On the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, one of Rep. Stephanie Murphy’s closest friends in Congress called her, worried about what lay ahead for them over the next few hours.
“It could be a dangerous day,” Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, recalls telling Murphy, a Florida Democrat. Sinema invited her and another colleague, Rep. Kathleen Rice, Democrat of New York, to use her hideaway—a private, unmarked space that Senators are assigned—in case anything got sketchy. “Spend some time there, and then we’ll all connect together later.”
Hours later, Murphy and Rice had frantically found their way to Sinema’s hideaway, hoping the violent mob that had just breached the Capitol would pass them by. After the Senate floor was evacuated, and Capitol police escorted Sinema to an underground space, she saw on Twitter that rioters were near her office. She asked two officers to go help Murphy and Rice get somewhere safer.
When the police found the two of them, they sprinted to the underground passage. Sinema remembers seeing her friends arrive with the officers. “Stephanie had a look of terror on her face,” she tells TIME. Murphy recalls being in a state of shock. “I couldn’t believe that here I was, a refugee immigrant who had fled authoritarianism, now trapped in the basement of the Capitol, the place where I thought I would be safest,” she says. “The heart of our democracy.”
Eighteen months later, Murphy is a member of the committee investigating the worst attack on the Capitol since the War of 1812 and trying to prevent anything like it from ever happening again. After six hearings in which other members of the Jan. 6 committee have taken a lead role, Murphy will get her turn on Tuesday, helping lead the questioning as the committee focuses on the role violent extremist groups, such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, played during the attack, and their ties to former President Donald Trump and his associates.
In a way, the hearing will serve as Murphy’s swan song on Capitol Hill, as she is retiring when her term ends in January. She says she’s leaving elected office to spend more time with her two young kids. “I have a very narrow timeframe to be present enough in their lives when the hard years come with hormones and bigger challenges,” she says.
Right now, though, her priority is the committee’s investigation, which has already exceeded most of Washington’s expectations for not only captivating a national audience, but for making a case for Trump’s culpability—both morally and legally—for the deadly attack.
It’s now on her to advance the committee’s probe. “I want it to be absolutely airtight,” she says of her presentation. “Backed up by very clear evidence. I think the credibility of this committee is of the utmost importance. We have to be very precise. We can’t exaggerate, but the reality is, we don’t need to.”
For Murphy, her career, and in some ways her entire life, has been leading up to this very moment.
Patriotism and Gratitude
Murphy was born in Ho Chi Minh City in 1978, three years after American forces pulled out of Vietnam and around the time the Communist-controlled government began severely oppressing its own people. “They were sending people to work camps,” Murphy explains. “They were hard labor camps, and a lot of people didn’t survive their time in camp.”
When she was six months old, she and her parents fled the country by boat. It wasn’t a seamless voyage. The boat ran out of fuel and had only one container of water for everyone on board. Then it was captured by pirates before the U.S. Navy came to the rescue and took them to Malaysia, where they were held in a refugee camp before leaving for American shores.
Murphy grew up in Northern Virginia but kept in touch with family members who didn’t make it out of Vietnam. Realizing what her life could have been like had she never made it out fostered her patriotism, she says, a deep sense of gratitude for the freedoms the United States offers.
She studied economics as an undergrad at William and Mary and then worked as a strategy and operations consultant at Deloitte to pay off her student loans. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, she changed course, enrolling in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and then becoming a national security officer at the Department of Defense. After four years in civil service, she moved to Central Florida with her husband.
In 2016, Democrats recruited her to run against Rep. John Mica, a Republican who was more vulnerable after redistricting. With the help of national power players like President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and former Rep. Gabby Giffords, she edged out a stunning victory.
Murphy arrived on Capitol Hill at a time when Republicans controlled Congress and the Trump administration was working to reverse much of the Obama administration’s accomplishments. Her colleagues describe her as a no-nonsense centrist who can work well with Republicans but who doesn’t suffer fools. Her history of bipartisan cooperation is part of why her appointment to the Jan. 6 committee was seen as a good fit. “She’s very credible when she frames her arguments and her concerns for the committee,” Rep. Kurt Schrader, Democrat of Oregon, tells TIME. “It’s not we-hate-Donald-Trump type stuff. It’s about what he actually did and didn’t do.”
Once Murphy heard that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was forming a select committee to investigate the attack, she made a play to get on it. She sent Pelosi a letter asking to be chosen, highlighting her experience fleeing authoritarian persecution and working at the Defense Department as a national security specialist. She also ran into Pelosi on the House floor and gave her another nudge. “I told her I’d really like to be on the committee,” Murphy says. Pelosi was non-committal. “As usual, she would never say anything but ‘Yes, dear.’”
A few weeks later, Murphy got word that she had made the cut in what seemed like one of those gradually-then-suddenly type of breakthroughs. It was only a few hours before House leadership would hold a press conference announcing the high-profile committee’s membership.
Democracy “Not Self-Sustaining”
The hearing Murphy will lead on Tuesday with Rep. Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland, will be the committee’s seventh so far. Earlier hearings have revealed how Trump continued to spread claims of widespread voter fraud even after multiple White House advisers told him they were not true, and how Trump pressured Pence to reject the congressional certification of Biden’s Electoral College victory. Another focused on Trump’s attempts to pressure state election officials to decertify Biden’s victories, and another on his attempts to corrupt the Justice Department to help overturn the election.
Tuesday’s hearing will come at a pivotal moment for the panel; it will be the first since the abruptly scheduled session two weeks ago, in which Cassidy Hutchinson, a top aide to former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, provided the most damning testimony against the former President to date. She told the panel that the Secret Service told Trump that many of his supporters were heavily armed on Jan. 6, but he told them to go to the Capitol anyway, a revelation that former prosecutors say opens him up to criminal liability. He also wanted to march with them to the Capitol, despite White House counsel Pat Cipollone saying Trump would be “charged with every crime imaginable” if he did, Hutchinson testified.
Murphy will come to Tuesday’s hearing with the goal of revealing the convergence between White House officials and the far-right extremists who stormed the Capitol. In an earlier hearing, Rep. Liz Cheney, Republican of Wyoming and the vice chair of the panel, teased out that Trump ally Roger Stone served as an intermediary between the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys. He was in regular communication with Meadows and Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Guiliani leading up to Jan. 6. Sources familiar with the committee’s plans say it will be fleshing out more substantive contacts between the extremist groups and Trump’s allies on Tuesday.
The committee has amassed more than 1,000 interviews and more than 130,000 documents. Condensing all that into a compelling story has been among the most challenging aspects of the committee’s work, according to Murphy. “We’re showing the American people a sliver of what the entire investigation has uncovered,” she says. “And we’re trying to keep it in narrative form.”
Murphy says the panel has also employed a strategy that has helped it preempt the counter-programming from Fox News and other Trump-allied media. “I think what’s been hard for Fox is that we are proving our case using Republican voices and witnesses.”
She described as “pretty weak” the argument from Republicans on Capitol Hill that Democrats are focusing on Jan. 6 to divert attention from inflation and other economic woes.
”There is nothing about investigating and understanding the facts of Jan. 6 that prevents you from doing any number of other policy and legislative things,” she says. “That’s kind of silly. That’s just them admitting they don’t know how to walk and chew gum.”
That said, Murphy is laser-focused on her work on the committee. She wants the nation to pay close attention to what it is revealing—and for Congress to move forward on its recommendations, which will be released in a report in the fall.
“We hope they’ll understand how precious and fragile democracy is and how it needs to be preserved and protected by patriots,” she says. “It’s not self-sustaining.”
That’s why, she says, she’s bent on presenting the committee’s latest findings during the Tuesday hearing as clearly as possible.
“There’s nothing more powerful for a viewer,” she says, “than to see it for themselves.”
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