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Uphill: AOC's January 6 Account
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Uphill: AOC’s January 6 Account

Plus: Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene is removed from her committees.

Good morning. It’s been a long week. Senate Democrats kickstarted the budget reconciliation process overnight, which will enable them to pass a coronavirus stimulus package without GOP support. I’ve written about that too much recently though, so we’ll take a break from it today. 

Clearing up Some Confusion

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told the story of her January 6 experience during an informal Instagram Live appearance earlier this week. The video has been viewed more than five million times as of this morning. Partly because of her narrative style—but primarily due to the embarrassing press handling of what she actually said—there has been a lot of confusion about her remarks. Uphill readers who don’t spend much time online are probably feeling fuzzy about the details. Even if you do spend a lot of time online, it’s possible you’re not exactly sure what to make of everything you’ve seen. I feel like I have a grasp of the situation only because I watched her remarks live. 

In the past couple of days, we’ve seen a lot of misinformation going around about this. Alec did a great fact check of some of the claims involved yesterday. But we think it’s also worth taking a deeper look at how journalists approached this situation, and how we got to where we are now.

In her Instagram Live video, Ocasio-Cortez said she was in her office that day when she heard someone pounding on the doors. She thought it was an attacker. She hid behind the door of her bathroom, and she could hear a man yelling, “Where is she? Where is she?” She said she feared for her life in those moments. 

Reporters who were watching the feed tweeted about her remarks in real time. From everything she had said up to that point, it sounded like members of the mob had broken into her office while Ocasio-Cortez and one of her staff members were there. I tweeted based on that early impression too. It was the first we had heard of an instance in which a member of Congress had been in such direct danger alone in their office on January 6. 

Ocasio-Cortez was still telling the story, though. A couple of minutes later, she revealed the man was a Capitol Police officer who wanted her and the staffer to evacuate the building.

I deleted my tweet about the man breaking in when she said he was a Capitol Police officer, because that is obviously a pretty key detail. I posted about the new information after hearing more. Other reporters sort of treated it as an “oh, plot twist!” moment and just replied to their earlier posts. Of course, those follow-ups weren’t seen or shared as widely as the earlier ones. Some journalists who weren’t watching her comments live simply didn’t see the new details or didn’t bother to correct themselves. Video of only the beginning of her story spread quickly online. Much of the media coverage the next day either glossed over the details of the interaction, treated the fact that it was a police officer—not a rioter—as a side note, or ignored the man’s identity altogether.

In one particularly egregious example, an NBC News segment that aired on the Today Show the following morning included Ocasio-Cortez’s description of hiding in her bathroom and her initial perception of what was happening—that a member of the mob was breaking in. But the segment didn’t mention that the man turned out to be a Capitol Police officer, even though Ocasio-Cortez said so during her Instagram Live. It simply skipped over that part, jumping to the moment when Ocasio-Cortez described hunkering down in Rep. Katie Porter’s office in a different building after her encounter. Any viewer who saw the segment came away believing a member of the mob had broken into Ocasio-Cortez’s office while she was there and she had somehow escaped. 

I pointed out this failure to report the true facts of the situation on Twitter. Shortly afterward, the Today Show quietly deleted its tweet containing a video of the segment.

A different version of the segment is now available on the Today Show’s website. In that version, which is almost exactly the same, a new line has been added: “When Ocasio-Cortez came out of the bathroom, there was a Capitol Police officer there.” The segment then proceeds along the same lines, discussing the time the congresswoman spent in Porter’s office. The new line mentioning the Capitol Police officer does little to clear up any confusion viewers may have had the first time around. They may ask: Did the Capitol Police officer rescue her from the member of the mob who broke in? The segment does not directly state that the man pounding on the doors and yelling was the Capitol Police officer.

Ocasio-Cortez said during her Instagram stream that the officer seemed hostile and he did not announce himself as Capitol Police when he was trying to get in. She cast doubt on his motivations and questioned why he told her to leave the building without sending her to a specific location. “The situation did not feel okay,” she said, describing it as volatile.

What she outlined—being uncertain about who was barging into her office and yelling about where she was, hiding in the bathroom and having final thoughts about her life as she worried about being killed, and later finding out it was a police officer who was telling her to leave without providing information about what was happening—sounds terrifying. Her feelings about the potential danger of the situation are valid, and it’s evident this was a source of trauma.

Law enforcement officers aren’t beyond scrutiny: Some are under investigation for their actions that day. Still, it’s important not to simply assume the officer had bad intentions. Scores of Capitol Police officers were injured by the rioters in their efforts to protect the complex. One, Brian Sicknick, died after engaging with the attackers.

It’s worth asking questions about how the officer who told Ocasio-Cortez to evacuate behaved in the moment, even if he was not intentionally trying to be aggressive. That conversation is obviously not possible if many, many people are confused about what actually happened and believe the man in question was a member of the mob. 

We can also take a look at what happened that day to try to understand what precipitated Ocasio-Cortez’s encounter with the officer.

Ocasio-Cortez’s office is in the Cannon building. It was publicly reported that afternoon, before the mob had broken into the Capitol, that police officers were sprinting through the hallways of Cannon and going door-to-door to evacuate people because viable pipe bombs had been found nearby. The timing outlined in the congresswoman’s story seems to align with the timing of the Cannon evacuation. 

One House staffer for a different Democratic representative told The Dispatch that what Ocasio-Cortez described is almost exactly the same as his experience when the Cannon building was evacuated that day. 

“It was bizarre,” the staffer said. “Really confrontational and super jarring.”

“When they started pounding on our door, staff immediately thought someone was trying to break into our office,” the aide said. He added that they were all surprised to find an officer who directed them to leave the building through the tunnels: “He did not answer any of our questions about what was going on or tell us exactly where to go.”

This sheds some light on some of the circumstances behind Ocasio-Cortez’s story, and it could explain some of the urgency with which the officer acted.

Because of the widespread confusion about what she actually said, much of the right-wing pushback to her story in the days since has really been in response to bits and pieces of her account taken out of context. Some have raised fair questions about her reaction to the officer and her perception of him as hostile. But most have argued against a false version of her story instead.

“People will believe this crap. Some already do,” said Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who also ignored the detail about the officer in his segment. “Anyone who was physically present at the Capitol that day knows it’s ridiculous,” he said. “There were no rioters in Sandy Cortez’s hallway.” 

Again, Ocasio-Cortez didn’t actually claim there were rioters in her hallway. Many of her own supporters also appeared not to understand this fact early on because they had seen only snippets of information instead of watching the entire Instagram Live.

All of this confusion could have been avoided. Ocasio-Cortez may bear some of the blame for how she delivered the story, and some of it is the natural result of using such an informal platform to discuss it. But it is primarily the responsibility of the press to ensure coverage is accurate about what she really said. 

This mess is largely on reporters and the low-effort aggregation sites that picked up their tweets and ambiguous coverage. There likely still would have been some level of misinformation and misleading viral tweets even if the media had done a better job, but news outlets could have helped clarify the situation instead of confusing readers even more. 

We in the media tried to cover Ocasio-Cortez’s story while she was still telling it. Many of us jumped to conclusions. And as a whole, we weren’t good at recognizing that failure or correcting the record. 

Other, more ridiculous attacks on her story have gained traction in the past couple of days, as different understandings of her account have persisted. Some conservative outlets have observed that the Cannon office building is not the same as the Capitol building itself. 

“AOC wasn’t even in the Capitol building where all the action was going down. If she was in her office, she was in the Cannon Building which is nearby, but a different building. But of course, many didn’t get the logistics and just assumed that she was in the Capitol building,” a writer for RedState said.

Ocasio-Cortez was open about the fact that she was in her office. People didn’t assume she was in the Capitol building unless they didn’t watch any of her remarks. This is not some “gotcha” revelation, and the idea that lawmakers were not actually in any danger during the attack because some of them were in their offices instead of the House chamber is foolish. The office buildings are a short walk from the Capitol. They are connected to the Capitol through basement tunnels. And, as I mentioned above, the building that houses her office was evacuated because of bombs found nearby

Members of Congress from both parties—those whose office buildings weren’t evacuated—spent hours barricaded in their offices during the insurrection because they weren’t sure whether members of the mob would come their way. (Kentucky Republican Rep. Thomas Massie recounted his experience to The Dispatch. He and his staff hunkered down with a gun, prepared to defend themselves against attackers.) 

Many of the hot takes about the episode insinuate that Ocasio-Cortez was not in any real danger during the riots. Lawmakers from both parties were in danger. That’s just a fact. It’s separate from the story she told about the police officer. The mob wanted to stop the transition of power. They chanted about hanging former Vice President Mike Pence. 

To state the obvious, Ocasio-Cortez also isn’t very popular among rabid, violent Trump fans: A Texas man who is facing charges for allegedly participating in storming the Capitol tweeted “assassinate AOC” after posting pictures of himself during the riot. Others said they wanted to target House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

While we’re here, muddling our way through the events of January 6, I might as well repeat this: Capitol Police leaders still haven’t provided a detailed account of what happened that day. They still haven’t taken questions from reporters. They need to.

Marjorie Taylor Greene Booted From Committees

In other news, the House voted yesterday to remove freshman GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene from her committee assignments.

Greene, who had been appointed to the House Education and Labor Committee and the House Budget Committee, will now have significantly reduced power in the House. Democratic leaders made the move in response to her statements supporting unhinged conspiracy theories like QAnon and her comments questioning whether school shootings had been faked. She’s also indicated support for executing top Democrats.

The resolution passed with a vote of 230-199.Eleven Republicans—Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, Brian Fitzpatrick, Carlos Gimenez, Chris Jacobs, John Katko, Young Kim, Adam Kinzinger, Nicole Malliotakis, Maria Salazar, Chris Smith, and Fred Upton—joined Democrats in supporting it. 

Greene said Thursday that she regrets her interest in QAnon and posting about it online. She said she later stopped believing in QAnon and “walked away from those things.” She also affirmed that “school shootings are absolutely real” and “9/11 absolutely happened.” Greene previously raised doubts about whether a plane actually hit the Pentagon that day.

“These were words of the past, and these things do not represent me. They do not represent my district, and they do not represent my values,” she said.

Her remarks, which did not contain an actual apology, came after she made a similar statement during a private meeting with House Republicans Wednesday night. 

GOP leaders opposed the effort to remove her from both committees. By declining to take action himself, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy exposed his members to an uncomfortable vote on the matter. 

Sen. Mitt Romney told CNN yesterday that he thinks McCarthy’s handling of the situation “was a mistake,” adding that he wishes the California Republican had taken a stronger stance.

In 2019, McCarthy removed former Rep. Steve King from his committees after King asked during an interview with the New York Times why the phrases “white nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization” were seen as offensive. Republicans argued Greene’s incendiary comments are different from King’s because they came before she was a member of the House. 

Republicans who opposed the measure also raised concerns about the precedent it will set for the House majority to remove a member of the minority from their committees, when the minority party has had the longstanding power to choose its own members’ committee assignments. Rep. Tom Cole, the top Republican on the Rules Committee, said during floor debate that when Republicans win back the majority, the temptation “will be overwhelming” for the GOP to take similar action against House Democrats. 

Democratic leaders said they are not worried about the precedent.

“The new precedent here is that a member of this House is calling for assassinations. That’s the new precedent,” Rules Committee Chair Jim McGovern said. “If that’s the standard that we remove people from committees, I’m fine with that.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters that he views it as an extraordinary situation. 

“She has placed many members in fear for their welfare,” he said.

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Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.