Jan. 6 officer: Republicans would "keep us from protecting the Capitol" if Trump tries another coup

Sgt. Aquilino Gonell defended the Capitol on Jan. 6. Now he's defending himself from Republicans in Congress

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published December 18, 2023 5:30AM (EST)

US Capitol Police officer Sgt. Aquilino Gonell, DC Metropolitan Police Department officer Michael Fanone, DC Metropolitan Police Department officer Daniel Hodges and US Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn are sworn-in before testifying during the Select Committee investigation of the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, during their first hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on July 27, 2021. (OLIVER CONTRERAS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
US Capitol Police officer Sgt. Aquilino Gonell, DC Metropolitan Police Department officer Michael Fanone, DC Metropolitan Police Department officer Daniel Hodges and US Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn are sworn-in before testifying during the Select Committee investigation of the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, during their first hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on July 27, 2021. (OLIVER CONTRERAS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

On Jan. 6, 2021, then-President Donald Trump and his agents attempted a coup. Central to Trump’s coup attempt was an assault by his MAGA followers on the Capitol, where the goal was to stop the certification of the election and to keep him in power. As revealed by direct witnesses and as shown by his behavior and statements, Trump wanted to lead a march on the Capitol like a conquering dictator. After an hours-long battle, Trump’s MAGA followers succeeded in overrunning the Capitol. Five police officers would die as a result of this terrorist attack. 138 others were injured. In many ways, Jan. 6 was a trial run and proof of concept for a future coup attempt by the neofascists and their allies here in America.

These are the plain facts.

In her book ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism," Hannah Arendt warned:

The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth, and truth be defamed as lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world - and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end - is being destroyed.

To that point, Trump, the MAGA people, the Republican fascists, and his other propagandists and agents are actively rewriting the events of Jan. 6 (and American history more broadly) as part of their Big Lie about the 2020 Election. For example, Speaker Mike Johnson has ordered that the faces of Trump’s Jan. 6 MAGA attack force be blurred in video surveillance footage as a way of protecting them from being prosecuted for their crimes by the Department of Justice.

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Capitol Hill police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell defended the Capitol on Jan. 6 from Trump’s MAGA attack force. He is a firsthand witness to history and will carry the physical and emotional trauma and scars from that day with him for the rest of his life. A Dominican immigrant, former U.S. Army soldier, and Iraq War veteran, Gonell has been a Capitol Hill police officer for the past 17 years and was one of four police officers who testified before the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 insurrection. He’s been recently featured in The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, NPR, CBS Mornings, NBC News, Fox-TV, MSNBC, The Daily Beast, The Hill, and Rolling Stone.

Sgt. Gonell’s new book (with co-author Susan Shapiro) is "American Shield: The Immigrant Sergeant Who Defended Democracy."

In this conversation, Gonell shares what it is like to see the very same Republicans in Congress whose lives he and the other Capitol Police protected on Jan. 6 now betray them by supporting Trump and his coup attempt. Gonell explains his disgust at seeing the Jan. 6 terrorists being feted as “heroes” and “patriots” and “political prisoners” by Trump and the other neofascists — and to know that he and his fellow Capitol police would be in great danger if Trump were to return to power in 2025.  At the end of this conversation, Gonell implores Trump’s followers to understand that the ex-president is a selfish and dangerous man who does not care anything about them and only values power and his own ego.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length

How are you feeling given all that happened on Jan. 6 and your journey so far?

I'm doing okay considering the circumstances of everything that I have gone through and everything that has happened since January 6. I have made a lot of strides in terms of treatment for my injuries, both physical and mental. But it's ongoing for me because I am still involved with investigations, trial cases, going to court to give my victim statements and to testify as well. 

How is your personal trauma connected to the trauma that Jan. 6 and the Age of Trump caused, and is continuing to cause, the country and the American people?

There is a not small part of the American public, the Republicans and Trump supporters almost mostly, who say that nothing bad happened that day on Jan. 6. And some of them who admit Jan. 6 was real will say that it wasn't as bad as I and the other officers who were there say it was. That we are lying, and my injuries are not as severe as I say they are. But some of the same people who are saying those ridiculous things are the very same people who I risked my life for on that day at the Capitol. How can you reconcile that? I risked my life to protect you and then you turn around and say, "well, these were my friends. These were my supporters. It's okay. We condone the violence on Jan. 6 because of that."

"These Republicans claim to support the police and the rule of law, but they are demanding that the same people who assaulted me should be freed."

This all involves a type of physical, mental, emotional — and moral injury.

I did my job that day. I kept my oath. When the Republicans I protected that day reject what happened or minimize it or make excuses they are saying that my sacrifices were not necessary. That puts a heavy weight on you. Jan. 6 was a type of Pearl Harbor event. I expect the country and those Republican members of Congress to comport themselves like we as a nation responded after 9-11 or Pearl Harbor: we should be rallying against a common enemy. Instead of rallying around the officers and supporting them, these Republicans and other Trump supporters are defending the indefensible.

Some of the same Republicans who were running for their lives on Jan. 6, who me and the other Capitol Police were risking our lives to defend, are now saying that the Jan. 6 mob are "political prisoners" or "peaceful protesters" and should be released. These Republicans claim to support the police and the rule of law, but they are demanding that the same people who assaulted me should be freed. The so-called "pro-law enforcement" people on the right say we are crybabies or call us other names when we point out the hypocrisy. Don't claim to support the police or "back the blue" if you want to protect the people on Jan. 6 who were attacking us and trying to keep Trump in power. 

How do you think the Republicans who were there on Jan. 6 (and more broadly who still have the ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy) are reconciling their lies about that day? 

I don't know. Why don't I know? Because they've never spoken to me. So, I don't know what their thoughts are, other than what I hear them say on TV and in public more generally. But I do know how they felt that day on Jan. 6 and in the days afterward.

Those Republicans knew that Trump was responsible for putting their lives at risk.  They know that Trump put our democracy and our standing in the world as a nation at risk. They know Trump wants to be a dictator. He is outright saying it directly now. Trump is not going to be a dictator just a day as he is claiming. Trump wants to be a dictator forever. What is there to stop him?

Now those Republicans are defending Trump's threats of being a dictator, by saying that he is just joking. Was Trump joking on Jan. 6 about "stop the steal"? Was Trump joking when he sent his followers to attack the Capitol and go after them? Those Republicans were running for their lives. They are more afraid of being voted out of office than they are telling the truth about Jan. 6 and Trump. By comparison, I was willing to lose my life in order to protect those Republicans in Congress. Frankly, if another Jan. 6 took place, I would not trust these Republicans to not betray me and the other police. Would the Republicans keep us from protecting the Capitol from Trump's followers? Yes. Perhaps even restrain us and hold us down? Yes, I believe they would.   

It is important to confront lies with the truth and the facts — even when the lies and malign distortions are so obvious and ridiculous. What would you say to the average Fox News viewer or other person who lives in TrumpWorld and the MAGAverse who actually believes that Jan. 6 was not violent? Or that you and the other police who were there are exaggerating?

Nothing happened to who? The members of Congress who were running for their lives? The members of Congress and their families and staff who were hiding, trying to get to refuge? I can show them pictures of my bloodied and bruised body. I got hit by someone who stole a police baton. I can show them evidence of that. 

I'll show you my pictures and videos. I can show them my medical bills for my mental therapy and physical therapy. I have three years of evidence. For those who want us to forget Jan. 6 and just move on well they should tell Donald Trump to just move on because he is campaigning right now on his Big Lies about the 2020 Election.

Speaker Johnson and the other Republican fascists and Trump supplicants are literally rewriting history as we speak. They are now blurring the faces of Trump's MAGA attack force in the video footage of Jan. 6 in order to protect them from prosecution.    

These are the same people who claim to be the party of the rule of law. It is ridiculous. Speaker of the House Johnson, one of the leaders of the Republicans and third in line to the presidency, then goes on to say that they are going to blur out the images of the faces of the people inside the Capitol, that breached the Capitol, because he doesn't want them to be prosecuted and arrested. If Johnson or any of his Republican colleagues would have gotten hurt on January 6, then they would have a different perspective on what the rule of law is, and how Trump's mob deserves to be punished. They are trying to whitewash and rewrite history.

What of the lie that Trump's MAGA attack force was "peaceful" and that they were let into the Capitol on Jan. 6 by the police, which supposedly means that no crimes were committed?

There were barriers and fences with signage telling people to keep out. There were police telling the mob to stay away. Police were blocking them with bike ranks and other barriers. Trump's people breached the Capitol. They didn't care about the signs. They cut down the fences. They removed the bike racks. They remove the barriers. They disregarded the lawful commands of officers, including myself. Trump's mob assaulted police officers in order to get as far as they did inside of the Capitol. The Capitol was on lockdown for the transfer of power. The Capitol was also restricted and closed to the public due to COVID-19 protocols that were in place around the country. Some of these people and their defenders say things such as, "they were given permission because nobody arrested them." That is illogical and ridiculous too. There were not enough police officers to stop everyone. If a person did not receive direct explicit permission to be in the Capitol that day they were trespassing. It is that simple.

And if you got into the Capitol building through a window you are the equivalent of a thief or vandal breaking into a building you don't belong in. There are other members of Trump's mob on Jan. 6 that say things like "well, we were peaceful!". They are still breaking the law because they are interfering with police business and the law. There is also the excuse and defense that if we were really breaking the law on Jan. 6 the police would have shot us. Would that have mattered at all? Each officer was outnumbered more than 50 to 1. How many rounds do we have in our guns without reloading? Not close to enough. That crowd did not go through security. They were armed. Shooting them would not have worked. 

Do you believe that the reaction by the police to Trump's followers on Jan. 6 would have been different if they were Black and brown or Muslims?

I believe the reaction would have been the same. In my case, I did have the thought of using lethal force, especially when they were trying to pull me into the mob. I wasn't afraid to use lethal force and any repercussions from that. I was in the right and my use of lethal force would have been justified. I was certain of that. I decided to try to use my free hand to escape, to get that person to let me go. Luckily, a fellow officer showed up to help free me from the mob. If I could not have gotten away from the mob I would have transitioned to lethal force. The officers there had the opportunity and justification to use lethal force, but we collectively chose not to. It would have been justified.

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In the end, we decided that it would have made things worse because none of those people have been screened for weapons. I also believe that the mob outside was waiting for us to shoot first. We showed lots of restraint on Jan. 6. If we had fired, the mob would have escalated to shooting back and even worse. We now know that Trump and his allies had plans to declare martial law, to invoke the Insurrection Act. If we had used lethal force on Jan. 6 that would have played right into Trump's hands and matters would have been even worse.

Trump has declared the Jan. 6 terrorists and other criminals to be "heroes" and "political prisoners." He is basically saying that he is going to pardon them when/if he returns to power. Trump has also endorsed prosecuting the Capitol police who defended the country on Jan. 6. How are you processing this?

I did what I was supposed to do on Jan. 6. I did my job that day. I protected the Capitol. I protected my colleagues. And I did it without thinking about who I was doing it for. I protected everyone in that Capitol regardless of their party affiliation or anything else. Think about it in terms of the metaphor of a loose bullet. Once you fire a gun you cannot guarantee where the bullet is going to go and what or who it is going to hit. The bullet doesn't care whether you are Republican, Democrat, independent, gay, straight, religious or not. The bullet doesn't care about your views on abortion or gun laws. Trump's mob was the bullet. That mob was trying to kill everyone inside the Capitol on Jan. 6.

If some of the Republicans had died that day from the mob and that attack, it would have had a profound impact on how they view the events of Jan. 6. It would radically change their views about patriotism, Trump, politics, and many other things including facts and reality and the Big Lie about the 2020 Election. 

How do you think January 6 will be remembered given how Trump and his agents in the Republican Party are literally rewriting the history of that day to fit their twisted and evil vision?

It is Jan. 6 denialism. It is erasing and rewriting history to serve a lie.

There is that famous poem about the Holocaust, which reads something like first they came for this group and then they came for that group. I didn't say anything. Then at the end they come for you and there is one to protect you. At the end, if you deny what Trump is, and what he is trying to do as a dictator, then you will have no one to blame but yourself when Trump and his MAGA followers come after you. Trump is not a cult leader in my opinion. His followers know exactly what they are doing and why they support him with all of his threats of revenge and retribution.

For you, what does it mean to be a patriot?

I did my job on Jan. 6. I don't look at what I did as something that was patriotic. I was doing what my job requires me to do. Some people take that oath to heart, other people do not. When I joined the military, I bought into the American values and principles, and no one is above the law. Everybody's held responsible for the action; everybody is treated equally. Of course, that is an ideal. My record as a police officer and a member of the military speaks for itself. I would treat Trump supporters or Hillary Clinton supporters the same way. The same goes for Black Lives Matter, Antifa, or any group. I would and have consistently done my job fairly as a Capitol police officer.

The hypocrisy here by the Republicans and other Trump followers is obvious and gross: if I did the same things I did on Jan. 6 and the mob consisted of Black Lives Matter or Antifa they would support me and declare me a hero, backing me 100 percent. But Trump's mob are their people. Republican supporters and voters, so they see events the opposite way.

I can sleep soundly. My conscience is clear. I will tell Trump's supporters this about duty and responsibility: I am more likely to go inside of a burning building to rescue you than the former president, a dictator wannabe who you support. Trump would pretend to not even know you and then throw some more gasoline on the building to finish you off. Trump isn't your champion. If Trump takes over and wants to put me in jail for doing my job on Jan. 6, then they know where to find me. 

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Aquilino Gonell Capitol Hill Police Coup Democracy Crisis Donald Trump Fascism Interview Jan. 6 Republicans