Sat, October 16, 2021

in-focus

Pelosi is trying to help lawmakers struggling with the trauma of the Capitol riot


WASHINGTON - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi first saw the emotional wounds moments after she returned to the U.S. Capitol the evening of Jan. 6.

"The trauma that I saw in their eyes," Pelosi said, pausing three seconds as she recalled the faces of her closest aides. "It was just overwhelming, just overwhelming. You know, our staffs are largely young. They come here with the sense of idealism and just love that they're working in the Capitol."

In addition to leading the impeachment of a former president and the inauguration of a new one, Pelosi, D-Calif., has also played a unique role these past few weeks: emotional shepherd to a flock of traumatized lawmakers, staff and police still reeling from the aftermath of rioters storming the Capitol in a bid to overturn the 2020 election.

Some of her staff members locked themselves in a windowless conference room, blocking the door with office furniture and hiding under a table for 21/2 hours as rioters tried to break down the door.

Lawmakers inside the House chamber donned gas masks and crawled across the floor, then ran to secure locations under the armed protection of U.S. Capitol Police.

Since then, the speaker's office has served a leading role in providing the congressional community access to post-traumatic counseling. It convened online sessions for lawmakers and aides less than a week after the riot. On Jan. 21, lawmakers were invited to an in-person session inside a vast auditorium.

Pelosi followed up a few days ago with a letter to lawmakers encouraging them to take advantage of more counseling sessions. And, in an interview with The Washington Post, she talked about attending the meetings with lawmakers, and how she emotionally processed the attempted insurrection.

"I sat through it myself," she said, explaining how the Office of the Attending Physician and Office of Employee Assistance run the sessions. "It was interesting." Pelosi said she was especially "impressed by the section about resilience."

Pelosi is not interested in forgiving "those thugs, those terrorists" who trashed the Capitol, taking a bit more of an Old Testament view of healing through justice.

"I was thinking, the human person is built for survival," she said of the counseling session. "You know, we just are. But how do we come back? Not to ignore the seriousness of the situation, but to recognize that, to heal, you have to have some justice. You just really have to have justice. You cannot heal without it."

These sessions have been pulled together in the post-riot fog of trauma, and many people may not be aware of them. The critical thing Pelosi wants the Capitol Hill crowd to know is how common the struggles are, and that everyone can benefit from talking to a professional about their experience.

Pelosi admits that her reflexive posture is to eliminate emotion from events, so she can determine the right congressional response. That's what she did when a Capitol Police security detail ushered her off the House dais to a secure, off-site location, where she monitored the situation and, in bipartisan fashion with other congressional leaders, charted the path to getting the House and Senate back into session as a show of democratic force.

"I have a responsibility to be, as I say, passionate about what's happening, but dispassionate about how to deal with it," Pelosi said. "So I almost have to remove myself immediately from the emotion of it all."

But Jan. 6 was different from a budget standoff with an administration or even last year's impeachment showdown with President Donald Trump over his effort to force Ukrainian officials to investigate the Biden family.

The lawmakers are still rattled, because they personally experienced the events in question.

So Pelosi has asked them to write an essay about their experience that day, partly as a therapeutic recollection of what they went through.

"Be your own historian, be part of writing the history of this, because there's nobody who can be a better validator of what happened in your experience than you," Pelosi said.

Republicans are furious that, without any hearings or testimony, Pelosi pushed Trump's impeachment through the House one week after the insurrection. They have accused her of further dividing a nation that needs healing.

But she blames Republicans for standing by Trump in the hours after the attack, as about two-thirds of House Republicans opposed the certification of Biden as the victor in November's election - effectively taking the side of the rioters.

She contrasted those divisive actions with the broad, bipartisan outpouring that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which ended that night with a bipartisan singing of "God Bless America" on the steps of the Capitol.

"At least in 9/11, it was unifying, and there was no question that everyone was sympathetic to those who lost their loved ones, their families and the rest, and that we would get to the bottom of it," Pelosi said.

She went through the images of that day, the mob using a door to crush a D.C. police officer. She thought of the Capitol Police officer who died as a result of injuries sustained during the riot.

"To just say, 'Well, what's the big deal? Let's just turn the page.' Turn the page? No, I don't think so," Pelosi said, reiterating that healing comes through justice.

Her impeachment effort will probably end without the conviction of Trump, because 45 Senate Republicans have already signaled their doubt in the case.

But the role of trauma shepherd will continue for months ahead, she knows, and she wants to hear everyone's story.

Near the end of our interview, Pelosi asked me: Were you in the Capitol that day?

She listened to my terrifying tale: of being just above the stairwell where a heroic Capitol Police officer held off a mob, buying us time to get inside the Senate chamber as officers locked the doors, and of eventually evacuating with the Senate to a secure location, with armed police protection.

"You also experienced firsthand the trauma of it all," she said. "The uncertainty: How is this going to proceed or end?"

Pelosi has given her colleagues one other instruction, beyond writing their firsthand account. She wants them, a month or two from now, to write another personal essay, telling the story again through a more distant lens, about how they felt in the interim and how it helped their recovery.

"When I say recovery, recovery from it," she said. "Because this is, this is so historic. There's nothing - there is nothing, nothing like it."

Published : January 31, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Paul Kane