coordinated attack on the U.S. Capitol while the April incident was isolated and stopped at the barriers outside the Capitol complex.

Acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman testified in early March that threats to members of Congress soared by 93% in the first two months of the year, compared with last year. From 2017 to 2020, she said, threats were up 118%.

The question of, “Will people continue to try and attack the Capitol Complex?” is “upsetting” and constantly “on people’s minds,” one Hill staffer said.

The progressive aide said people in her office assumed the absolute worst during the recent attack “like there’s gonna be a bomb or like multiple cars – just like, worst-case scenario, immediately, in a way that I think before January 6 we never would have.” 

One Senate Republican communications staffer said there was some relief among their side when the suspect in the April 2 incident did not appear to be a supporter of Trump. 

The staffer said the initial reactions from that event echoed those after Jan. 6, and just “knowing the ramifications of this could get worse” weighed heavily on his mind in terms of permanent security fencing structures, heightened security, and political fallout. 

How much security? Deadly attack at the US Capitol expected to reignite the debate over security fencing erected after riot

More: Suspect in attack at U.S. Capitol described as average jock whose mental health appeared to quickly unravel

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 05: Flowers are woven into the eight-foot-tall steel security fence that continues to encircle the U.S. Capitol on April 05, 2021 in Washington, DC. U.S. Capitol Police Officer William

Despite the revelations by staffers, some lawmakers who spoke to USA TODAY said the recent events have “taken a toll,” but they had not noticed staff morale being low when asked.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said his staffers have been resilient, despite the fact “such incidents now seem to happen with more frequency.”

“We just hope it isn’t the new normal that we face, but no one has expressed any reticence about coming to work,” he said when asked about his staffers or committee staffers. 

GOP staffers who spoke to USA TODAY largely did not point to the attacks as the only cause in low morale, but noted initial feelings of panic and anger. They said if morale was still declining, it was due to several other factors, like ongoing COVID-19 restrictions and inflamed rhetoric.

And the Republican communications aide disagreed that morale is still declining, saying things “were never perfect to begin with, and we function in a high-stress, high-stakes environment.” 

One Republican staffer said “anger” was “probably the best way to describe the kind of feelings around the Hill” after the insurrection attempt. But morale in their office or caucus was still not low. 

The staffer said that while what happened “pisses you off,” they said they did not feel more “personally affected than the Capitol Police officers who were involved in the riot.”

More: ‘Clear the Capitol,’ Vice President Mike Pence pleaded, according to timeline of riot

Gus Papathanasiou, the chairman of the United States Capitol Police Labor Committee, told USA TODAY officers are “still reeling” from both attacks and it is “mentally and physically challenging for the officers.”

President Joe Biden, who served more than three decades on Capitol Hill as a senator, spoke at Evans’ funeral last week and said there is more strain on the Capitol Police force now than ever before.

More: A grieving daughter dropped her toy. A president gave it back.

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The Jan. 6 riot resulted in the death of Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, and two other officers who died by suicide in its aftermath.

Reiterating that there is a “crisis in morale,” Papathanasiou noted the deaths of the officers are on the forefront of their colleagues’ minds: “That could have happened to any one of us.”

He pointed to officers who have retired and resigned following the attacks, and warned of a potential “mass exit” — 500 to 600 officers who are eligible for retirement in the next five years.

(FILES) In this file photo a Congress staffer holds his hands up while Capitol Police Swat team check everyone in the room as they secure the floor of Trump supporters in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021. - A young woman identified as having taken part in the storming of the US Capitol reportedly stole a laptop belonging to top Democrat Nancy Pelosi and hoped to sell it to a Russian spy agency, according to an FBI criminal complaint. The complaint, filed late January 17, 2021 in US District Court in Washington, seeks the arrest of Riley June Williams of Pennsylvania on grounds including

Inconsistencies between offices after attacks and with COVID 

Several staffers pointed to fluctuating morale as an issue rooted in the individualism of Congress; the offices of 500-plus lawmakers all operate differently.  

Those differences could span from how much time off is offered to whether staff is working remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The progressive aide said that depending on the office, there has been no time “to process or heal in the way that some people obviously would want to after an event like that.” 

She said she felt lucky her office provided a few weeks of time off, but that amount of allotted time is uncommon on the Hill. 

Another House Democratic aide said rounding out a hard year with direct attacks on their workplace has made people “exhausted and really struggling to navigate the mental health needs of our office and other offices.” 

The coronavirus pandemic also offers a difficult wrinkle. While their office has been “encouraging people to self advocate and take time,” that looks differently than it would have in years past. 

“What is a COVID vacation? You can’t really go travel, you can’t really do anything, but it’s just like, take the day that you need to think, to parse things and think things over,” the staffer said. 

Stevens said in her office, she’s “been really working on finding those outlets and carving out those spaces and making sure people have some extra time for themselves.” 

A Democratic staffer who asked to remain anonymous
This is not, I think, the government anyone wants to work for.

“When you’re a professional staff in a congressional office, you don’t have the ability to go and really speak as a free agent” about how much staffers might be struggling “because you’re working on behalf of somebody else.” 

Staffers explained that navigating mental health has been especially difficult due to the isolation of remote working.

Most Democratic lawmakers have been working remotely since the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, while more Republican offices have started to return to in-person work in their Capitol Hill offices. 

Sen. Michael Bennett, D-Colo., told USA TODAY virtual work has actually created an “interesting dynamic” in his office, as staffers from both D.C and Colorado can all participate via Zoom. 

While he is sure “everybody misses being together,” in his opinion, “everybody’s actually participating in a way that’s really equal, and I think it’s created a very robust connection between the work we do on the ground in Colorado and the legislation that we’re writing here.” 

But a Republican staffer disagreed, saying COVID-19 restrictions are a likely tie to low morale. He compared working on Capitol Hill to “going to a small high school” where everyone knows each other, and that sense of community has lessened. 

Low morale could stem from still working remote, the staffer said, since going to work on the Hill also includes seeing “a lot of your friends, whether it’s Republicans, Democrats. It’s very social atmosphere.”

Republican Sens. Richard Shelby of Alabama and John Kennedy of Louisiana disagreed morale was low in general.

“Like many Americans,” Kennedy told USA TODAY, his staff is eager and “ready to get back to work.”

One Republican Senate aide blamed complaints of low morale on Democratic lawmakers for having not returned to the office.  

“The biggest boost to morale would be for each Senate office to fully reopen. Given that every Senator has had access to the vaccine since December, and each office has had access to at least seven additional vaccines, and the average age of a Capitol Hill staffer is 32, it’s time to fully reopen the Senate,” he said.

Partisanship and rhetoric 

On top of the attacks and complications from global pandemic, a few staffers raised partisanship and rhetoric in the halls of the Capitol as a catalyst for low morale.

With both the House and Senate so evenly split — it’s 50-50 in the Senate and Democrats hold a slim 218-212 majority in the House — several staffers expressed frustration at the partisan gridlock.

“This is not, I think, the government anyone wants to work for,” a Democratic staffer said. 

Julian Zelizer, a professor of political history at Princeton University
(When) you’re working in an institution where outcomes are more limited than you hope, it just becomes tiring and frustrating.

Several Democrats pointed to the slim chances several pieces of legislation have at passing the Senate due to the filibuster. The legislative hurdle requires at least 10 Republicans to join every Democrat in order for the bills to make it Biden’s desk.

Julian Zelizer, a professor of political history at Princeton University, told USA TODAY the congressional gridlock has been an issue for years and is heightened now. 

When “you’re working in an institution where outcomes are more limited than you hope, it just becomes tiring and frustrating,” Zelizer said. “If you’re a young idealistic staffer who’s coming to Washington to change the world or help other people change the world, that’s gonna weigh you down.”

In addition, the contentious issues that have been brewing for years between political parties and lawmakers now seem to be at a boiling point on Capitol Hill. And angry rhetoric has accompanied them.

More: A culture war has been brewing at the Capitol for years. Now it’s at a boiling point.

Pointing to a few incidents, like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, R-Ga., putting up a sign denying the existence of transgender identities across the hall from another congresswoman who has a transgender child, one staffer said they hold Republicans “very much responsible that they have a politics of anger. They think that they’re better off when the country is at odds with each other.” 

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene is under fire following a Twitter feud with Democratic Rep. Marie Newman over LGBTQ rights.

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene is under fire following a Twitter feud with Democratic Rep. Marie Newman over LGBTQ rights.
Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene via Storyful / Rep Marie Newman via Storyful

Another Democratic aide said “the partisan politics — vitriol stuff — that really, suddenly popped up within the workplace is another thing that I think has contributed to a lot of my frustration and burnout.”

“The halls of Congress are the frontlines of this … there’s less of a feeling that it’s public service, and more feeling that you’re just like suiting up for partisan warfare,” the aide continued. 

To the Republican communications aide, he conceded the uptick in rhetoric may be more “of the nature of the direction Congress is going.” 

He said there is a conception in the current climate that “being loud is now equated to doing something, more than it used to be.”

Pointer said “no matter what is happening, there’s always divisive rhetoric that is being spewed in on the Capitol grounds” and for Black staffers, “they’ve always existed” and the “insurrection illuminated those inequities.”

Zelizer said the rhetoric the public, and sometimes the Republican Party, pushes against Congress as a corrupt institution has made these feelings “more pronounced.”

A large part of the electorate feels negatively toward Congress, he said, so it has to be hard to be “part of an institution that’s become a national punching bag for 50% of the nation. And I imagine that has an effect.”

What can be done? What has been done?

One thing was clear: There isn’t just one solution to address these issues.

For some, it’s simple. 

“Sometimes even just doing something makes us feel good,” the first Democratic staffer said, pointing to some of the legislation the House has passed. 

For Justin Goldberger, who co-chairs the Congressional Jewish Staff Association with about 500 members, conversations that have happened as a result of Jan. 6 have helped elevate “staff concerns and opinions in a way” that wasn’t happening before. 

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The CSJA joined other staff associations, including the SBLSC, in conversations with House Speaker Pelosi regarding the insurrection attempt, and Goldberger called it “heartening to see” that leadership “is asking for our input.”

Gus Papathanasiou, the chairman of the United States Capitol Police Labor Committee
Congress needs to step in and ensure we have the leaders in place in this department to make it right. We need some kind of rejuvenation.

Those conversations focused on extremism and making sure people of color are represented in the conversations about Jan. 6. 

Pointer said the SBLSC also met with Senate leadership about “improving safety measures” to help ease the minds of staffers, especially “staffers of color who have been disproportionately affected by what happened because of the white supremacy.”

Her association has also had listening sessions, and brought different forums and several leaders to talk about “ways, themselves, reconciled with what’s happening.”

Most of the staff USA TODAY spoke with tipped their hats to their offices for attempting to keep morale up, and the “offerings of resources” by leadership to address trauma following the attacks. When asked what resources they provided staff, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told USA TODAY his office did an all-staff Zoom call a few weeks after the Jan. 6 attack to openly talk about the incident.

In an email obtained by USA TODAY, counseling was offered to all staffers after Jan. 6 for the “wide range of upsetting emotions, thoughts, physical symptoms of stress, and even changes in behavior.”

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said it was up to lawmakers “to really make sure their staff access the resources” provided by leadership and others.

But, for the police force on Capitol Hill, Papathanasiou said their leadership, and those in Congress, need to do even more and “come together and back law enforcement.”

“Congress needs to step in and ensure we have the leaders in place in this department to make it right. We need some kind of rejuvenation,” Papathanasiou said.

Some staffers said the recent attacks have highlighted the need for more offices to provide mental health time off.

They also expressed the wish for more conversations to happen about addressing the inflammatory rhetoric — which was displayed by rioters during the insurrection — some staffers claim is prevalent among those on Capitol Hill.

More: When Trump started his speech before the Capitol riot, talk on Parler turned to civil war

But Goldberger said, “I think whenever you see your workplace in turmoil, it’s tough. But, I want to say, if morale is low, these things have shed light on potential issues that need to be addressed and now they’re getting addressed, which is heartening.” 

The attacks “shocked us and traumatized us,” Pointer said, but they also “motivated us in terms of what we need to do.” 

The attacks, rhetoric and pandemic “didn’t stop us.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time of day or night or chat online.

Crisis Text Line provides free, 24/7, confidential support when you dial 741741.

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