Stephanie Murphy’s Jan. 6 Story Echoes Refugee Experience

On the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, one of Rep. Stephanie Murphy’s closest friends in Congress called her, worried about what lay ahead for them over the next few hours.

“It could be a dangerous day,” Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, recalls telling Murphy, a Florida Democrat. Sinema invited her and another colleague, Rep. Kathleen Rice, Democrat of New York, to use her hideaway—a private, unmarked space that every Senator is assigned—in case anything got sketchy. “Spend some time there, and then we’ll all connect together later.”

Hours later, Murphy and Rice had frantically found their way to Sinema’s hideaway, hoping the violent mob that had just breached the Capitol would pass them by. Sinema was taken to the underground by Capitol police, who evacuated the Senate. She then saw that protesters had been near her office and she took to Twitter to alert them. Two officers were asked to help Rice and Murphy get safer places.

They ran to the underground passage as soon as the officers found them. Sinema recalls her friends arriving with the officers. “Stephanie had a look of terror on her face,” she tells TIME. Murphy recalls feeling in shock. “I couldn’t believe that here I was, a refugee immigrant who had fled authoritarianism, now trapped in the basement of the Capitol, the place where I thought I would be safest,” she says. “The heart of our democracy.”

Murphy now serves as a member of the Capitol committee, investigating what was the most serious attack since 1812 War of 1812. She is trying to prevent another such incident from happening. Murphy’s turn will come on Tuesday after six hearings, in which the other Jan.6 members took a leading role. This is as Murphy helps lead questioning, as the committee examines the roles of violent extremist organizations, like the Proud Boy and Oath Keepers during the attack. It also examines their connections to Donald Trump and associates.

In a way, the hearing will serve as Murphy’s swan song on Capitol Hill, as she is retiring when her term ends in January. She says she’s leaving elected office to spend more time with her two young kids. “I have a very narrow timeframe to be present enough in their lives when the hard years come with hormones and bigger challenges,” she says.

Right now, though, her priority is the committee’s investigation, which has already exceeded most of Washington’s expectations for not only captivating a national audience, but for making a case for Trump’s culpability—both morally and legally—for the deadly attack.

It’s now on her to advance the committee’s probe. “I want it to be absolutely airtight,” she says of her presentation. “Backed up by very clear evidence. Credibility of this committee is very important to me. You have to be precise. We can’t exaggerate, but the reality is, we don’t need to.”

Murphy’s career and, in some cases, her whole life have been leading to this moment.

From left, Vice Chair Liz Cheney of Wyoming, Rep. Adam Schiff D-Calif. Rep. Jamie Raskin D-Md. partially obscured Rep. Adam Kinzinger R.Ill. Rep. Zoe Lofgren D-Calif. Rep. Stephanie Murphy D-Fla. and Rep. Elaine Luria D-Va. during a break from a public meeting to disclose the conclusions of a one-year long investigation into Jan. 6’s attack on U.S. Capitol.

J. Scott Applewhite—AP

Patriotism and gratitude

Murphy was born in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 1978. It was just three years after the American forces retreated from Vietnam. At the same time, the Communist-controlled government began oppressing its people. “They were sending people to work camps,” Murphy explains. “They were hard labor camps, and a lot of people didn’t survive their time in camp.”

Six months after her sixth birthday, she fled with her family by boat. It wasn’t a seamless voyage. It ran out fuel, and only had one can of water. After the vessel was captured by pirates, the U.S. Navy rescued it and transported them to Malaysia. There they were taken to a refugee camp where they could then return to American shores.

Murphy grew up in Northern Virginia but kept in touch with family members who didn’t make it out of Vietnam. Her patriotism was fueled by a deep appreciation for America’s freedoms, and the realization of what Murphy’s life would have looked like if she had not made it out.

As an undergraduate at William and Mary, she studied economics and worked at Deloitte as a strategy and operation consultant to help pay her student loans. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, she changed course, enrolling in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and then becoming a national security officer at the Department of Defense. She moved to Central Florida in 2004 with her husband after four years of civil service.

She was recruited by Democrats to challenge Rep. John Mica in 2016, a Republican that felt less vulnerable following redistricting. Her stunning win was possible thanks to the assistance of several national leaders, including President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

Murphy arrived on Capitol Hill at a time when Republicans controlled Congress and the Trump administration was working to reverse much of the Obama administration’s accomplishments. Her colleagues describe her as a no-nonsense centrist who can work well with Republicans but who doesn’t suffer fools. Because of her history of bipartisan cooperation, she was chosen to join the Jan.6 committee. “She’s very credible when she frames her arguments and her concerns for the committee,” Rep. Kurt Schrader, Democrat of Oregon, tells TIME. “It’s not we-hate-Donald-Trump type stuff. It’s about what he actually did and didn’t do.”

Murphy was informed by Nancy Pelosi (Speaker of the House) that a special committee had been formed to investigate the attack. Murphy made a big deal about it. Pelosi received a request to be selected from Murphy. It highlighted her past experiences as an authoritarian fleeing and as a defense department national security specialist. Pelosi was also spotted on the House’s floor, and Murphy gave Pelosi another push. “I told her I’d really like to be on the committee,” Murphy says. Pelosi was not committed. “As usual, she would never say anything but ‘Yes, dear.’”

A few weeks later, Murphy got word that she had made the cut in what seemed like one of those gradually-then-suddenly type of breakthroughs. It was only a few hours before House leadership would hold a press conference announcing the high-profile committee’s membership.

Democracy “Not Self-Sustaining”

The hearing Murphy will lead on Tuesday with Rep. Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland, will be the committee’s seventh so far. Earlier hearings have revealed how Trump continued to spread claims of widespread voter fraud even after multiple White House advisers told him they were not true, and how Trump pressured Pence to reject the congressional certification of Biden’s Electoral College victory. Another focused on Trump’s attempts to pressure state election officials to decertify Biden’s victories, and another on his attempts to corrupt the Justice Department to help overturn the election.

Tuesday’s hearing will come at a pivotal moment for the panel; it will be the first since the abruptly scheduled session two weeks ago, in which Cassidy Hutchinson, a top aide to former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, provided the most damning testimony against the former President to date. The panel heard from her that Trump was told by the Secret Service that his supporters had been heavily armed Jan. 6. But he instructed them to march to the Capitol, an admission that has led to former prosecutors claiming that he is now subject to criminal liability. He also wanted to march with them to the Capitol, despite White House counsel Pat Cipollone saying Trump would be “charged with every crime imaginable” if he did, Hutchinson testified.

Murphy will come to Tuesday’s hearing with the goal of revealing the convergence between White House officials and the far-right extremists who stormed the Capitol. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, vice-chair of the panel and Republican, suggested that Roger Stone was a mediator between Trump and the Oath Keepers. He was in regular communication with Meadows and Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Guiliani leading up to Jan. 6. Sources familiar with the committee’s plans say it will be fleshing out more substantive contacts between the extremist groups and Trump’s allies on Tuesday.

More than 1000 interviews were conducted and over 130,000 documents have been collected by the committee. Condensing all that into a compelling story has been among the most challenging aspects of the committee’s work, according to Murphy. “We’re showing the American people a sliver of what the entire investigation has uncovered,” she says. “And we’re trying to keep it in narrative form.”

Murphy claims that the panel also used a strategy to prevent counter-programming by Fox News and other Trump-allied media. “I think what’s been hard for Fox is that we are proving our case using Republican voices and witnesses.”

She described as “pretty weak” the argument from Republicans on Capitol Hill that Democrats are focusing on Jan. 6 to divert attention from inflation and other economic woes.

”There is nothing about investigating and understanding the facts of Jan. 6 that prevents you from doing any number of other policy and legislative things,” she says. “That’s kind of silly. That’s just them admitting they don’t know how to walk and chew gum.”

Murphy remains laser-focused on her committee work. She wants the nation to pay close attention to what it is revealing—and for Congress to move forward on its recommendations, which will be released in a report in the fall.

“We hope they’ll understand how precious and fragile democracy is and how it needs to be preserved and protected by patriots,” she says. “It’s not self-sustaining.”

That’s why, she says, she’s bent on presenting the committee’s latest findings during the Tuesday hearing as clearly as possible.

“There’s nothing more powerful for a viewer,” she says, “than to see it for themselves.”

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