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Rep. Dan Kildee Reflects on Congress in the Year Since January 6
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Rep. Dan Kildee Reflects on Congress in the Year Since January 6

‘They've just taken something very precious away.’

The anniversary of the January 6 attack on the Capitol is coming up next week. Rep. Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat who has grappled with post-traumatic stress in the aftermath of that day, spoke with The Dispatch on the phone about how he has approached the job in the past year, how his relationships with Republicans have evolved, and more.

The transcript of the interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Haley: You were in the House chamber when the Capitol was breached. A year later, what memories of those events are most prominent in your mind?

Rep. Kildee: A couple of things. One, just the events as they unfolded, it still strikes me how much disbelief I was in—how little I could rationalize what was going on at the time. I just could not believe that this was happening. I think there are a couple of moments that stick with me that were particularly difficult. I was one of the members trapped in the gallery. After the Capitol was evacuated, there were some of the Capitol press corps and a handful of members that were left behind because we were in the gallery, and there was no way up and no way down. So we were kind of stuck. And I remember feeling like they were about to break in and the gunshot going off when one of our officers shot and killed Ashli Babbitt as they were trying to breach the speaker’s lobby. And I got on the phone soon thereafter to call my wife. The moment that sticks with me more than any was, as soon as she answered the phone and I heard her voice, I realized that it felt like I was making what you’d call that call. You know, the call that you hear about people in a building that’s about to go down or a plane or whatever. It was that kind of a sensation that I know a number of us had that we didn’t know if we were going to get out of this thing. And I called my wife to have her call my mom and call my kids and tell them I was okay, at least for the time being. So that sticks with me. 

Another moment was after it was over, essentially, later that day to come to the full realization of what had happened. Because for those of us that were stuck in the gallery, we didn’t see the television, we didn’t see the real time coverage. So we didn’t have as much a sense of how many people had breached the Capitol, how violent the mob really was, and that was like a second wave of this sort of traumatic event for myself. And I know this is true for some of my other colleagues—when we came to understand how violent these people were and realized, gosh, look what they’re doing to armed police officers. What would they do if they got to us? And that was kind of a breathtaking moment to come to that realization as to how bad it really was and how much gratitude we all have for the Capitol Police, because they saved us. They saved our lives.

Haley: You mentioned talking to your wife, your family members, while it was happening. Has that been difficult for your family members since then, when you go to work or when you hear about some kind of rally happening?

Kildee: For sure. With my wife, with my kids, with my mom, who’s 87, I’ve had conversations with them and it’s inevitable that the question comes up like, ‘Well, do you really want to keep doing this?’ And I do. But sadly, I don’t look at the place the way I used to. This mob and the people who are now trying to rationalize this event, they’ve taken something away from all of us that it will take a long time to get back. And that is the belief in the sanctity of the institutions of our democracy. 

That’s really the thing that comes up in these conversations with my family. I’ve known this place my whole life. I mean, I’ve known the Capitol my whole adult life. I came and visited. I must have visited a hundred times or more in the years before I was a member of Congress. Probably more than that, in the hundreds. Because my uncle was a member of Congress for 36 years, and I was very close to him. He just passed away a couple months ago. 

Haley: Oh, I’m sorry. 

Kildee: Yeah, he’s a great guy. I was very close to him. I ran his political campaigns for a decade and I spent a lot of time in Washington with him. A lot of time actually sitting in that very same gallery, fascinated and enamored of this, really this temple of the most sustained democracy in the history of the world. And then to see that place desecrated and the threat of a violent insurrection pointed directly at me and others like me—they’ve just taken something very precious away that it’s going to take a long time to get back.

Haley: When you’re voting in the House chamber, where there used to be a sense of awe or some of the feelings you’re describing, how do you feel now? Is it stress? Is it cynicism? What feelings do you think have replaced how you used to feel about the building?

Kildee: I still feel that sense of awe when I walk into the building. Especially when I’ve been gone for a week or so. I still shake my head in disbelief that I get to do this work and work in this same place where so many amazing people have worked over the centuries. But the one sense that I do have is that this place is no longer guaranteed. I have always operated on the assumption that we had this magnificent self-correcting system of democracy. That we had these built-in protections that were like a fail safe. They would never fail, because the elegance of our constitutional system separates power in a way that ensures that it’ll be preserved. But I don’t feel that way anymore. I still have this sense of awe, but I also have this sense of anxiety that we came so close. I don’t think people understand how close we came to the whole thing falling apart.

That’s what’s hard to reconcile. I still love the place. I think it’s still, like I say, this sort of shrine to democratic principles. But it’s clear to me that it’s up to all of us to make sure that it’s preserved. It’s not going to preserve itself.

Haley: Early on, there were stories about Democrats grappling with how to deal with their Republican colleagues in the aftermath of the attack and the certification votes. You told Politico you were really struggling with it. You said, “I have a hard time interacting with those members right now, especially with those I had a closer relationship with,” and they were smaller people to you now. What have those relationships looked like over the past year? Have you reconciled with any Republicans? Have any of them privately expressed remorse to you?

Kildee: Not one of them has expressed any remorse. I gave up on expecting that. I did hope for it for a while. But I’ve given up on that, because I’ve come to the understanding that it’s just not going to happen. I have personally, just because this has been a really difficult year—I came to the conclusion quite a number of months ago that I’ll never look at them quite the same. They always will be smaller. But I can’t let them force me to carry the poison that they brought to the Capitol around inside me. I can’t allow that anger—that is purely, it’s totally justified—I can’t allow that anger to consume me. 

I’ve sort of worked through, in my process of getting through this, that I’m going to work with the people who will work with me. That doesn’t mean I look at them the same way as I used to, because they’ve done that. I didn’t do that. They have changed who they are. And so they have been redefined by their own actions. I can’t erase that. Only they can. 

So I do talk to them, where for a while, I couldn’t speak to these members. I just couldn’t look at them in the eye, because my anger was so fresh. But I’m now at a place where they have changed who they are. They have made themselves smaller. It’s their responsibility. But I’m sent by the constituents that I work for to go to Washington, to work with people that I disagree with, and work with people that I sometimes dislike, because that’s the job. And so I’m doing that.

Haley: A few months after the attack, you spoke publicly about having post-traumatic stress in response to all of it. How are you doing now, a year later? 

Kildee: It’s important that we demystify and destigmatize any mental health issue. I’m glad that some of my colleagues saw my reaction and realized that I probably needed to get some treatment. And so I did, and it’s made all the difference in the world. It’s helped me tremendously to deal with the trauma of that day and move past it. And I know that other of my colleagues after I was open about seeking treatment, that quite a number of them decided that they would do the same thing. I’m doing well, I guess even in some ways better than I was before the attack, just because getting that kind of support makes a difference. And I encourage anyone who’s experienced any form of trauma and had difficulty dealing with it to get the care you need. Just like if you had a broken arm, you go to a doctor to get it fixed. If you have something that is hard to deal with, you’ve got to get help. And I’m glad I did.

Haley: Is there anything you’ve added to your routine, any de-stressing activities that have been particularly helpful for you in recovering?

Kildee: For sure. A couple things. One, we have a group of us in Congress. We don’t have a very creative name for our group. We call ourselves the gallery group, and it’s that group of members that were trapped in the gallery that had that shared experience. We talk to one another on a regular basis. We’ve had group meetings, we’ve had dinners together. We’ve had discussions, we have an ongoing text chat, just comparing notes on how everybody’s doing and kind of taking care of one another. That’s become a part of our routine. And then for me, I know what I have to do in order to take care of myself, and that is not allow myself to be completely immersed in all of this. I play the drums. I’ve been a drummer my whole life, like since I was 10 years old. But I’ve never played more than I have in the last couple of years, but especially the last year. COVID and the stress that comes with COVID has contributed to that as well. But using music as an outlet has made a big difference for me, just in terms of managing my own daily routine. It’s a good outlet. It’s a physical outlet, and it’s been helpful.

Haley: There are a lot of outstanding questions about the day and leading up to it that the January 6 committee is looking into. What question do you most want to see answered by the January 6 committee?

Kildee: I want to know who was involved and to what extent the violent aspect of this was planned. It’s clear, just by anecdotal evidence, that a very good number of the people who showed up at the Capitol showed up prepared for violence. That was not some sort of a spontaneous moment. It wasn’t an accident in the moment. It was intentional. We need to know everyone who was involved in planning or encouraging the actions of that day. Both are important—planning and encouraging. The facts ought to lead wherever they lead, and we ought not stop short of anybody. And that means the former president, that means the people around him, that means members of Congress. Anybody involved in either planning, executing, or encouraging the events of that day need to be held accountable.

Haley: Is there anything else you think I should know? Anything you want to add? 

Kildee: You asked what I think about when I think about that day. I also think back to what I felt in the couple of days that followed. It was this hope that the events of January 6 would’ve broken the fever around this big confection that is the necessary condition for the event to have taken place in the first place. And that’s this complete confection of a stolen election, of the deep state manipulation, all this crazy stuff. And unfortunately the fever didn’t break. In fact, for a lot of my colleagues, they’ve decided that even though they know this is all a bunch of falsehood, they’ve decided that it’s good for their political fortunes to keep that fire burning as much as they can. Somehow believing that this time it won’t burn out of control is dangerous thinking.

Haley: You ended up in the room with the other members afterward. Do you remember during that time having conversations with your colleagues? Does anything stand out to you from those hours?

Kildee: A couple things. I had one member come up to me and say, “Oh, this is like Antifa.” And I just—get away from me. I just said, “No. No. No. No.”

Within the population generally, people are seeing two different movies here. This is the way I’ve had it described to me, and it’s probably the most apt description: the country is trying to have a conversation about the movie they just saw. And they’re standing in the lobby of the movie theater talking about the movie, and they can’t understand one another, but they don’t know that it was a multiplex. They saw two different movies. We have a part of our population that has seen a completely different movie and has a totally different narrative, and based on everything they’ve been told, they think they’re coming to a rational conclusion. But they’re not. And that’s the frightening thing.

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.