One year ago, Donald Trump “held a dagger” to democracy’s throat, U.S. President Joe Biden declared Thursday, as he called out his predecessor for fomenting the Capitol Hill riots and urged Americans of all political stripes to embrace and spread the real truth about the 2020 election.
At a podium in Statuary Hall in the heart of the Capitol, Biden noted behind him the archway statue of Clio, the muse of history, whose pose depicts her documenting the proceedings of the House of Representatives, which met in the hall in the half-century before the Civil War.
Clio also bore witness to what happened a year ago, Biden said — “the real history, the real facts, the real truth” — as a violent, angry mob stormed through the building, attacking police officers and menacing lawmakers, fuelled not by a belief in democracy but by a misguided attempt to subvert it.
“I did not seek this fight, brought to this Capitol one year ago today, but I will not shrink from it either,” he said.
“I will stand in this breach. I will defend this nation. I will allow no one to place a dagger at the throat of democracy. We will make sure the will of the people is heard, that the ballot prevails — not violence.”
Holding that dagger, Biden said unequivocally, was one Donald J. Trump, even though the current commander-in-chief repeatedly and steadfastly refused to refer to his predecessor by name.
“The former president, who lies about this election, and the mob that attacked this Capitol could not be further away from the core American values,” he said. “They want to rule, or they will ruin.”
The riot, which Biden called an “armed insurrection,” erupted after thousands of Trump supporters, fresh from the angry rhetoric of a speech from the man himself in the shadow of the Washington Monument, flooded the Capitol grounds on the very day Congress was to certify the election results.
Factions of them pushed past a meagre and overmatched security perimeter and stormed the building, Trump flags and Confederate symbols on full display as they attacked Capitol Police officers, smashed windows and hammered on barricaded doors, some with terrified staffers cowering on the other side.
Outdoors, hordes of angry protesters, some using flagpoles still adorned with American flags as clubs and spears, turned their rage on the police officers trying to hold them back. Inside, chants of “Hang Mike Pence” could be heard as rioters, believing the vice-president to have betrayed their leader, sought out the man whose responsibility that day was to certify Biden’s victory. A makeshift gallows awaited outside.
With lawmakers, including Pence, having been spirited away to safety just moments earlier, many of the rioters — some equipped with handcuffs and zip-tie restraints — found their way to the very chambers where on Thursday, members of Congress, mostly Democrats, publicly remembered the day and paid tribute to the law enforcement officers who protected them.
“The warnings of history are clear: when democracies are in danger, it often starts with a mob,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told the chamber on Thursday.
“And for mob violence to win the day, it doesn’t need everyone to join in. It just needs a critical mass of people to stay out of the way — to ignore it, to underestimate it, to excuse it, and even condone it.”
Five people died either in or as a direct result of last year’s hours-long melee on Capitol Hill, including Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, who succumbed to his injuries the following day after being struck in the head with a fire extinguisher and hit in the face with pepper spray.
Protester and Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt was shot and killed by police as she and several others tried to smash their way through the doors leading to the speaker’s lobby. Three other Trump supporters — Kevin Gleeson, Rosanne Boyland and Benjamin Philips — also lost their lives.
Trump, for his part, had been planning a news conference from the confines of his country-club compound in Florida, but cancelled at the last minute, opting instead to air his grievances during one of his trademark rallies next week in Arizona.
He couldn’t resist taking a jab anyway, dismissing Biden’s speech as “political theatre” and repeating the long-debunked canard now widely known as the “Big Lie”: that the 2020 election was “rigged.”
Trump’s reluctance to publicly urge rioters to retreat from the Capitol and go home, despite the now-public pleas to do so from some of his closest advisers and confidantes, has become the central focus of a special Senate committee that is examining the events of that day and what led up to it.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar appeared close to tears as she recalled the events of that day — being hustled off the Senate floor amid shouted instructions to “take the boxes,” the leather-strapped mahogany cases containing the state-level results of the presidential election.
“I remember my own staff, one of them is here today, hearing their stories of hiding in a closet, (armed) with only forks,” she said.
“I remember … the faces of the police officers, the cuts on their faces, the anguish, and the words of Officer (Harry) Dunn, who said at the end of the day that he had been called the N-word multiple times.”
But the fractured state of American politics was on stark display Thursday as well.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin assailed “Republican after Republican” for questioning and opposing Democratic efforts to protect voting rights across the country from what critics call state-level efforts to disenfranchise the poor and people of colour.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, long a trusted Trump acolyte, accused Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris of using the anniversary to “resurrect a failed presidency,” vowing to oppose their efforts to change procedural rules in order to get voting reform measures passed.
“Their brazen attempts to use Jan. 6 to support radical election reform, and changing the rules of the Senate to accomplish this goal, will not succeed,” Graham tweeted.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that Biden would make the administration’s case for voting reform during a speech next week in Atlanta, saying U.S. democracy is at an “inflection point” that cries out for action.
On Wednesday, the highest-ranking law enforcement official in the U.S. vowed to leave no stone unturned in the ongoing investigation into the riots. Attorney General Merrick Garland, whose Justice Department has come under partisan fire for its deliberate, slow-moving work on the case, pleaded for patience.
Garland said more than 725 people have been arrested and charged in relation to the Jan. 6 attack, with those involved in assaulting police officers facing the most serious counts.
He said the investigation has issued more than 5,000 subpoenas and search warrants, seized 2,000 electronic devices and examined 20,000 hours of video footage and 15 terabytes of data.
—James McCarten, The Canadian Press