Despite the chaotic, violent storming of the United States Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump, a joint session of the United States Congress formally recognized Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election early Thursday morning.
Congress had gathered Wednesday to fulfill its constitutionally prescribed role of counting the electoral votes that were submitted by the states last month, and they conducted their count properly: Biden won 306 electoral votes, and Trump won 232.
Initially, most expected the day’s main drama would lie in an effort from Trump’s congressional allies to object to the results from certain states. It was always evident that those objections would fail, but Trump stoked his supporters’ hopes that the day would somehow turn in his favor — for instance, through some dramatic intervention of Vice President Mike Pence, who presided over the proceedings.
But Pence understood that he had no such power to interfere with the count, and he finally deigned to make that clear publicly just as Congress was about to begin its session at 1 pm Eastern. A crowd of thousands soon gathered outside the Capitol, in part because Trump had encouraged attendees at a rally to head over there.
The count had barely gotten underway — Congress was in the midst of dealing with Trump allies’ objection to Arizona’s results — when a mob shoved past security and forcibly entered the US Capitol. So the count was halted for what turned out to be six hours, as law enforcement tried to ensure Congress members’ security and clear the building.
No members of Congress were hurt, but four people died during the storming of the building, according to DC police — a Trump supporter who was shot by a Capitol Police officer, and three others who died of medical complications. Trump was slow to discourage the chaos (reports suggest he welcomed it) and only told protesters to go home after they’d been in the building for two hours. Twitter soon locked Trump’s account because of this.
Finally, Congress reconvened shortly after 8 pm Eastern. Members concluded their debate and voted on the objection to Arizona’s results. The Senate voted it down 93-6, and the House voted it down 303-121. The events of the day did spur some GOP senators to drop their plans to object to Georgia’s results, speeding up the process. But Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) stood by his plans to object to Pennsylvania’s results, forcing another failed vote.
In the end, Biden got all the electoral votes to which he was entitled. But that won’t really be what the day is remembered for. Rather, the spectacle of thousands of the president’s supporters disrupting the United States’ peaceful transition of power — however briefly — could haunt the country for some time.
The disturbing events even started a new round of discussion about whether Trump should be involuntarily removed from office or deprived of his powers before his term expires at noon on January 20. And the answer may depend on how Trump chooses to act in his final two weeks.
The storming of the Capitol was the culmination of months’ worth of lies and conspiracy theories about a supposedly stolen election spread by President Trump — lies that were often indulged or left unchallenged by top Republicans.
To the GOP’s (very limited) credit, their swing state governors, state officials, and state legislative leaders refused to use their institutional powers to actually help Trump steal the election. Republican-appointed judges also largely spurned Trump’s flurry of frivolous lawsuits.
But before January 6, relatively few in the party had the courage to openly debunk or challenge Trump’s false claims. Some happily embraced them (whether out of genuine belief or cynical political expedience); others rolled their eyes and avoided comment. (In a now-infamous quote, an anonymous senior Republican official told the Washington Post back in early November, “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change.”)
The problem is that not everyone was in on the joke — as those storming the Capitol, many of whom voiced belief in the stolen election or in other, QAnon-related conspiracy theories, made clear.
For the past two months, Trump’s effort to overturn Biden’s win has focused on various legal mechanisms — state certifications, the makeup of state elector slates, lawsuits filed in court, attempts to reject state results in Congress, and Trump’s cockamamie idea that Pence could unilaterally change the results. Most of these had already failed, and the Congress-focused efforts were on track to fail Wednesday.
Now, the means of Trump’s election-stealing effort flirted with illegality — particularly when he tried to pressure Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” votes for him. And there was talk, particularly from Trump ally Michael Flynn, that the president could go even further, for instance, by using the military to order a new election.
But the storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters egged on by the president himself was a wholly extralegal attempt to disrupt the transition of power. The question is whether it’s a one-off or the harbinger of a new phase.
In addition to being menacing, the specifics of the spectacle that unfolded Wednesday were bizarre.
Large-scale protests are not an uncommon thing in the nation’s capital, and around the Capitol complex in particular. Law enforcement officials understand perfectly well how to lock down an area, should they wish to do so.
But for unclear reasons — perhaps due to poor planning and an utter underestimation of the threat — Capitol police allowed large groups of protesters to get extraordinarily close to the building, and as a result, they eventually forced their way in.
This was preventable with better planning and security, and there will surely be recriminations for law enforcement officials about why they dropped the ball here. The answer is not yet clear, though the Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig, Aaron Davis, Dan Lamothe, and David Fahrenthold have begun digging into that question. Already, lawmakers have called for investigations into the Capitol Police’s actions.
The flip side is, despite this gigantic security failure, officials got quite lucky that there wasn’t far more violence. If it eventually proved so easy to get into the Capitol, after all, why couldn’t people get in with deadlier weaponry? Even if most did not intend to harm anyone, it only takes a few to create a bloodbath.
And some people apparently wanted violence. DC’s metropolitan police chief, Robert Contee, said law enforcement discovered pipe bombs near the Democratic and Republican National Committee buildings, and a cooler of Molotov cocktails near the Capitol building, according to WUSA9.
It’s an ominous reminder that things could have been much worse — and that they could still get worse in the days ahead.
The behavior of the president of the United States throughout all this was alarming.
In addition to inciting his supporters to go to the Capitol in the first place, once they did break into the building, he refused requests to convene the National Guard to help restore security, according to the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman and other outlets. (Haberman also reported that, per a senior adviser, Trump has “lost it.”)
Leading Republicans were not happy about what transpired. “We will not be kept out of this chamber by thugs, mobs, or threats,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said after the Senate reconvened Wednesday evening. “We will not bow to lawlessness or intimidation. We are back at our posts. We will discharge our duty under the Constitution and for our nation.” Some White House officials resigned, apparently in protest, including the chief of staff to the first lady.
A few Republican senators who had planned to object to Biden’s win, including just-defeated Sen. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia and Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, dropped their planned objections to state results because of the day’s events — helping ensure an overwhelming Senate rejection of any challenges.
And yet 121 out of 204 House Republicans present still did go on record voting to throw out the results in Arizona, which Biden won. Clearly, it will take more than a measly storming of the Capitol to shake Republicans’ loyalty to Trump; the party is apparently not yet prepared to totally break with him.
But Trump’s behavior throughout the day did revive concerns about whether he should really be left in power for another 14 days. Democrats openly called either for his impeachment and removal or for the stripping of his presidential powers under Section 4 of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. That latter method has never been used, but both CBS and Axios reported Wednesday that Republican officials were discussing it. (It would require Vice President Pence and a majority of the Cabinet to agree that President Trump was “unable” to discharge the duties and powers of his office.)
Neither appears particularly likely at the moment, but the question of what happens next is really up to Trump himself. If such an extreme response as a second impeachment or the 25th Amendment is used, it would require strong Republican backing — and that would likely only materialize if Trump truly crosses the Rubicon.