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“It Was Horrific”: A Situation Room Officer’s Harrowing Account of an American Insurrection

The situation was “surreal,” said Stiegler. But he was wary of disclosing more. “I have to be careful,” he told me. “I have been giving a lot of testimony, and I don’t know where the lines quite are.” I ventured that one of his points of contact must have been the Secret Service. He paused, then said, “That’s fair.” Which meant that he was getting real-time updates directly from the chaos in the Capitol building, as the mobs surged through the halls.

The most harrowing part?

“How close we came to losing the vice president,” he told me. He paused, then looked up at the ceiling, struggling to compose himself. “The screams, the yelling. The different things that we heard that day.” Stiegler is a young man with a cheerful disposition, but when he talked about January 6 he seemed to age before my eyes.

“It was horrific,” he said quietly. “There’s a group of us that were on duty that day, and we don’t know how to process it still…We don’t know how to talk about it. And we don’t know who to talk about it with. There are a lot of things we witnessed that day that we can’t talk about. And how do you deal with that?”

In the six decades since the creation of the Situation Room, it has been the crisis center during America’s catastrophes. The men and women of the Sit Room have dealt with nuclear scares, the assassination of a president and attempts on two others. They stayed at their posts on 9/11, when the White House itself was the target of terrorists. And they tracked and analyzed American wars that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and billions upon billions of dollars. But never before had they dealt with an insurrection against our own government, inspired by the president of the United States.

If the election certification hadn’t gone through, Stiegler told me, “I think we would have possibly seen an institution just crack, crumble. I think a lot of us would have walked out.” These staffers serve the per-son who lives in the White House, but they work for the presidency, not the president. “Your allegiance to your country supersedes your allegiance to your role,” said Stiegler. Those dueling loyalties had never been tested like this.

By the time mobs stormed the Capitol on January 6, Mike Stiegler had been serving in the Situation Room for a year and a half. It had been an exhausting time, and Stiegler was nearing the end of his emotional rope.

He’d arrived for work at the White House at 4:20 a.m. on January 6, and for the next twelve hours he endured the insanity of seeing a sitting president encourage a coup, wondering if the vice president would survive the day, and unsure whether America’s 245-year-old democratic experiment was crashing to an end.

“It was so surreal,” he says, “in the sense that you had utter chaos happening at the Capitol, and we had just witnessed all of this craziness. And you walked out of the White House grounds and nothing was happening. It was empty. There’s nobody on the streets, because all of them were blocked off at that point…It was literally a ghost town.”

The handful of Sit Room staffers who’d just finished their shifts walked slowly to their cars. “We just stood there for a few minutes,” Stiegler recalls. “It’s like when you mix cold water with hot water, you have to take a second for it to meld together to one temperature. We had to take a minute to feel, Okay, all right. Get in the car. Keep moving. Let’s get out of here.”

I asked Stiegler what he said to his wife when he got home. “I don’t, I don’t think…” he said, then had to stop. “Now you’re getting me all teary.” He took a breath. “I don’t think we even really said anything…I still don’t know how to talk about half of it.” He recalls that his wife asked if he wanted to watch the news. “I said, ‘No, don’t turn it on. I can’t right now. I can’t do it.’ And I had to go back the next day.”

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