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Journalists' Views Of The Pro-Trump Riot On Capitol Hill

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

I used to be a reporter on the Hill. And I can tell you, on most days, the U.S. Capitol is this buzzing hive of activity. Lawmakers and their aides whizzing through the halls, rivers of tourists flowing through the rotunda and journalists zigzagging through all of this traffic, trying to cover the news of the day. But on Wednesday, it was the scene of an insurrection.

We wanted to get an insider's view of that extraordinary day and how it may reshape day-to-day life inside the Capitol going forward. And to do that, we reached out to two reporters who were in the Capitol Wednesday and who are both intimately familiar with the building and the people who inhabit it. Lisa Desjardins of the PBS NewsHour and Politico's Sarah Ferris, it is so good to be talking to both of you. And I'm so glad that you're safe.

LISA DESJARDINS: Thank you for having us, Ailsa.

SARAH FERRIS: Thanks for having us.

CHANG: So I just want to start by asking you to share what it was like for you personally on Wednesday. At what point did you realize that things had spun out of control?

DESJARDINS: I don't know about Sarah. It happened really fast. We had - the House office building across the street from the Capitol, the Cannon Office Building, went on lockdown because of the breach. And I remember asking Capitol police outside the House chamber about that. And the police standing outside the chamber did not know about it.

And it was not long after that that I went to the middle of the Capitol - just around the corner from that same spot - and I saw the protesters, the whole mob, crushed up against the front door of the Capitol. And it was such a disconnect. And that was when I knew we've never seen anything like this before.

CHANG: Sarah, how about you?

FERRIS: So I, too, was on the House side - a little bit different place than where Lisa was. We were up in the House Daley Gallery, which is on the third floor right above where the chamber is. And some of the gallery staff who are there, they're amazing. They're so calm all the time. And he's running around, and he's telling us we're getting, you know, initial signals we might have to shelter in place. If that happens, we are going into the chamber.

And then all of a sudden, it's like, OK, get anything you want to take with you. We are going into the chamber, and we are locking the doors. And there's no police nearby. This is all the House gallery staff that have to do this. And we are cramming - we are just - into the chamber. We don't know what's happening. You know, I took my computer. I left car keys. I left - I had just got a cup of coffee (laughter). My heart is starting to pound, even thinking about it again.

CHANG: So was there a moment that you think is just going to stay with you for the rest of your life? Like, a particular interaction, a scene or even a sound?

FERRIS: I have one. We're up in the House chamber. I'm crouched at the very bottom of the gallery upstairs, behind this little wall. In front of me, there's three members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Lisa Blunt Rochester, from Delaware, is just saying this prayer - God help us. She's clutching hands with two other members. And that was it for me. That was when - I have never felt that scared. I - and - because I - because they were scared.

I couldn't look at anything else. That was - there was probably a lot of stuff happening on the floor, you know? And that was when they were trying to keep them from blocking the - from getting in through the chamber door, which was just right - I could see it right in front of us. But I couldn't stop watching these members who were praying together.

DESJARDINS: I was on the other side of those locked doors. And this is the first time any of us reporters who see each other all the time - every day - are even being able to compare notes. You know, after I saw the door - front door being breached - I'm going to always remember - I interviewed a couple of the rioters as they came in, which is also a way to try and keep yourself safe. And they were just so casual about the whole thing, you know? And in fact, some of them were even asking - they were looking for a bathroom, some of them at that point.

CHANG: Wow.

DESJARDINS: Then the numbers grew. And I think the bigger moment I'll always remember is when I walked from that location back toward the House chamber. And, you know, I put my hand on my ID badge because I knew that there are four police posts right there - usually at least four police officers outside the chamber - and I wanted to have my badge ready so that they knew I was a reporter.

And I walk there with the rioters behind me - coming behind me - and there's no police there. And then I realized the doors all around me are locked and that the offices are on lockdown. And, you know, it was just me and them for quite a while.

CHANG: There is one more moment from Wednesday that I want to ask you about. That night, just as soon as the mob had been cleared from the building, Congress reconvened to finish certifying President-elect Biden's victory. And both of you - as well as many, many of your colleagues - went back to work. Tell me, how did that feel to go back to work on the same day that all of this happened?

DESJARDINS: You know, I know members of Congress were defiant, and they wanted to get back and send a message. And I felt the same way. I felt like, I really do want to get back to the business of governing and showing that America is transparent. And it's a place where the press can report on what its government does.

And, you know, that may have been just me trying to, like, you know, feel better about a really bad day, but I felt so good when I could walk back into the chamber. It was almost like - I almost physically felt like I was hugging a friend I hadn't seen in a long time after we'd both been through something. I felt that way about the chamber itself and about finishing the election.

CHANG: So both of you have covered Congress for so long. And I'm just curious how Wednesday fits into the larger story of this Congress.

FERRIS: Well, it's interesting. This is Sarah. It's interesting because this is the first week of a new Congress. And it comes after maybe the most chaotic last Congress - the entire 116th Congress beginning with the shutdown, nearly ending with a shutdown, everything in between - the impeachment.

You know, this was - many people expected the 117th Congress to be the fresh start. You know, Joe Biden would be coming in in two weeks. Even Republicans were tired of answering questions about President Trump's behaviors over these last four years. And to a lot of people, this was supposed to be a fresh start. There was supposed to be this spirit of bipartisanship. And, you know, nobody expected so many different kinds of questions and this shadow to hang over the 117th Congress in the way that it now will for the next two years.

DESJARDINS: You know - it's Lisa. I'm really concerned. And I think the reason why is what happened after we got back in the House chamber for the joint session late into the night overnight. There was actually a moment where a Democratic representative said something that Republicans didn't like, and they objected to it on the floor. And this led to a shouting match between the two sides. And then that led to a member of the Republican Party standing up and kind of gesturing as if he sort of wanted to start a fight. And they were in a position to get in a fist fight with each other. This was at, like, 1 or 2 in the morning.

And watching that after everything everyone had been through and all of the talk even just hours before about how we're going to come together - you know, we're 10 years from when Gabby Giffords was shot. And - you remember, Ailsa - in that moment, Congress really did come together. You know, Congress was very serious about pushing back and being unified and peaceful together. But what I saw is in the hours after this, instead, the tensions were still there, and people were still pointing at each other to blame. And that really concerns me for the rest of this Congress and for the country.

CHANG: Lisa Desjardins of the PBS NewsHour and Sarah Ferris from Politico, thank you both so much for sharing this conversation with all of us.

DESJARDINS: This was really valuable to me. Thank you.

FERRIS: Thanks for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRENTEMOLLER'S "MISS YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.