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February 17, 2021

After riot, impeachment trial, shaken Maryland congressional staff must navigate a U.S. Capitol forever changed

Credit: The Baltimore Sun, Jeff Barker

When they pull back the blinds, staff members in the office of U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger can look across Independence Avenue at the U.S. Capitol, which seems to glow at night.

The view, once stirring, now unleashes more complicated emotions. The Baltimore County Democrat’s staff can’t uncouple the dome’s majesty from stomach-churning memories of the Jan. 6 Capitol siege — when they peeked out to watch rioters scaling the building — or from ongoing threats posed by right-wing extremists.

Their anxiety is like a filter dimming their picture-postcard view and their future work on Capitol Hill.

“Because we never thought this was going to happen, now I’m just like, ‘Well, who’s to say something else can’t happen?’” said Tara Oursler, Ruppersberger’s chief of staff, who woke up crying in her Hunt Valley home the morning after the deadly siege by rioters loyal to then-President Donald Trump.

Oursler said her twin 21-year-old sons pose the same question: “‘Mom, is something else going to happen?’”

Much of the disturbing surveillance and cellphone video evidence during Trump’s impeachment trial last week focused on lawmakers huddling in the House chamber or being hurriedly escorted down corridors to secure rooms.

Less publicized were the stories of their staffs — each House member has about 15, spread between their Washington and district offices — who also were at risk when the mob stormed the building, threatening the lives of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican Vice President Mike Pence. The rioters sought to halt an Electoral College vote count and deny Democratic President Joe Biden’s victory.

“There has been a seismic shift in how these staffers look at the sanctity and safety of Congress,” said U.S. Rep. David Trone, a Western Maryland Democrat whose legislative priorities include addressing unmet mental health needs in his district and beyond. “It’s never going to the same again.”

Because we never thought this was going to happen, now I’m just like, ‘Well, who’s to say something else can’t happen?’

For Eric Bryant, the chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore, the siege — which included white supremacists — hardly could have been more sobering. It exposed “a deep-rooted divide, a deep-rooted hate” that benefits some people at the expense of others and, he said Monday, likely hasn’t dissipated since Jan. 6, or with the end of the impeachment trial.

“To have it laid bare in the Capitol is a whole new dynamic for America to confront,” Bryant said.

Perhaps most unnerving is a fear that some lawmakers themselves could increase safety risks. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has named retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré to head a security review of the Capitol and said House members could be prosecuted if any “were accomplices to this insurrection” by providing Capitol tours or information to rioters before Jan. 6.

“How are we supposed to feel safe if there’s a threat within?” Oursler asked.

Also ratcheting up tensions: several Republican House members, including Maryland’s Rep. Andy Harris, who make a point of carrying guns. The Capitol Police are investigating an incident last month in which Harris approached a metal detector screening representatives headed to the House floor. He was armed; firearms are not permitted in the chamber. Harris has said he’s seeking to protect himself after receiving threats, but suggested he didn’t intend to carry a weapon onto the floor.

Oursler takes comfort in the calmness of Ruppersberger, a former prosecutor who once survived a near-fatal car accident.

“I’m not as intimidated as much as I should be maybe,” Ruppersberger said.

But the congressman doesn’t like that his staff members are unnerved.

Only now, he said, can he smile at a strategic blunder the staff made when rioters breached the Capitol and his adjacent House office building was locked down.

“My staff barricaded the door with a couple desks or whatever. What they didn’t realize is that the doors open outward,” Ruppersberger said.

Congressional staffs work long hours. Some are idealistic junior assistants making less than $50,000 a year in their first job.

Daniel Clayton, a Ruppersberger staff assistant who graduated from Gettysburg College in 2018, answers phones and works with constituents from the district Ruppersberger has represented since 2003.

Since Jan. 6, he said his family and friends “want to make sure we safe getting into the building. That’s the thing we’re more worried about — it’s not once we’re inside.”

The Capitol complex is surrounded now by high fences with razor wire, checkpoints, Humvees and National Guard troops wearing camouflage.

But even within the perimeter, Clayton said, it’s easy to flinch “like if you see the National Guard running somewhere during the day. There have been a couple of times we’ve seen large groups walking in a certain direction, and you find yourself looking on Twitter or somewhere online (to see why).”

For months before the siege, the Capitol was closed to the public because of the coronavirus pandemic. Many representatives and their staffs work from home or other locations as much as possible to try to stay out of harm’s way.

But lawmakers and core staff must be present during voting sessions. That’s been challenging for some who remain traumatized by the riot.

After the siege, Trone reached out to the office of the congressional physician urging it to assist shaken members and staff. That physician, Dr. Brian P. Monahan, and the House’s Office of Employee Assistance began a series of webinars last month for congressional staff.

“While we will remain strong and persevere, it is common in times such as these to experience a wide range of upsetting emotions, thoughts, physical symptoms and stress, and even changes in behavior,” Monahan and the employee assistance office said in a blast email from to congressional offices.

It said such aftershocks may be particularly prevalent among lawmakers, staffers and police officers “who were directly in the face of danger.”

It also sought to assure the message’s recipients, concluding that “resilience is far-and-away the most common outcome following trauma.”