House Democrats hold first Jan. 6 committee hearing

Police officers who responded to riot among first witnesses | Pelosi names 2 Trump critics from GOP to committee

The Democrat-led House commission on the Jan. 6 Capitol riots began hearings Tuesday morning amid accusations from Republicans the process is an example of sham party politics.

»Watch a replay of the hearing. Language might not be appropriate for everyone.

“This is how I’m going to die, defending this entrance,” Capitol Police Officer Aquilino Gonell recalled thinking, testifying during the opening hearing. Gonell told House investigators he could feel himself losing oxygen as he was crushed by rioters as he tried to hold them back and protect the Capitol and lawmakers.

He and three other officers gave their accounts of the attack Tuesday, sometimes wiping away tears, sometimes rebuking Republicans who have resisted the probe and embraced Trump’s downplaying the day’s violence by supporters who were challenging his election defeat.

Along with graphic video of hand-to-hand fighting, the officers described being beaten as they held off the mob that broke through windows and doors and interrupted the certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential win. The new committee is launching its probe with a focus on the law enforcement officers who protected them — putting a human face on the violence of the day.

Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone, who rushed to the scene, told the committee — and millions watching news coverage — that he was “grabbed, beaten, tased, all while being called a traitor to my country.” Doctors later told him he’d had a heart attack.

Daniel Hodges, also a D.C. police officer, said he remembered foaming at the mouth and screaming for help as rioters crushed him between two doors and bashed him in the head with his own weapon, injuring his skull.

The officers detailed the horror of their experiences, their injuries and the lasting trauma as they begged the lawmakers to investigate the attack.

“I feel like I went to hell and back to protect them and the people in this room,” Fanone testified.

On Sunday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appointed a second Republican to the committee. U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois) joined fellow Trump-critic U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming) on the committee. Longtime liberal fixture U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), who also chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, will chair the group.

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Last week, Pelosi rejected two Republicans tapped by House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy to sit on the committee, which Democrats formed after the GOP-led Senate rejected a reportedly bipartisan commission to investigate the riots.

Pelosi cited the “integrity” of the probe in refusing to accept the appointments of Indiana Rep. Jim Banks, picked by McCarthy to be the top Republican on the panel, and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan. Both are close allies of Trump, whose supporters laid siege to the Capitol that day.

“Unless Speaker Pelosi reverses course and seats all five Republican nominees, Republicans will not be party to their sham process and will instead pursue our own investigation of the facts,” McCarthy said.

Pelosi said last week she had accepted McCarthy’s three other picks — Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, North Dakota Rep. Kelly Armstrong and Texas Rep. Troy Nehls. But McCarthy said that all or none would participate.

In the hours after the insurrection, Banks and Jordan voted to overturn Joe Biden’s presidential victory. Pelosi said she had spoken with McCarthy and told him that she would reject the two names. Like Jordan and Banks, Nehls voted to overturn Biden’s victory. Armstrong and Davis voted to certify the election.

“With respect for the integrity of the investigation, with an insistence on the truth and with concern about statements made and actions taken by these members, I must reject the recommendations of Representatives Banks and Jordan to the Select Committee,” Pelosi said.

The speaker’s decision is certain to further inflame tension between the two parties over the insurrection and the House panel that almost all Republicans opposed.

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McCarthy’s picks came after all but two Republicans opposed the creation of the 13-person select committee in a House vote last month, with most in the GOP arguing that the majority-Democratic panel would conduct a partisan probe. House Democrats originally attempted to create an evenly split, independent commission to investigate the insurrection, but that effort fell short when it was blocked by Senate Republicans.

Jordan, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, was one of Trump’s most vocal defenders during his two impeachments and last month likened the new investigation to “impeachment three.” Trump was impeached by the House and acquitted by the Senate both times.

Thompson has said the committee will have a quorum to conduct business whether GOP members are present or not.

The panel will hold its first hearing this week, with at least four rank-and-file police officers who battled rioters that day testifying about their experiences. Dozens of police officers were injured as the crowd pushed past them and broke into the Capitol.

Seven people died during and after the rioting, including a woman who was shot by police as she tried to break into the House chamber and three other Trump supporters who suffered medical emergencies. Two police officers died by suicide in the days that followed, and a third officer, Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, collapsed and later died after engaging with the protesters. A medical examiner determined he died of natural causes.

“We have to get it right,” Thompson said. If the committee can find ways to prevent anything like it from happening again, “then I would have made what I think is the most valuable contribution to this great democracy.”

Thompson is the only Democrat in the Mississippi delegation, hailing from a majority-Black district in the state’s western half.

Several Democrats and Republicans quoted by The Associated Press said Thompson was the right choice to lead an investigation that is certain to be partisan and fraught.

“I’ve dealt with Bennie for 15 years, and we disagreed on a lot, but I don’t think there was ever a harsh word between us,” said former Republican Rep. Pete King of New York, who was the chairman and top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee for years opposite Thompson. “Bennie is low key, he manages his side well. He was a good guy to work with. He was strong and knew what he wanted, but there was very little drama.”

New York Rep. John Katko, who is now the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, gave a similar assessment. Thompson is “a good man, a patriotic American” and a “productive partner,” Katko said in a statement.

Pelosi chose Thompson as chairman after he crafted legislation with Katko that would have created an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack. That bill won almost three dozen Republican votes in the House only to flame out in the Senate, where the opposition of Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell was decisive.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, the House manager of Trump’s first impeachment effort, said Thompson’s history of working with Republicans and his popularity among members will make it harder to malign the panel’s work. Reaching the bipartisan deal with Katko was not an easy task, he said.

“I think he has a very even keel that will help him get through this,” Schiff said.

Raskin says both parties have “partisan brawlers” — and Thompson is not one of them.

“He’s a workhorse, so he likes getting stuff done,” Raskin said. “And I think that’s the right spirit for this.”

Still, Thompson has taken sharply partisan stances. He joined with about 30 Democrats in a 2005 vote to invalidate President George W. Bush’s victory — not unlike the dozens of Republicans who voted to invalidate Biden’s in January. In that challenge, the dissenting Democrats claimed irregularities if not fraud in Ohio’s vote.

The effort did not end in violence, and John Kerry, the defeated Democratic presidential candidate, did not lead or join the effort to deny Bush his victory.

A frequent critic of Trump, Thompson joined other Democrats in filing a lawsuit against the former president after the insurrection, charging that he incited the attack and conspired to prevent Congress from certifying Biden’s victory.

Last week, Thompson withdrew his participation in that lawsuit, which he joined soon after the Senate acquitted Trump, at his second impeachment trial, of inciting the insurrection. Thompson’s withdrawal petition said he “wishes to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest between his role on the Select Committee and his role as a Plaintiff in this litigation.”

The lawsuit, which is still active, names as defendants Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. The Justice Department has filed charges against members of those groups in connection to the attack, and the panel is expected to investigate them as part of its probe.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.