Congress on early Thursday morning formally affirmed President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory after a mob supporting President Trump violently broke into the Capitol the day before.
The extraordinary attack on the symbolic epicenter of the U.S.’s democracy left the building in tatters, at least one rioter dead and lawmakers in both parties shell-shocked by the unprecedented threat to their safety in a building previously thought to be virtually impenetrable.
Shortly before 4 a.m., after lawmakers formally tabulated each state’s Electoral College votes, Vice President Pence announced before a joint session of Congress that Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris had won 306 votes over Trump’s 232.
The images of chanting Trump supporters smashing windows, brawling with Capitol Police and marching unimpeded through the Rotunda quickly ricocheted around the globe, stunning Washington, the nation and the entire free world while leading to accusations from lawmakers in both parties that it was the president himself who had incited the riot.
“There is no question that the president formed the mob, the president incited the mob, the president addressed the mob,” said Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the third-ranking House Republican. “He lit the flame.”
The vote to certify the president-elect’s victory in the Electoral College, the final step before his inauguration on Jan. 20, is largely a matter of course, but party leaders in both chambers decided that delaying it, even briefly, would deliver the message that the mob had won.
Instead, they raced to finalize their votes accepting the state tallies, hoping it would send a very different signal to the stunned country: The nation’s democratic institutions remain strong even under direct attack.
“We must and we will show to the country – and indeed to the world – that we will not be diverted from our duty, that we will respect our responsibility to the Constitution and to the American people,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said while presiding over the House floor.
“The United States Senate will not be intimidated. We will not be kept out of this chamber by thugs, mobs or threats. We will not bow to lawlessness or intimidation,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said as he reconvened the upper chamber Wednesday night.
The day’s proceedings were extraordinary even before the arrival of the violent mob, as more than 100 of Trump’s closest allies in both chambers had vowed to challenge the election results in as many as six battleground states where they claimed, without evidence, that fraud had been rampant.
The House and Senate were less than an hour into separately debating the first GOP objection to a state that Biden won – Arizona – when the rioters breached nearby office buildings and eventually the Capitol itself.
Both chambers went into recess for more than 5 1/2 hours as law enforcement struggled to contain the chaos unfolding inside the Capitol. The mobs breached the Senate chamber, broke the glass of one of the center doors leading into the House chamber and vandalized Pelosi’s office nearby.
Terror and chaos reigned at the Capitol as lawmakers, staff and reporters in the House and Senate chambers were told to hide under their seats, given gas masks and eventually evacuated.
One of the rioters who broke into the Senate chamber sat in the chair on the dais reserved for the presiding officer while yelling in support of Trump. Another swung from the base of the visitor’s gallery, while a third was seen with his feet propped up on a desk in Pelosi’s office.
In the House chamber, police officers drew guns and improvised by placing heavy furniture against the central door to prevent the mob from making its way inside, where lawmakers, staff and journalists were scrambling for cover.
D.C. police confirmed that one unnamed woman was shot inside the Capitol and later died. Three other people – a woman and two men – died after apparently suffering “separate medical emergencies” near the Capitol grounds.
Numerous Capitol Police officers were also injured.
The rioters were mostly maskless despite the raging COVID-19 pandemic and some carried Confederate flags.
Both the House and Senate ultimately voted late Wednesday to reject the challenge to Arizona’s electoral votes on a bipartisan basis. That outcome was expected, but the day’s shocking events acted to diminish the number of Republican objectors.
Still, 121 Republicans in the House and six in the Senate voted to challenge Arizona’s results. Hours later, the House and Senate beat back a challenge to Pennsylvania’s result by similar margins. The Senate rejected it by 92-7, while the House voted 282-138.
When Wednesday began, at least 14 GOP senators and more than 100 House Republicans had been set to challenge the results under pressure from Trump.
An objection must be made by at least one lawmaker in each chamber in order to trigger two hours of debate and a vote. GOP senators and House members had planned to also launch objections to Georgia, but ultimately backed down after the day’s chaos.
“When I arrived in Washington this morning, I fully intended to object to the certification of the electoral votes. However, the events that have transpired today have forced me to reconsider and I cannot now, in good conscience, object,” Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), who lost reelection in a runoff the night before, announced on the Senate floor.
Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) was even more terse, saying the day’s events “changed things drastically.”
“Whatever point you made before that should suffice,” Braun said. “Let’s get this ugly day behind us.”
The Capitol Police said earlier in the week that it would have extra officers on duty in anticipation of mass protests over the Electoral College count. But those reinforcements weren’t enough as the mobs breached the barricades, pushed past officers in riot gear and entered the building through broken windows.
Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller said the full District of Columbia National Guard, representing 1,100 troops, would be deployed to help assist with containing the riots. The governors of Virginia and Maryland also sent state troopers and members of the National Guard ahead of a 6 p.m. curfew established by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.
In the days leading up to Wednesday’s Electoral College votes, Trump had bashed the election process as inherently corrupt, framing Biden’s win as a fraud and encouraging his supporters to come to Washington to protest. Shortly before the Capitol was stormed on Wednesday, he had addressed thousands of those supporters outside the White House, vowing never to concede defeat and urging the crowd to march on the Capitol.
“You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” he told the cheering crowd. “You have to show strength and you have to be strong.”
After the smoke – literal and figurative – cleared, members of both parties cast blame on Trump for egging on rioters to protest at the Capitol and continuing to falsely claim that he lost the election due to voter fraud.
“It was a tragic day and he was part of it,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told reporters when asked if Trump bore responsibility. “I think it put many people on notice that we have to be more careful and more thoughtful in how we deal with each other and how we safeguard the democracy and the freedoms we have.”
As the violence unfolded, Democrats, Republicans and former White House officials alike pleaded with Trump to defuse the mayhem by urging his supporters to leave the Capitol premises.
Trump later tweeted a video telling his supporters to “go home” but added: “We love you, you’re very special.” He also amplified the fallacious claims that the election was stolen.
The backlash was swift.
Numerous Democrats called for another round of impeachment proceedings or for invocation of the Constitution’s 25th Amendment to immediately remove Trump from office, even though he is set to leave the White House in two weeks, when Biden is inaugurated.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said she will draw up articles of impeachment against Trump, who was impeached by the Democratic-controlled House in December 2019 over pressuring the Ukrainian government to open an investigation into Biden.
Lawmakers further called for prosecuting the rioters and investigating why the Capitol Police failed to control the situation.
“The breach today at the U.S. Capitol raises grave security concerns,” House Administration Committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said in a statement, adding that she intends to have her panel work with House and Senate leadership of both parties “to address these concerns and review the response in coming days.”
But most of all, Wednesday’s chaos marked a dark day for American democracy that lawmakers warned will set back the nation’s reputation before the rest of the world and take work to repair.
The Capitol itself bore physical damage hours after law enforcement cleared the rioters out of the building. Wednesday marked the first time that a violent group breached the Capitol since the British in August 1814, according to the U.S. Capitol Historical Society.
The door leading to the Capitol Rotunda from the East Front steps where the mob broke a security barrier bore glass cracks and what appeared to be bullet marks. A glass door adorning the entrance of the Speaker’s Lobby outside the House chamber was also cracked.
And in the Rotunda itself, rioters’ litter still remained along the walls, including a Trump flag, protein bars and water bottles. The floors in the Rotunda and surrounding the House and Senate chambers were covered in dirt with shoe marks.
“This will be a stain on our country not so easily washed away,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). “But we are a resilient, forward-looking and optimistic people. And we will begin the hard work of repairing this nation tonight.”