How US democracy nearly came undone9 min read . Updated: 07 Jan 2021, 08:24 PM IST
- With its seat of power descending into chaos and violence, America’s democratic traditions hang in the balance
- The violence, coupled with the president’s tepid response, appeared to drive Republicans to the breaking point after years of allegiance. Many resignations might be in the offing
WASHINGTON DC : “Where are they?" a Trump supporter demanded from within a crowd of dozens roaming the halls of the US Capitol, bearing Trump flags and pounding on doors.
They—lawmakers, staff members and more — were hiding under tables, hunkered in lockdowns, saying prayers and seeing the fruits of the country’s divisions up close and violent.
Guns were drawn. A woman was shot and killed by the police, and three others died in apparent medical emergencies. A Trump flag hung on the Capitol. The graceful Rotunda reeked of tear gas. Glass shattered.
On Wednesday afternoon, hallowed spaces of American democracy, one after another, yielded to the occupation of Congress. The pro-Trump mob took over the presiding officer’s chair in the Senate, the offices of the House speaker and the Senate dais, where one yelled, “Trump won that election."
They mocked its leaders, posing for photos in the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—one with his feet propped on a desk in her office, another sitting in the same seat Vice President Mike Pence had occupied only moments before during the proceedings to certify the Electoral College vote.
This began as a day of reckoning for President Donald Trump’s futile attempt to cling to power as Congress took up the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral victory. It quickly devolved into scenes of fear and agony that left a prime ritual of American democracy in tatters.
In the morning, Trump told a crowd at a rally on the Ellipse, just south of the White House, that he would go with them to the Capitol, but he didn’t. Instead, he sent them off with incendiary rhetoric.
“If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore," he said. “Let the weak ones get out," he went on. “This is a time for strength."
His lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, told the crowd, “Let’s have trial by combat."
An attempted coup
What happened was nothing less than an attempted coup, said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colorado. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, a frequent Trump critic, said, “Today, the United States Capitol—the world’s greatest symbol of self-government—was ransacked while the leader of the free world cowered behind his keyboard."
Sasse went on: “Lies have consequences. This violence was the inevitable and ugly outcome of the president’s addiction to constantly stoking division."
Heavily armed officers brought in as reinforcements to the Capital eventually started using tear gas in a coordinated effort to get people moving toward the door, then combed the halls for stragglers, pushing the mob farther out onto the plaza and lawn, in clouds of tear gas, flash-bangs and percussion grenades.
Video footage also showed officers letting people calmly walk out the doors of the Capitol despite the rioting and vandalism. Only about a dozen arrests were made in the hours after authorities regained control.
Police said that they recovered two pipe bombs, one outside the Democratic National Committee and one outside the Republican National Committee and a cooler from a vehicle that had a long gun and a Molotov cocktail on the Capitol grounds.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump appeared to excuse the violent occupation of the US Capitol by his supporters. “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously and viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long," Trump wrote in a message that was later deleted by Twitter. He added, “Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!"
Twitter later locked his account for the first time as it demanded he remove the tweets and threatened “permanent suspension".
Trump’s response to the violence underscored his obsession with trying to overturn the results of the election. He spent much of Wednesday afternoon watching the insurrection on television from his private dining room off the Oval Office. But aside from sparing appeals for calm issued at the insistence of his staff, he was largely disengaged as the nation’s capital descended into unprecedented scenes of chaos as a mob of thousands tried to halt the peaceful transition of power.
Instead, a White House official said, most of Trump’s attention was consumed by his ire at Vice President Mike Pence, who said he would not overturn the will of voters in the congressional electoral count. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter and spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
The violence, coupled with the president’s tepid response, appeared to drive many Republicans to the breaking point after years of allegiance to Trump. In a sign of growing frustration, a number of White House aides were discussing a potential mass resignation, according to people familiar with the conversation, although some harboured concerns about what Trump might do in his final two weeks in office if they were not there to serve as guardrails when so few remain.
After four years with no shortage of fraught moments, Wednesday’s events quickly emerged as the nadir of morale in the Trump White House, as aides looked on in horror at the chaos at the Capitol fomented by Trump.
Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s chief of staff and a former White House press secretary, submitted her resignation Wednesday, but declined to say what has prompted her move. White House social secretary Rickie Niceta and deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews also resigned. More departures were expected in the coming days, officials said. But other aides indicated they were staying to help smooth the transition to President-elect Biden's administration.
Trump has been single-mindedly focused on his electoral defeat since election day, aides said, at the expense of the other responsibilities of his office, including the fight against the raging coronavirus. Indeed, it was Pence, not Trump, who spoke with the acting defense secretary to discuss mobilizing the DC National Guard.
Trump only reluctantly issued the tweets and taped a video encouraging an end to the violence. The posts came at the insistence of staff and amid mounting criticism from Republican lawmakers urging him to condemn the violence being perpetrated in his name, according to the official.
And even as authorities struggled to take control of Capitol Hill after protesters overwhelmed police, Trump continued to level baseless allegations of mass voter fraud and praised his loyalists as “very special."
“I know your pain. I know your hurt. But you have to go home now," he said in a video posted more than 90 minutes after lawmakers were evacuated from the House and Senate chambers. “We can’t play into the hands of these people. We have to have peace. So, go home. We love you. You’re very special."
Before Trump released the video, Republican lawmakers and former administration officials had begged the president to intervene as the violence spiralled.
“I called him. I think we need to make a statement, make sure that we can calm individuals down," House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy of California told Fox News.
Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisconsin, posted a video message urging Trump to “call it off". “This is banana republic crap that we’re watching right now," said Gallagher, who had spoken out against objections from fellow Republicans to certifying the Electoral College vote that Biden won.
Early on, some inside the Capitol saw the trouble coming outside the windows. Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota surveyed the growing crowd on the grounds not long after Trump had addressed his supporters by the Ellipse, fuelling their grievances over an election that he and they say he won, against all evidence.
“I looked out the windows and could see how outmanned the Capitol Police were," Phillips said. Under the very risers set up for Biden’s inauguration, Trump supporters clashed with the police who blasted pepper spray in an attempt to hold them back.
It didn’t work. Throngs of maskless MAGA-hatted demonstrators tore down metal barricades at the bottom of the Capitol’s steps. Some in the crowd were shouting “traitors" as officers tried to keep them back. They broke into the building.
Announcements blared: Due to an “external security threat," no one could enter or exit the Capitol complex, the recording said. A loud bang sounded as officials detonated a suspicious package to make sure it was not dangerous.
It was about 1.15 pm on Wednesday when New Hampshire Rep. Chris Pappas, a Democrat, said Capitol Police banged on his door and “told us to drop everything and get out as quickly as we could."
“It was breath-taking how quickly law enforcement got overwhelmed by these protesters," he said.
Shortly after 2 pm, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Vice President Mike Pence were evacuated from the Senate as protesters and police shouted outside the doors. “Protesters are in the building," were the last words picked up by a microphone carrying a live feed of the Senate before it shut off.
Police evacuated the chamber at 2.30 pm, grabbing boxes of Electoral College certificates as they left. Representative Phillips yelled at Republicans, “This is because of you!"
Rep. Scott Peters, D-California, told reporters he was in the House chamber when protesters began storming it. He said security officers urged lawmakers to put gas masks on and herded them into a corner of the massive room.
“When we got over to the other side of the gallery, the Republican side, they made us all get down. You could see that they were fending off some sort of assault," he said. “They had a piece of furniture up against the door, the door, the entry to the floor from the Rotunda, and they had guns pulled."
Shortly after being told to put on gas masks, most members were quickly escorted out of the chamber. But some members remained in the upper gallery seats, where they had been seated due to distancing requirements.
Along with a group of reporters who had been escorted from the press area and Capitol workers who act as ushers, the members ducked on the floor as police secured a door to the chamber down below with guns pointed. After making sure the hallways were clear, police swiftly escorted the members and others down a series of hallways and tunnels to a cafeteria in one of the House office buildings.
Describing the scene, Democratic Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut said, “There was a point there where officers had their guns and weapons pointed at the door. They were obviously expecting a breach through the door. It was clear that they were pretty close to pulling the trigger so they asked us all to get down in the chamber."
As he walked out of the Capitol, Himes said he had lived in Latin America and “always assumed it could never happen here".
“We’ve known for years that our democracy was in peril and this is hopefully the worst and final moment of it," Himes said. “But with a president egging these people on, with the Republicans doing all they can to try to make people feel like their democracy has been taken away from them even though they’re the ones doing the taking, it’s really hard, really sad. I spent my entire political career reaching out to the other side. And it’s really hard to see this."
Democratic Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley was also in the balcony. “It’s not good to be around terrified colleagues, with guns drawn toward people who have a barricade… people crying. Not what you want to see," he said.
“This is how a coup is started," said Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-California. “This is how democracy dies."