Congress moved late Wednesday toward confirming President-elect Joe Biden’s victory after a mob of loyalists, urged on by President Donald Trump, stormed and occupied the Capitol, disrupting the final electoral count in a shocking display of violence that shook the core of American democracy.
There was no parallel in modern U.S. history, with insurgents acting in the president’s name vandalizing Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, smashing windows, looting art and briefly taking control of the Senate chamber, where they took turns posing for photographs with fists up on the dais where Vice President Mike Pence had just presided. Outside the building, they erected a gallows, punctured the tires of a police SUV and left a note on its windshield saying, “PELOSI IS SATAN.”
By the time the Senate reconvened, hours after lawmakers had been evacuated from a Capitol overrun by rebels carrying pro-Trump paraphernalia, one of the nation’s most polarizing moments had yielded an unexpected window of solidarity that briefly eclipsed partisan division. Republicans and Democrats alike rose to denounce the violence and express their determination to carry out what they called a constitutionally sacrosanct function.
“To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today, you did not win,” Pence said in a sharp break from Trump, who had praised the mob. “Violence never wins. Freedom wins. And this is still the people’s house.”
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, said the “failed insurrection” had only clarified Congress’ purpose. “They tried to disrupt our democracy,” he said. “They failed.”
Under pressure from their colleagues, some Republicans who had planned several hours of objections to Biden’s victory agreed to drop their challenges, though Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri was expected to press forward with a challenge to Pennsylvania’s electors. Lawmakers met into the night to debate and vote on an objection to Arizona’s results lodged just before the violence broke out in the Capitol. The challenge failed in the Senate, 93-6, killing it and signaling that any additional efforts were all but certain to be unsuccessful.
The upheaval unfolded on a day when Democrats secured a stunning pair of victories in runoff elections in Georgia, winning effective control of the Senate and the complete levers of power in Washington. And it arrived as Congress met for what would normally have been a perfunctory and ceremonial session to declare Biden’s election.
From the start, Trump’s allies, acting at his behest, had been determined to use the session to formally contest the outcome. Driving a painful wedge among Republicans, they trumpeted his false claims of voting fraud and initially gave voice inside the Capitol to those who ultimately forced their way in, stopping the process in its tracks.
Lawmakers and Pence mostly took shelter together near the Capitol, amid violent clashes between protesters and law enforcement, but small groups reported being stranded for a time in offices and hideaways throughout the building.
Capitol Police, reinforced by the FBI and National Guard in tactical gear, successfully retook the Capitol complex just before 6 p.m., after more than three hours of mayhem. Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington declared a citywide curfew from 6 p.m. Wednesday to 6 a.m. Thursday.
The siege was the climax of a weekslong campaign by Trump, filled with baseless claims of fraud and outright lies, to try to overturn a democratically decided election that he lost. He fought the result in court with dozens of spurious lawsuits that he lost. He outright pressured Republican leaders in key battleground states to reverse the will of the voters. And he fought, at last, to turn the congressional counting into the site of his final stand.
“We gather due to a selfish man’s injured pride, and the outrage of supporters who he has deliberately misinformed for the past two months and stirred to action this very morning,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and the 2012 presidential nominee, said after the chamber reconvened. “What happened here today was an insurrection incited by the president of the United States.”
Far from discouraging confrontation, Trump had encouraged his supporters earlier Wednesday to confront Republican lawmakers going against him to side with the Constitution.
“We will never concede,” he told a group of thousands gathered near the White House, inveighing against members of his own party preparing to finalize his loss as “weak Republicans, pathetic Republicans” whose leadership had gone “down the tubes.” He then repeatedly told them to march to the Capitol, where the vote tallying was about to get underway. The violence began a little more than two hours later.
In a speech just before the violence broke out, McConnell, the most powerful Republican on Capitol Hill, forcefully rebuked Trump and members of his own party, warning that the drive to overturn a legitimate election risked sending democracy into “a death spiral.”
“The voters, the courts and the states have all spoken,” said McConnell, the majority leader. “If we overrule them all, it would damage our republic forever.”
Yet even as he spoke, it was becoming clear that the vicious cycle had already been unleashed. Within an hour, McConnell was in the grip of his Capitol Police detail and being rushed out of his chamber with other senators as members of his own party chanted curses to his name.
Biden, in his own remarks, demanded that Trump intervene to tamp down an “unprecedented assault” on democracy. He called for a televised address by Trump to “fulfill his oath and defend the Constitution and demand an end to this siege.”
“This is not dissent. It’s disorder. It’s chaos. It borders on sedition, and it must end now,” Biden said. “I call on this mob to pull back and allow the work of democracy to go forward.”
Trump initially stayed quiet as the mob rampaged through the Capitol. When he did make himself heard, it was to call for support for law enforcement in a tweet that concluded, “Stay peaceful!” But not long after, he released a brief video repeating his disproved claim that “the election was stolen” and speaking in sympathetic and affectionate terms to members of the mob. Later, he absolved the mobsters of their gross assault, effectively arguing that their actions had been warranted.
“These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long,” Trump wrote Wednesday evening in a tweet, which Twitter later removed. “Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!
The mob of Trump supporters was already massing by the thousands on Capitol Hill when Congress convened in joint session at 1 p.m. Under normal circumstances, the counting of electoral votes is little more than a glorified paperwork exercise.
But with Trump’s refusal to concede, his allies had planned a series of as many as six objections to the electoral votes of battleground states Biden won, turning the session into a messy final parliamentary stand.
The president had also intensely pressured Pence, who as vice president oversees the counting, to go rogue and unilaterally throw out the votes of key battleground states Trump lost. Shortly before the session began, Pence denied him in a bold statement after four years of loyal alliance.
“I do not believe that the founders of our country intended to invest the vice president with unilateral authority to decide which electoral votes should be counted during the joint session of Congress, and no vice president in American history has ever asserted such authority,” he wrote.
Once the counting got underway, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona quickly lodged the first such objection to Gosar’s home state, sending senators and House members to their respective chambers for up to two hours of debate on Trump’s baseless fraud claims.
About 2:15 p.m., as the House and Senate separately debated the objection, security rushed Pence out of the Senate chamber, and the Capitol building was placed on lockdown after the demonstrators surged past barricades and law enforcement toward the legislative chambers.
“We now have individuals that have breached the Capitol building,” an officer told the House.
In a scene of unrest common in other countries but seldom witnessed in the history of the U.S. capital, hundreds of people in the mob barreled past fence barricades outside the Capitol and clashed with officers. Shouting demonstrators mobbed the second-floor lobby just outside the Senate chamber, as law enforcement officials placed themselves in front of the chamber doors.
For a time, senators and members of the House were locked inside their respective chambers. Just outside the locked doors, Trump’s supporters violently tussled with police. A woman inside the building was shot and later died, the District of Columbia police said, and multiple officers were injured.
As the mob closed in, senators were rushed into the well of the Senate and down into the basement, where they left the building via an underground tunnel.
“This is what you’ve gotten, guys,” Romney yelled as the Senate was first thrust into a lockdown, apparently addressing his Republican colleagues who were leading the charge to press Trump’s false claims of a stolen election.
On the other side of the Capitol, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., yelled out to Republicans on the House floor: “Call Trump, tell him to call off his revolutionary guards.”
Multiple lawmakers reported that the Capitol Police had instructed them to take cover on the House floor and prepare to use protective hoods after tear gas was dispersed in the Capitol Rotunda of the Capitol. Shortly after, police escorted senators and members of House from the building to others nearby, as the mob swarmed the hallways just steps from where lawmakers were meeting, carrying pro-Trump paraphernalia.
Rep. Nancy Mace, a freshman Republican from South Carolina, described seeing people “assaulting Capitol Police.” In a Twitter post, Mace shared a video of the chaos and wrote: “This is wrong. This is not who we are. I’m heartbroken for our nation today.”
In the early afternoon, police fired what appeared to be flash-bang grenades. Rather than disperse, the demonstrators cheered and shouted, “Push forward, push forward.” One person shouted, “That’s our house,” meaning the Capitol. Other people repeatedly shouted, “You swore an oath.”
When the violence broke out, it was Pence, sheltering in the Capitol, not Trump who approved the deployment of the D.C. National Guard, according to Defense Department officials. Trump initially rebuffed and resisted requests to mobilize forces, according to a person with knowledge of the events. It required intervention from Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, among other officials, the person said.
At the White House, officials — including two from the East Wing and a top press aide — began submitting their resignations, with more expected to follow in the coming days.
“I don’t recognize our country today, and the members of Congress who have supported this anarchy do not deserve to represent their fellow Americans,” said Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va.
Other Republicans laid responsibility squarely at the feet of the president.
“What he has done and what he has caused here is something we’ve never seen before in our history,” Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 House Republican, said on NBC. Cheney said that the chaos unleashed on Capitol Hill would “be part of his legacy.”
“What we are seeing today is a result of that — a result of convincing people that Congress was going to overturn the results of the election, a result of suggestions that he wouldn’t leave office,” she said.
Nicholas Fandos and Emily Cochrane c.2021 The New York Times Company