Reporters knew before they arrived at the Capitol on Wednesday that there would be large protests in support of President Trump. But most expected the day’s main event to be the drama and ceremony of the nation’s leaders debating the ratification of the Electoral College vote for Joseph R. Biden Jr. as the next president.
The journalists ended up chronicling a siege that underscored the fragility of American democracy. Many did their jobs a few feet from drawn weapons. Others faced the wrath of pro-Trump agitators with a grudge against the news media.
We interviewed 11 journalists from a variety of outlets — including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the British channel ITV and the Beltway news site Axios — who covered the events. The interviews have been edited and condensed.
April Ryan, 53, White House correspondent, TheGrio: I woke up around 6 at home in the Baltimore area. My kids, 13 and 18, were in their room, doing Zoom. I was in the den and the office, working the phones, not really expecting anything big, thinking it was just going to be a lot of posturing.
Tia Mitchell, 41, Washington correspondent, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: I had to get up early because we did our political newsletter, and then I had a podcast. I dropped off a gift for a friend’s birthday and headed into the capital.
Marcus DiPaola, 29, freelance journalist with 2.2 million TikTok followers: I knew it was going to be a complete mess ahead of time. I woke up at my friend’s apartment north of the White House, had some light cereal and checked the news.
Chad Pergram, 51, congressional correspondent, Fox News: My wife dropped me off on Independence Avenue, and right as I got out of the car, you could feel the tension, because there were protesters everywhere.
Kadia Goba, 46, congressional reporter, Axios: When I walked up the usual entranceway, Capitol Police told me I had to walk with the protesters. I was super pissed off about that. I walked through the crowd — and I’m a woman of color, so it was intimidating, to be honest with you.
Megan Pratz, 31, political director, Cheddar: It was very cold outside. After my noon live shot, my cameraman and I went inside the Capitol building.
Tia Mitchell, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: I had planned to spend my day in the House chamber because six of our eight House Republicans were planning to contest the electoral votes being tallied for Georgia. Walking from the Senate to the House, along the third floor, I peeked outside and could see the bigger protest.
Kadia Goba, Axios: My seat in the gallery was directly over Speaker Nancy Pelosi. I saw a picture online of the protesters in front of the building. At this point, all of the members are in debate mode, seemingly oblivious to what was going on.
J. Scott Applewhite, 69, senior photojournalist, The Associated Press: I was facing Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence, and they brought in those beautiful antique mahogany wooden boxes carrying the ballots.
Donie O’Sullivan, 29, reporter, CNN: We got to the barrier at the base of the Capitol as they broke through. It was a dramatic moment, but also surprisingly undramatic in that, you know, there were obviously not sufficient numbers of police or barricades.
Robert Moore, 57, Washington correspondent, ITV News: We were standing to one side of the inauguration platform that Joe Biden will use on Jan. 20, and there was a small corridor that was unguarded by police. So they charged up there and, rather improbably, discovered there was a tiny side entrance, also apparently unguarded. They broke the window, forced open the door. And there they were, in the corridors of power, astonished themselves that they got that far.
Megan Pratz, Cheddar: We went down to the first floor, where the entrance and exit is. We tried to exit, but guards told us that the first floor was locked down.
Marcus DiPaola, freelance journalist: I get an alert that protesters had breached the Capitol, and I’m like, “OK, so that’s the kind of day it’s going to be.” I take my first video — like six cops against 600 protesters. One protester pulled his fist back, and the cop just puts his hands up and walks back. There just weren’t enough people. The protesters ran right through.
Tia Mitchell, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: House staff was saying to us one at a time in the press gallery that they were going to lock down the chamber because the protest was starting to get out of hand. But there wasn’t panic. The House was still debating Arizona.
Kadia Goba, Axios: Capitol Police came on the speaker to say there had been a breach. You go in this marble building, it seems sacred to the people that work there. You just don’t think of intruders gaining access to that portion of the building.
Mike Theiler, 70, freelance photographer, Reuters: Police were up against the door, and people were trying to get in. I never imagined that the doors would be breached. Police said, “You’re going to have to leave.”
Tia Mitchell, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: I guess the adrenaline of being a news reporter started to kick in. My roots are in covering the night cop shift in Jacksonville, Fla. So I go into breaking-news mode. When they stopped proceedings on the floor, that’s when we knew it was escalating.
Marcus DiPaola, freelance journalist: This guy grabs me by the shoulder and he’s like, “Who do you work for?” I’m like, “I’m a freelance photographer.” He’s like, “Have you ever worked for CNN?” And then he pulled me out of the way and he charges in. Obviously, I’m not going in there. I’m not going to fight my way past a bunch of cops. At 2:21 a Confederate battle flag makes it to the top of the stairs. At 2:23 I first noticed that windows were smashed on the door.
Mike Theiler, Reuters: All my professionalism from 50 years of photography kind of takes over. I started shooting, knowing deep down that you can’t make a bad picture in a situation like that. There were maybe 20 of the rioters in the hallway and only a handful of police trying to restrain them. That’s when I saw that the guy with a Confederate flag had kind of moved off by himself. I’m thinking in the context of — we’re in this hallowed hallway, with the gilded framed paintings on the wall, the bust, the kind of thing that speaks to anyone who has ever been to the Capitol, and I kind of isolated him with that in the background.
The Presidential Transition
Tia Mitchell, Atlanta-Journal Constitution: Capitol Police told us the protesters were in the rotunda. And then they said to put on the gas masks. We’re trying to figure out how to open the darn things, and maybe that was a sign that we were nervous.
Kadia Goba, Axios: There was an announcement that tear gas had been dispensed and members should go under their seats. I turned around and gallery staff were handing out gas masks. The protesters were knocking on the door — boom, boom — echoing throughout the chamber. The bangs were getting louder and louder, and then you hear glass.
April Ryan, TheGrio: I said to myself: “Go back to Reporting 101. Call your sources. Reach out to people who are inside.” And they talked. I never thought about driving in. Who’s to say that someone wouldn’t recognize me and try to follow me? Donald Trump does not like April Ryan. It’s a dangerous mix. Donald Trump has called us the enemy of the people, which is not true. I’ve understood that I can’t go cover a campaign rally for Donald Trump — it’s not safe. So I’ve learned how to maneuver around those things and still do my job and break stories.
Tia Mitchell, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: At 2:45, we heard a very loud bang coming from the direction of the speaker’s lobby. At that point I called my mom. I didn’t know if we were going to be sheltered indefinitely. I wasn’t thinking the worst, but my mom is not on social media, and I was worried my phone might die.
Kadia Goba, Axios: I’m behind a chair and my editor calls. I start giving her details. They get us out of the gallery.
J. Scott Applewhite, A.P.: Next thing you hear, someone is starting to break the glass of the door. I have a telephoto lens, and I’m focused on that door. It’s maybe 50 feet away. So at 2:39 p.m., there were several plainclothes police gathered around the inside of the door of the chamber. It just has a lock on it. A couple of the officers bring a heavy piece of furniture and set it on top of another piece of furniture, and now the windows of the door are barricaded up about halfway.
At 2:40 p.m., they started to break the glass. At 2:40 p.m., plainclothes officers about 10 feet from the door have now started to take out their guns. The officers are telling them to get back. The standoff continues, and I can start to see a man’s face. The officers are talking to him through the broken glass. They kept telling him, “You can walk away from this, you don’t want to do this.” By 2:54 p.m. the mob has retreated. At this point I started taking pictures of all the empty seats in the chamber with the scattering of debris.
Kadia Goba, Axios: There’s a trail of us going downstairs. They’re directing members to a secure location. Sadly, photographers and reporters were not allowed, and we end up going to Representative Ruben Gallego’s office. I was trying to get my blood pressure and my heart rate down.
Robert Moore, ITV: Once we were in Congress itself with the group that we followed in, we simply filmed and spoke to them as they, I think it’s fair to say, rampaged. There were people who asked which organization we were with. We explained calmly that we were a British TV network and we were there to record a moment in history.
There were a few flashes of anger. But I’ve covered wars and disasters around the world for nearly 30 years, and I never felt in danger personally. I actually watched them, with my own eyes, tear down Nancy Pelosi’s nameplate off the wall above the door that enters her office. That was a moment that I thought, “Gosh, this could get ugly and violent.”
Zoeann Murphy, 39, video journalist, The Washington Post: We arrived on the north of the Capitol around 4. I had been assessing what gear to bring with me. I have body armor and a helmet and a gas mask and a first aid kit — and it became clear that all of those things should be coming with me.
Megan Pratz, Cheddar: We stood in the designated press area on the east side of the Capitol, in the area we call the House Elm. Throughout all of this, people were stopping to criticize the media, calling us fake news and liars, the stuff I’m kind of used to. But after people started leaving the Capitol, it really ramped up. They were calling us communist; they told me that they were coming for me. Then there were 20 to 30 people who started coming into the area, surrounding each journalist and screaming at us, these hateful, hateful things. You couldn’t see a Capitol Police officer anywhere. That was when we decided we were no longer safe. We grabbed pretty much everything, and we just walked out. We were shaking, like physically shaking, because it’s an adrenaline rush, and not a great one.
Zoeann Murphy, Washington Post: One of the Trump supporters who’s been participating in the screaming at police pulls out her cellphone and says: “Oh, my God, guys, listen up. The president tweeted. He says we’re a country of law and order, and, um, I think we should go.” She read the tweet out loud maybe 15 times. It was so clear that, even if the president wasn’t intentionally giving direction, people were receiving it as direction. And then that area dispersed quite a bit.
Robert Moore, ITV: I left the building with a group, and they were happy to have achieved their objective. The mood was a little bit euphoric.
Donie O’Sullivan, CNN: I asked folks were they proud of what they had done. And they said they were very proud and viewed themselves as the patriots, and that the people who accepted the legitimate results of the election were the traitors, which was quite surreal.
Kadia Goba, Axios: They let us go back to the Capitol, and we went back to our seats in the House gallery. Coming back was a little surreal. The House gallery had snacks. We had cup-size macaroni and cheese. Pringles. I remember a big bag of Cheetos.
Megan Pratz, Cheddar: I got home around 7:30. I gave my two little kids — they’re 5 and 3 — hugs and tried not to freak them out. I ate dinner but wasn’t really hungry. I didn’t want to do anything, just sit.
Zoeann Murphy, Washington Post: Law enforcement started kettling, creating circles of police officers around people. I’ve been in those many times, and usually I say I’m a journalist and they let me out. They didn’t in this situation, and I was taken aback. I went to three different officers and said we were journalists. When they didn’t engage at all, I thought we might be in a dangerous situation. One officer says very loudly to the crowd, “You are under arrest.” I’m getting my boss on the phone, reaching to get my credentials out, and one officer grabs me by the shoulder and the arm, and grabs my colleague by the shoulder and the arm, and starts to walk us toward these buses. By that point, I knew we were not in danger, though I was concerned we might have to be on these buses with a bunch of people who were not wearing masks. When it was our turn to be searched, this female officer came running up with a look of panic and asked if we were journalists. Her superior came and looked at our credentials and released us.
Marcus DiPaola, freelance journalist: Around 8, the police start kettling the media, and I was like, “Time to go.” I got back to the apartment and had pretzels and a lot of cookies and a pint of mango sorbet and a pint of NatureSweet Cherubs grape tomatoes. I turned on the TV and realized the historical implications of what I had just witnessed. My first thought was: “How in the world do we fix this? These people have been duped — people just aren’t taught to process information and assess its credibility.” And I remember feeling a complete hopelessness.
Tia Mitchell, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: They let us back into the gallery, and at 8:10 the Senate got back to work. Right off the bat, Kelly Loeffler made a speech where she said she would no longer object to Georgia’s electoral vote being counted for Biden. So I had to write that up.
Megan Pratz, Cheddar: I probably went to bed around 10. I woke up several times throughout the night. The only thing I kept saying to my husband was “It’s hard to be hated this much.”
Zoeann Murphy, Washington Post: At around 10, I went back to my hotel, walking through these mobs of Trump supporters drunk in the lobby. I get back to my room, and that’s when I started to process the enormity of what had happened.
Midnight to morning
Tia Mitchell, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: I left the Capitol at 12:46 and was waiting for the Senate subway and ran into Senator Loeffler, but she didn’t want to be interviewed. Sarah Wire from The Los Angeles Times agreed to share her ride-share, which was touching. I got home around 2 a.m. I made myself a drink and a little bit of food and watched “House Hunters” — HGTV is soothing for me. I went to bed around 3 a.m. I don’t feel like I’ve reflected on what happened. I think I’m scared of that. I might get too emotional.
Robert Moore, ITV: I went to sleep around 3 or 4 a.m. and was up a couple of hours later. What has surprised me is the level of interest in Europe, and in Britain in particular, with the events here. This is seen as a seminal story, one that shatters the myth about the stability of American democracy.
Kadia Goba, Axios: I was there till nearly 4 a.m., when Pence gaveled out. I went straight home. My friend was up and happy to hear from me, so we talked for 49 minutes. I still had adrenaline pumping.
J. Scott Applewhite, A.P.: I returned with my gear to my office in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. I had some soup, and I had an avocado and some nice tomatoes. I keep a little foldout chair, so I spread that out and slept between 5 a.m. and 7:30 a.m.
Megan Pratz, Cheddar: As I got out of bed, my body felt like it had whiplash. I had a sore throat — the air had been very smoky. I had a splitting migraine. I went downstairs, and the first thing I said to my husband was: “I’ve got to go to work, but I’m not OK today. And when I come home, all I want is for you to hold me really tight.” I feel both very fortunate and devastated that I’ve had to witness this part of history.