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Jan. 6 hearings open with visceral accounts of Trump supporters' assault on police

WASHINGTON - A House select committee examining the events of Jan. 6 opened its investigation Tuesday with vivid, visceral testimony from four law enforcement officers who were savagely attacked as they defended the U.S. Capitol from armed supporters of President Donald Trump, delivering an emotional portrait of the insurrection's lasting toll more than six months later.

"It still isn't over for me," Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn told lawmakers. He described how protesters dressed in Trump campaign paraphernalia called him the n-word - and did the same to several of his Black colleagues, asking: "How is this America?"

The select committee's members believe the first-person accounts of such intensely traumatic experiences will resonate with the American public, cutting through the bitter political war in Congress over how the Capitol riot should be investigated - and who bears responsibility for it. Republican leaders have boycotted the investigation and sought to blame House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for the casualties as a way of deflecting scrutiny away from Trump, who was impeached and acquitted earlier this year on charges he incited the violent bid to prevent lawmakers from certifying the electoral college results and declaring Joe Biden the next president.

Their officers' testimony Tuesday was interspersed with video showing rioters physically and verbally assaulting the police who stood in their way. As the images played, Capitol Police officer Aquilino Gonell, who has required surgery to repair the injuries he sustained during the incursion, wiped away tears.

Gonell, a naturalized American citizen and Iraq War veteran, characterized the bedlam as "a medieval battlefield." He described how his hands, shoulder, calf and foot were hurt in the attack - and wept as he explained how he couldn't even hug his wife upon returning home, fearing the chemicals that had seeped into his clothes and were burning his skin would make her sick, too.

"To be honest, I did not recognize my fellow citizens who stormed the Capitol on January 6, or the United States they represent," he testified. "Nothing in my experience in the Army, or as a law enforcement officer, prepared me for what we confronted."

Later, when Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., asked how it made him feel to know that Trump had described the rioters as a "loving crowd," Gonell's residual anger was apparent.

"It's upsetting. It's a pathetic excuse for his behavior, for something that he himself helped to create - this monstrosity," he said, his voice deliberate and calm. "If that was the case, we should all go to his house and do the same thing to him. . . . Shame on him."

Gonell later clarified that he was not encouraging anyone to march on the former president's home.

The officers' recollections often were raw and unfiltered as they described being kicked, crushed, and sprayed with chemical irritants by the encroaching mob. Dunn told the committee that, before Jan. 6, he had never "seen anyone physically assault a Capitol Police or MPD officer, let alone witness mass assaults being perpetrated" with flagpoles, bike racks, and projectiles.

At one point in his testimony, District of Columbia police officer Michael Fanone - who suffered a heart attack, a traumatic brain injury, and said he heard rioters threaten to "kill him with his own gun" - banged his fist on the witness table to accentuate how "disgraceful" it was that some Republican lawmakers were trying to make light of what he endured defending the Capitol.

Their expressions of emotion were at times infectious. At several points throughout the hearing, observers and even some lawmakers dabbed at their eyes.

"Democracies are not defined by our bad days, we're defined by how we come back from bad days," said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., stifling back tears. "For all the overheated rhetoric surrounding this committee, our mission is very simple: it's to find the truth and to ensure accountability."

Kinzinger joined the panel only Sunday, days after Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., announced his intention to boycott the investigation following Pelosi's refusal to seat two of the five Republicans he had recommended. Though McCarthy has threatened to revoke the committee assignments of any Republicans who participate in the investigation, Kinzinger lobbied the speaker to be included alongside Cheney. They are the only two Republicans who voted for establishing the select committee, after efforts to set up an independent commission of experts, equally weighted between Democratic and GOP appointees, faltered in the Senate.

Contrary to most other House Republicans, Cheney and Kinzinger have argued that the panel must have an unfettered mandate, including access to witnesses who may help them recreate "every minute of that day."

"Honorable men and women have an obligation to step forward," Cheney said in her opening remarks. "If those responsible are not held accountable, and if Congress does not act responsibly, this will remain a cancer on our constitutional republic."

Pelosi objected to McCarthy's attempts to seat Reps. Jim Bank, R-Ind., and Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, because the two had made incendiary statements undermining the premise of the probe, Democrats said last week. They also expressed concern about Jordan because his pre-riot contacts with Trump make him a potential witness in the investigation.

McCarthy, Jordan and other GOP leaders have resisted the idea of any special panel to investigate Capitol riot, charging that each proposal was too biased in favor of Democrats to give Trump a fair shake. On Tuesday, they sought to preempt the special committee's first hearing with a news conference in which they accused Pelosi of "bearing responsibility" for the attack by not having better steeled the Capitol for such things, and refusing to appoint McCarthy's special committee picks because they would have scrutinized her office and "she didn't want those questions asked."

On Tuesday afternoon, Trump acolytes Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and others held a protest at the Justice Department to complain about the detention conditions where people are being held for their alleged participation in the assault. To date, more than 550 people have been charged with federal crimes, including more than 165 who are accused of assaulting or impeding law enforcement.

The officers testifying Tuesday said that the rioters were armed and ready to bulldoze down all barricades to prevent Biden from being certified as the next president. They described in detail how the rioters used hammers, knives, chemical sprays and protective gear to push their way into the Capitol - and how they had received no warning from superiors to prepare for such an attack.

As a result, they were wildly outnumbered. Hodges estimated that just about 150 District police officers were trying to face down an estimated 9,400 rioters outside the Capitol complex.

"If it turned into a firefight, we would've lost," Hodges said at one point during his testimony. But, he added, "this was a fight we couldn't afford to lose."

To those who have followed the various congressional and criminal investigations of the Jan. 6 riot, or Trump's second impeachment trial, Hodges may be familiar as the police officer who was crushed in a door by protesters trying to get into the Capitol. His screams have been featured in video that has been aired in the Senate chamber, across television networks, and again in the House select committee room.

Hodges addressed lawmakers in a low tone Tuesday, speaking with more precision than emotion, but betraying a simmering anger as he recalled what he and his fellow officers encountered. He almost always referred to the perpetrators as "terrorists" and appeared so disciplined about his choice of words that eventually the others testifying began to use the term as well.

At one point, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md.,asked him why he had chosen to use that word. Hodges said he "came prepared" for that question, and then read aloud from the section of the U.S. code containing the legal definition of domestic terrorism.

The officers said that despite being targeted by the mob, they tried to help the protesters who were injured in the attack. Dunn told of helping to carry one woman to the Capitol office of House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., where she received CPR to revive her.

But it was evident from their testimony Tuesday that, to a certain extent, the officers continue to struggle making sense of what happened Jan. 6. Dunn made a direct appeal for lawmakers to review whether the support services available to officers "are sufficient to meet our needs." He also encouraged any officers listening to his testimony to seek help if they need it.

Kinzinger asked all four officers how it made them feel when people said it was "time to move on" from Jan. 6. "Does this feel like old history and time to move on?"

Each responded no. When it came his turn, Hodges thought for a moment and added: "there can be no moving on without accountability."

The Washington Post's Marianna Alfaro contributed to this report.

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