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“Trump facing some form of accountability was supposed to feel better than this,” the chief of staff to a Democrat in Congress told me in the midst of yet another lockdown. This was Wednesday afternoon, the day after Special Counsel Jack Smith had released his four-count indictment against former President Donald Trump, a move that was both cheered by many Hill denizens while also sending some of them back to one of the worst days of their lives, that harrowing moment when they barricaded themselves in offices as hundreds of Trump loyalists roamed the complex looking for lawmakers to intimidate—or worse.
And then came the 911 call suggesting there was an active shooter in the Hart Senate Office Building and what has become an all-too-familiar routine kicked in.
“I had to silence my cell phone, blockade my office door, and keep the staffers here calm,” the chief of staff said. The echo of Jan. 6, 2021, was almost too precise.
Even before that midday adrenaline spike, many Capitol staffers have been mentally bracing for Thursday, when Trump is due to make his first appearance in federal court to answer felony charges related to his behavior related to the mob attack on Congress on Jan. 6, 2021. Wednesday’s lockdown was like a metaphor for the sense of security that Capitol workers had lost since that day.
“I hate it here,” one junior staffer messaged his friends as the threat was ongoing.
“This s— doesn’t get any easier,” a Republican chief of staff messaged me back on a secure app.
“K Street looks better by the day,” a second Democratic chief of staff replied when I did a quick check-in.
One of the most under-appreciated background stories since Jan. 6, 2021, has been the slow-boiling mental health crisis plaguing Capitol Hill staffers—and not the ones you’d think. Mid-career staffers and younger aides have never not known active-shooter drills in their schools. Learning to hide in classrooms was simply part of the curriculum, and now simply the way they go about their lives. “Always be ready to run,” a House intern texted me, along with a picture of the sneakers she keeps under her desk.
Yet for staffers over a certain age—particularly those in their 40s, those of us who were leaving high school around the Columbine shooting in the spring of 1999—this is all new. This cohort is the one now leading staff in senior roles, and many of them are especially having trouble adapting to this new dynamic.
Quantifying the impact is tricky, for sure. But there are some metrics that are at the ready. In the year that followed the Jan. 6 riots, 135 officers had left the 2,000-person Capitol Police force; a year earlier, that number stood at 80. In 2017, there were fewer than 4,000 threats made against Congress. In 2021, that number skyrocketed to 9,600.
In the 30,000-person city within a city that is the Capitol complex, the turnover numbers are only part of the story. One former Democratic member of Congress who was at the Capitol that day but has since retired has nicknamed their former place of employment Doom City: “Every day was like attending a wake. The joy was gone, the celebration of service was killed.”
Chiefs of staff had already noticed the growing sense of unease, especially for their employees who were at the Capitol for the attack, and now seem to be just waiting for it to happen all over again. “Don’t ask Are you OK? unless you want a real answer,” a Senate senior aide warned me earlier this week, even before the Capitol crashed into lockdown.
Talk to any receptionist in a member’s office—especially Democratic ones, but not exclusively—and they now always have the right forms at the ready to report threats that come to the switchboard. Some offices have just started sending everything to voicemail so they have evidence of the belligerence. Republicans deemed insufficiently MAGA are spared none of the wrath, and those still willing to downplay Jan. 6 keep a wide berth in public lest they be latched to perceived traitors.
In the months that followed the riot, Capitol Hill transformed from one of the most accessible places in the federal government into a fortress on par with the White House. At one point, more armed troops patrolled Capitol Hill than Afghanistan. Security fences went up, and down, and up again. Heck, metal detectors were even installed just off the House floor to screen lawmakers for guns. That’s how toxic and anxiety-demanding working on the Hill had become.
And all of that unresolved trauma came rushing back on Wednesday, 24 hours before Trump was set to return to another fortified building just down the street and presumably plead not guilty over his role in a tragic day that he continues to misrepresent. By the time the all-clear message went across the Capitol complex, the nerves had frayed. Capitol Police said it was likely a “bogus” call, but nonetheless went door to door through all of the Senate office buildings just to be sure. Police then escorted staffers from the building, again just to be sure. There was no indication of shots fired, injuries, or an ongoing threat, but that is little consolation to the professionals on the Hill who had to relive their Jan. 6 experiences during a week when many are already struggling to put the trauma behind them.
This, right here, is why so many of the best and brightest don’t want to log a few years on Capitol Hill. The drag on mental health isn’t remotely worth it.
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