The Morning Dispatch: A Dark Day on Capitol Hill

Protesters clash with police and delay the counting of the electoral votes.

Today’s TMD is not going to be like other TMDs, because yesterday was a bleak and sobering day in American history.

What Have We Become?

Any other year, Congress’s counting of the states’ electoral votes after a presidential election would be purely a procedural matter. Yes, a handful of fringe Democrats objected to certain states’ electors in 2005 and 2017, but we doubt you even heard about it, because a) those objecting allowed that their efforts were not intended to overturn the election, and b) their objections were quickly and summarily rejected, including by high-ranking officials of their own party, and, c) the losers of those presidential elections had already conceded their races weeks prior. 

This year, however, Republican Party officials and right-wing media organizations who should—and do—know better have spent months filling their voters’ heads with lies: that widespread voter fraud stole the election from President Trump, that the Trump campaign and its allies were consistently one lawsuit away from righting this grievous wrong, that state legislatures would send alternate slates of electors to the Electoral College, and, when all those avenues failed to manifest, that Vice President Mike Pence would magically flip a switch on January 6 and deliver Trump four more years in office.

A few GOP leaders legitimately believed what they were saying—President Trump himself apparently among them—but the vast majority did not. Yet so many repeated the lies anyway. Over, and over, and over again. It was the easy thing to do, because they knew that legally speaking, nothing would come of it. Sign onto an amicus brief seeking to disenfranchise millions of American voters to prove your Trump bona fides—the Supreme Court will never take the case. Go on Fox News and tell viewers the Trump campaign is well within its rights to file frivolous lawsuit after frivolous lawsuit—judges around the country will knock them down. Announce your intentions to object to the electoral votes on January 6—Mike Pence and the more responsible members of your conference will bail you out.

We learned yesterday that, while professional Republicans understand the game these people are playing, thousands upon thousands of Republican voters did not. In fact, poll after poll shows that one-third of the country—and three-quarters of Republicans—do not believe the election results are accurate.

It was therefore shocking, but not surprising, that hundreds of the hardcore Trump supporters the president summoned to Washington, D.C. under the guise of “stopping the steal” overran Capitol security forces and laid siege to the same building that British forces did in the War of 1812.

The mob—which, contrary to the claims of some right-wing personalities, was not actually made up of Antifa members—sparred with police, smashed windows, breached the Senate chamber, and sent members of Congress into hiding, delaying the formalities for hours. The rioters broke into and looted members’ offices, and someone etched “Murder the Media” into a door. A pipe bomb was found and successfully destroyed by a bomb squad near the Republican National Committee, and the FBI said that two suspected explosive devices found at the Capitol were “rendered safe.” At least 14 police officers were injured in the melee, according to D.C. Chief of Police Robert Contee, while one woman was fatally shot inside the Capitol and three others died of medical emergencies during the chaos.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser instituted a 6 p.m. curfew for the city, and all 1,100 members of the D.C. National Guard were activated to support local police and secure the building and surrounding area. By the early evening, they were able to do so. The New York Times reported that Pence—not Trump—approved the order to deploy the National Guard, as Trump “initially rebuffed and resisted requests” to do so.

President Trump had addressed the crowd from the White House a short while before the riot, telling them that their goal was to “save our democracy” and decrying the “weak Republicans” who were letting the Democrats get away with the steal. 

“We’re going to walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women,” he told the crowd, promising he would go with them (he didn’t). “We’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them, because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”

Well after the violence had begun, and after former top members of his own staff publicly called on him to do so, Trump fired off a pair of tweets encouraging his supporters to remain peaceful. But a few hours later, Trump declared that “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. … Remember this day forever!”

That post—along with another one telling his supporters to go home but reiterating his lie that “we had an election stolen from us”—led both Facebook and Twitter to lock the president’s account and prevent him from posting anything for at least 12 hours. “Future violations of the Twitter Rules, including our Civic Integrity or Violent Threats policies, will result in permanent suspension of the @realDonaldTrump account,” Twitter wrote.

Before the insurrection disrupted the proceedings, Trump had received stinging rebukes from two of his most prominent allies in Washington. Outlining what he believed to be “the most important vote [he had] ever cast,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell asserted that there was no evidence of voter fraud “anywhere near” what would’ve been required to tip the election. 

“The voters, the courts, and the states have all spoken. If we overrule them all, it would damage our republic forever,” he continued. “If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral. We’d never see the whole nation accept an election again.”

In what many interpreted as a direct shot at Republican Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, McConnell added that, when it comes to rejecting the democratic results, he “will not pretend such a vote would be a harmless protest gesture while relying on others to do the right thing.”

Pence, meanwhile, had been under intense pressure for weeks to do something—anything—to keep Trump’s electoral charade going a little bit longer. He chose not to do so. 

“It is my considered judgment that my oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not,” he wrote in a statement. “Today I want to assure the American people that I will keep the oath I made to them and I will keep the oath I made to Almighty God. When the Joint Session of Congress convenes today, I will do my duty to see to it that we open the certificates of the Electors of the several states, we hear objections raised by Senators and Representatives, and we count the votes of the Electoral College for President and Vice President in a manner consistent with our Constitution, laws, and history.”

Trump immediately went after the most loyal ally he’s had the past four years: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.” Marc Short, a top aide to Pence, confirmed that he was denied entry into the White House last night because Trump blamed him for Pence’s “betrayal.”

President-elect Joe Biden delivered remarks in Wilmington, Delaware, as the insurrection was unfolding. 

“The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect the true America. This is not who we are,” he said, calling on Trump to go on TV and demand an end to the siege. “What we are seeing is a small number of extremists dedicated to lawlessness. This is not dissent. It is disorder. It is chaos. It borders on sedition. And it must end. Now.”

Leaders from allied nations around the world looked on at the spectacle in horror. 

“Disgraceful scenes in U.S. Congress,” U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted. “The United States stands for democracy around the world and it is now vital that there should be a peaceful and orderly transfer of power.”

“Canadians are deeply disturbed and saddened by the attack on democracy in the United States, our closest ally and neighbour,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau added

The violence at the Capitol shook Republicans, too.

“What happened here today was an insurrection, incited by the President of the United States,” Sen. Mitt Romney said. “Those who choose to continue to support his dangerous gambit by objecting to the results of a legitimate, democratic election will forever be seen as being complicit in an unprecedented attack against our democracy. They will be remembered for their role in this shameful episode in American history. That will be their legacy.”

“There is no question that the president formed the mob, the president incited the mob, the president addressed the mob,” Rep. Liz Cheney said on Fox News. “He lit the flame.”

“This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic–not our democratic republic,” former President George W. Bush added. “I am appalled by the reckless behavior of some political leaders since the election and by the lack of respect shown today for our institutions, our traditions, and our law enforcement.”

But it wasn’t just the Republicans you would expect who spoke up last night after the insurrection. In remarks on the Senate floor, Sen. Lindsey Graham called objecting to the results “a uniquely bad idea,” and he tried to create some distance between himself and the president. “Trump and I, we’ve had a hell of a journey,” he said. “I hate it to end this way, oh my God I hate it. … All I can say is count me out. Enough is enough.”

Sens. Steve Daines and James Lankford—having last week announced their intention to object to the electoral votes on January 6—experienced a sudden change of heart. “We must, and we will, have a peaceful and orderly transition of power,” Lankford said last night. “We now need the entire Congress to come together and vote to certify the election results. We must stand together as Americans. We must defend our Constitution and the rule of law.” Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who lost her bid for reelection on Tuesday, also reversed course, deciding not to challenge Georgia’s electoral votes after initially planning to do so.

These walkbacks are, without question, a welcome development. But they are also evidence that the legislators’ planned objections were never really about correcting widespread voter fraud—they were about political expediency. Theoretically, nothing that transpired on Wednesday should have changed anybody’s mind about the existence of voter fraud. But it sure heightened the political ramifications of continuing to go along with the mob.

Not everybody’s mind was changed. Hawley—after issuing a brief, 42-word statement saying “the violence must end”—forged ahead with his objection to Pennsylvania’s electoral votes after Congress reconvened Wednesday night. After decrying the day’s violence as “unacceptable and un-American,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy voted to object to the results in Arizona.

But just after 3 a.m. ET, all the electoral votes were finally counted. Vice President Pence officially declared Joe Biden the winner of the presidential election and Kamala Harris the winner of the vice presidency.

In a 3:49 a.m. statement issued through top aide Dan Scavino, President Trump said that, “even though I totally disagree with the outcome of the election, and the facts bear me out, nevertheless there will be an orderly transition on January 20th.”

“I have always said we would continue our fight to ensure that only legal votes were counted. While this represents the end of the greatest first term in presidential history, it’s only the beginning of our fight to Make America Great Again!”

Trump’s early morning statement—if he doesn’t backtrack on it in the next few days—may serve to defuse some of the high-level conversations about mass resignations, impeachment, and invoking the 25th Amendment that had begun to bubble up Wednesday night among top administration and congressional officials. If the vice president and majority of the Cabinet determine the president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,” the 25th Amendment states, “the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.”

The Dispatch’s First Staff Editorial

The Dispatch has never published a staff editorial before, but this is an unprecedented—and pivotal—time in our nation’s history. Up on the website today, we call for the impeachment and removal of President Trump.

Impeachment is not merely a punitive act for past offenses—though Trump richly deserves his punishment—it is a protective measure to guard against further danger. He still possesses immense power. He can still attempt to direct the energies and efforts of the American military or law enforcement to preserve his power. And if he runs for president again, he can drag this nation through yet another violent and divisive drama, with unforeseen consequences for the nation.

His behavior remains alarming. He continues to insist that the election was stolen. He was pleased by the disturbance at the Capitol. He banned Vice President Pence’s chief of staff from the White House grounds as retribution for Pence’s alleged disloyalty. A statement from the acting secretary of Defense noted that he’d spoken to Pence—not Trump—about restoring order to the besieged Capitol. 

Trump alone is a threat to the stability of the country. But he is not alone. External threats remain and the president, so addled and unhinged, is in no position to deal with them should any exigencies arise. America’s enemies seek to weaken us and could well look to take advantage of the chaos in our leadership today. What would Donald Trump do in the face of provocation from Russia, Iran or North Korea? Would he listen to advisers? Would military leaders listen to him? It’s far too risky to find out.

There are other, less tangible, but perhaps just as urgent, factors to consider. Impeachment and removal less than two weeks to go in this presidency may seem like a waste of time and energy. To the contrary, it would be an important act of civic hygiene, sending an important message to future would-be Trumps as well as to the rest of the world. Our image as a shining example of democracy and the rule of law has been covered in filth since the election. Republicans especially have an obligation to make a clear break with this man and this behavior for the good of the country, their historic reputations and for the viability of a Grand Old Party that has shed any claim to grandness under this president.

Yuval Levin on What the Riot in the Capitol Reveals

This would normally go in the Toeing the Company Line section, but we’re forgoing that today. Also up on the site, Yuval Levin has a piece on the trouble with living in alternate realities, and how years of doing so led to what happened yesterday.

“The riot itself is no threat to the stability of our republic,” he writes. “The bigger problem, the more fundamental challenge to the stability of our republic on display on Wednesday, was a set of interconnected failures of responsibility—failures to take ownership of the fate of our society, and especially failures to deal with reality. The mob of rioters obviously behaved irresponsibly. Too many congressional Republicans did too—flirting with lies and conspiracies for political gain, knowing it was all for show. But above all, it was the president’s irresponsibility that made Wednesday’s drama a real threat to our national stability.”

Like so much of what Trump has wrought, the attack on the Capitol had the feel of fiction, and even many of the people involved seemed to be playing out a fantasy in their heads, living in a world in which sinister forces had stolen the election from their lion-hearted hero and they had come to set things straight by a show of strength. It’s all a lie, every part of it, yet the actions taken by the crowd were very real, and very dangerous. 

There has always been something of this unreality about Trump’s behavior in the presidency. From the very beginning, it has seemed that Trump almost fully inhabits a boorish, narcissistic psychodrama playing in his head. Through the power of his personality and celebrity, he has been able to draw others into that fantasy world for decades, and through the power of the presidency he has now been able to project it onto the real world and draw yet more followers into it. 

This hasn’t left Trump simply dysfunctional in the presidency. He has proven to have a solid political sense and a nose for where his voters are. And he made some good appointments and some policy moves that any Republican president would have been proud of. And yet, the entire time, if you had spoken to people around Trump, you would have heard mind-boggling stories of their direct experiences with him—tales of a president bizarrely disconnected, obsessive, impervious to information, fixated on personal loyalty, endlessly repeating patent nonsense. 

All of this somehow held together for his first three years in office. It often took unprecedented acts of insolence and insubordination from his staff, and of course he was still an outrageously irresponsible president. But he averted catastrophe. Then, however, came the year of plague and of election, when Trump’s escapism and unwillingness to face reality became untenable. He tried to talk the pandemic out of existence and then to wish away the election results. But the yawning distance between his fantasy world and the real world finally became unbridgeable. 

This is what we are seeing play out now, and what was most disturbing about Wednesday’s events. The riot at the Capitol itself was inexcusable, and we can hope that at least some of those involved will be prosecuted and punished. But more troubling by far was the way in which their actions were embedded in a fantasy spun up by conspiracists, and especially the way in which the President of the United States took up his place in that fantasy world and sought to govern from within it.

The View From Capitol Hill

The joint session started out normally enough. Minutes before it began, Vice President Mike Pence issued a statement clarifying that he did not have the authority to reject any electoral votes, a response to tweets from President Trump that he expected his vice president to decertify the election. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave a somber speech condemning those congressional Republicans who planned to object to votes in six swing states that voted for Biden. 

The first objection came when Arizona’s votes were announced. The chambers broke for debate, and it wasn’t long before proceedings were interrupted by events outside the Capitol, where pro-Trump rioters were breaking down barriers and trying to get into the building. 

Andrew and Audrey covered the “Save America March” on the National Mall before heading to the Capitol, where things got violent quickly. You should read their full article, but here are some key moments. 

With the grounds of the Capitol still empty except for the police ostensibly securing them, two men sat in camp chairs in front of the Capitol reflecting pool, white paper signs reading “militia recruiter” taped to their seats. They were handing out flyers announcing the organization of a “national militia” that would “occur throughout the morning,” members of which would wear silver armbands “signifying that they are lawful combatants.” Other paramilitary groups, like the Proud Boys, didn’t need signups: They’d arrived fully formed, marching down the Mall to the Capitol shortly before Trump spoke. 

This was perhaps the most salient fact: The people most determined to start a riot at the Capitol were the ones who were there first. 

The crowd grew as rally-goers made their way to the Capitol building. It didn’t take long for things to get out of control.

The outmatched Capitol Police made sporadic efforts to deploy smoke and crowd-control irritants, but to little avail: Blustery winds blew them away before most of the crowd even noticed them. One man who had been at the front came staggering back to the barricades with tears streaming down his cheeks; he’d apparently been hit with pepper spray. One woman was indignant: They can use tear gas here, but not at the Black Lives Matter riots over the summer? “That moron! Somebody ought to shoot her in the eyes with tear gas. Whatever her name is, the mayor.” And then, with a half-apologetic laugh: “I’m all full of anger, can you tell?”

The tension ratcheted higher still once news trickled out that Vice President Mike Pence, in defiance of Trump’s repeated requests and threats, had announced he did not have the power to unilaterally throw out electoral votes. One man saw the news on Breitbart, then began moving from cluster to cluster of protesters to share, leaving a trail of suddenly dismayed people in his wake: “He has betrayed us! Mike Pence has betrayed us!” “Pence sold us out,” one replied in shock. Two young women tried to start up a chant: “Hang Mike Pence! Hang Mike Pence!” 

As if Wednesday’s events weren’t surreal enough, several of the people they talked to said they would not be deterred.

Despite missing the lawmakers, the rioters were still pleased with their conquest. “I see justice being done,” Ron Russell of Ohio told The Dispatch. “This is our house, our house. We’re taking it back. May not be today, but we will take this house back, guaranteed.” 

“We’re coming to the Capitol,” added Ron’s friend Robert Unterzuber, “and we’re going to tear her down if necessary and drag them people out of there.”

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Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).