Nancy Cordes, CBS News chief congressional correspondent, knew something was wrong when she saw Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley being whisked out of the Senate chamber on Jan. 6.
Cordes had stationed herself in the Russell Senate Office Building, next door to the Capitol, where she planned to do live shots all day for various CBS News programs on the congressional certification of the Electoral College vote in the 2020 presidential election.
Around 2 p.m. ET, she watched as the debate got underway in the Senate with the first of several planned objections to certification raised by GOP lawmakers; their aim was to draw attention to President Donald Trump’s baseless claims that the election was marred by widespread voting fraud.
“The next thing I knew suddenly I saw Chuck Grassley, the highest-ranking Republican in the Senate, suddenly get rushed off the dais out the door,” Cordes tells Variety. “Then I saw staffers on the Senate floor waving their arms around as if to say, ‘Get down.’”
Cordes was among the hundreds of journalists working in the Capitol on a day when political pros were bracing for fireworks on the floor of the House and the Senate. They expected political theater on the streets of Washington, D.C., after weeks of Trump’s agitating over the election. They had no idea they would be witness to the most violent attack on the nation’s capital in 200 years, one that put them and the political leaders they cover in harm’s way.
The images of angry men and women ransacking the “Temple of Democracy” was a natural progression after years of Trump’s attacks on America’s institutions.
“This is a shock but it is not a surprise,” said Robert Mahoney, deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “We’ve had four years of Trump vilifying. He’s sent the message that the media is the enemy. He’s called the media scum.”
The experience of seeing an unruly mob explode into violence and lawlessness was unforgettable to witness.
“It was pure rage and fury,” says Sophie Alexander, a producer with the U.K.’s ITV News.
Alexander, ITV News Washington correspondent Robert Moore and cameraman Mark Davey started the day reporting on the Trump rally outside the White House. The trio were just arriving at the Capitol when they saw the crowd lurch forward.
The aggressors who led the charge appeared to be mostly men, “militia types” wearing insignias and pseudo-military attire. But the crowd was not monolithic. What also struck Alexander was the number of “regular-looking” people who seemed to have come along for the ride. She spotted what appeared to be young couples in their 20s.
“There were people walking around like they couldn’t believe they were actually inside,” Alexander says. “This was ordinary Americans.”
Alexander Marquardt, CNN’s senior national security correspondent, echoed Alexander’s observation that the crowd was composed of numerous factions. “Some people were acting like tourists who wanted to take in the spectacle,” Marquardt says. As the mob surged, he watched people taking pictures and selfies in front of the Capitol.
Marquardt came back to the U.S. in 2018 after a decade of covering hot spots like Egypt, Syria, Libya and Turkey. He never felt more vulnerable than he did on Jan. 6.
“I have not felt that kind of aggression and hostility in a protest ever,” he says. “War zones have a different kind of danger. The hostility that I felt toward myself and my team is something I hadn’t felt before.”
Marquardt and his small crew were reporting outside the Capitol when he saw the crowd break through a thin line of barricades and police. The sight of tactical gear and other weapons in the hands of rioters only added to the sense of chaos.
When rioters realized that Marquardt was from CNN, “things took a very dark turn,” he says. “They turned on us. They kept telling us, ‘There’s more of us than you.’ They were swearing and telling us, ‘We could absolutely fucking destroy you right now.”
Marquardt’s team escaped harm after a man in the crowd urged the others to back off and made space for them to retreat.
Alayna Treene, a White House reporter for Axios, was pushed into the Senate balcony after police locked the doors to the chamber. While protesters rampaged outside, Treene and her fellow reporters frantically filed updates to the pool report, describing the scene.
“We were scared, but we were adamant about getting the news out,” she says.
Olivia Beavers, a congressional reporter with Politico, sheltered in place in the press gallery of the House of Representatives as rioters banged on the doors. She could see police with their guns drawn and representatives donning gas masks. Like Treene, Beavers sprang into action. Using Twitter, she sent out a stream of messages that conveyed to the world that the Capitol had been overtaken.
“Doing that was something I could control in a moment of chaos,” she says. She remained outwardly calm but noticed that her hand shook as she composed her tweets. As she was evacuated from the chamber and led down a winding staircase and through basement hallways, her right leg spasmed, forcing her to lean on the wall. At one point, Norma Torres, a Democratic congresswoman from California, latched her arm around the reporter.
“We’re OK. We’re going to be OK,” Torres told Beavers.
Later that night, after Beavers finally returned home, she got a message from her godfather, a military veteran.
“He texted me and said, ‘it’s impossible to describe fear and survival without viscerally feeling it,’” says Beavers. “I realized that was what I had been feeling.”
Chris Cioffi, a congressional reporter for Roll Call, was locked in the Senate chamber as authorities struggled to repel the rioters. Eventually, the lawmakers were told to evacuate, and in the heat of the moment, old political rivalries seemed to melt away.
“You could see lawmakers who didn’t agree with each other about very much helping each other out as they made this rush for the exits,” says Cioffi.
It also removed the barriers that often remain firmly in place between the senators and the people who cover them on a daily basis.
“Normally when you’re interviewing lawmakers there is sort of like a distance between you because there’s a relationship where they’re the lawmaker and you’re the reporter that asks questions,” says Cioffi. “But for a brief period of time everyone was just trying to get to safety.”
Jazmine Ulloa, a political reporter for the Boston Globe, started her day covering the Trump rally on the National Mall. Talking to the men and women who flocked from around the country to support a president who continued to perpetuate claims of election fraud, she was struck by the political polarization and disinformation that had defined Trump’s turbulent reign. How, she wondered, can we bridge the divide?
“I asked a woman, ‘Who are you taking the country back from?’ and her response was, “The wicked,” says Ulloa. “And then she burst into tears.”
Hours later, Ulloa would be rushing toward a secure location, looking on as the Secret Service moved Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to safety. After the Capitol was cleared, Ulloa walked back through the hallways. Amid the broken glass and debris was an abandoned knit cap emblazoned with “MAGA.”
“This was the culmination of four years of Trump mainstreaming white supremacy, spewing conspiracy theories and empowering hate groups,” says Ulloa.
Moreover, journalists who experienced the Jan. 6 attack say the shameful display of racism, anger and disregard for decency should be a wakeup call to all Americans about the dangers of extremist rhetoric used for political advantage.
“The was the culmination of not just lies about the election but all the lies and poison fed for the past several years about Congress and about journalists. It all came to a head on Wednesday,” CNN’s Marquardt says. “It was extraordinary to witness as a journalist and it was extremely disturbing to witness as an American.”
Other reporters hope that the trauma of a riot fueled by hatred and alienation will lead to greater empathy.
“A lot of the members aren’t always very nice to the press,” says Treene. “Now that we went through this together, I hope that they’ll look at us differently. Maybe they’ll understand that even though you’re a member of the media, you’re still a human being.”