The riot, the republic and the fight for America’s soul

WASHINGTON — America survived the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, but the explosion of political violence exposed the republic’s fragility. A year later, after an impeachment and amid federal investigations, the risk to America’s system of governance remains high, according to many elected officials and advocates.

Etched in the granite of national memory, Jan. 6 has become shorthand for an ongoing and existential battle over fair elections, the integrity of democratic institutions and the abuse of power. But as savage, bloody and traumatic as the riot was, it is only one piece of a fight that is now unfolding across the country in local election boards, state legislatures, courtrooms and the halls of Congress.

At the center of it all is former President Donald Trump and his biggest, most persistent lies about what happened on Nov. 6, 2020. His propaganda campaign, which insists against extensive evidence that the election was stolen from him, led supporters to storm the Capitol and most GOP lawmakers to stand by him. That lie also furnished fuel for nearly three dozen new Republican-written state laws restricting voting rights and countless bids for office by Republicans who say they believe it.

The republic has been pushed to its limit and is still teetering on the brink, said Joseph Ellis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of the original American revolutionaries.

“Focusing on this as a genuine inflection point in American history, comparable to the Civil War and the Revolution is not fanciful — it’s absolutely historically correct,” he said. “We are facing a historic crisis. The fate of the republic really is at stake.”

If that is true, it is in part because a large share of the population has lost faith — or perhaps never had faith — in the ability of democratic institutions to deliver for them. Trump fed that vein of mistrust from the moment he became a candidate for the presidency in 2015, and then framed his 2020 defeat as evidence that the American political system is corrupt. The solution, for hundreds of his supporters, was to try to physically stop Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s victory.

“We came perilously close to not being able to certify the election, which meant that was uncharted territory for our government, and it could have potentially left the same people in charge until we worked it out,” Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the special House committee investigating the attack on the Capitol, said in an interview with NBC News.

His panel, which has interviewed more than 300 witnesses and plans to conduct a series of public hearings in the coming months, is looking closely at financing for the “Save America” rally, which led to the riot; the actions and inaction of Trump and his allies; and what roles far-right anti-government extremist groups such as the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Three Percenters played in fomenting violence.

“I’m concerned about some of the information that we are collecting, that the potential for criminal referrals is there,” Thompson said, adding that he is hesitant to finalize that conclusion until committee lawyers have assessed all available information. “Our first task is to look at the facts and circumstances that brought about Jan. 6. If, in the committee’s review, we find something that the committee and staff feel warrants criminal referral, we will not hesitate one scintilla in making that referral. … We are not shrinking violets.”

Pro-Trump supporters storm the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.Samuel Corum / Getty Images file

So far, Trump has paid no legal or political price for what many believe was an attempted coup. The House determined that he incited the riot when it impeached him in January, but the Senate acquitted him. The Justice Department has not charged him with any crimes related to the riot, and the House has not yet asked the attorney general to do so. Trump’s grip on the Republican Party remains iron clad. That is evident both in polling and in GOP candidates’ fear of his ire.

Two Republican members of the House, Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio, announced they will not seek re-election after Trump vowed political retribution for voting to impeach him last year.

But while Trump builds the foundation of another possible campaign for the presidency, the riot has disrupted thousands of lives. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick died of a stroke after clashing with rioters, and two other officers, Howard Liebengood of the Capitol Police and Jeffrey Smith of the D.C. Metro Police, both of whom were at the Capitol, died by suicide in the days after the attack.

Ashli Babbitt, a 35-year-old rioter, was shot and killed as she tried to break into the chamber adjacent to the House floor. More than 725 people had been arrested in connection with the riot, according to the Justice Department. More than 150 have pleaded guilty. About 70 have had their cases adjudicated, including 31 who were sentenced to jail time, the Justice Department says. In the harshest punishment handed down so far, Robert Palmer of Florida was sentenced to five years and three months in prison for assaulting police officers with a fire extinguisher, a plank and a pole.

What prosecutors and House investigators have not done is show that Trump or his top lieutenants helped plan the attack on the Capitol, rather than just the rally down the street that preceded it.

The Democratic-run House is taking the lead in searching for such proof, and it has been met with resistance from Trump — who is taking his claim of executive privilege to the Supreme Court — and many of his advisers. The interference may be designed to try to run out the clock on the congressional probe, which will be discontinued if Republicans win control of the House in November’s midterm elections.

Steve Bannon, a former aide to Trump, is being prosecuted for contempt of Congress because of his failure to testify before and provide documents to the House investigative committee. In December, the House adopted a resolution recommending that the Justice Department charge former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, himself a former House member, with contempt of Congress. And the committee is also seeking information from sitting members of Congress, including Reps. Scott Perry, R-Pa., and Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who are close to the former president.

For many Black Americans and other voters of color, the riot represented a white-nationalist backlash against their votes for Biden and a flashpoint in ongoing Republican efforts to limit their political power by taking control of the machinery of state elections.

“This was the worst of America that we’d ever seen,” said Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil rights leader whose nonviolent demonstrations propelled democratic change. “This did not happen independently. It clearly was promoted by him [Trump].”

The “Save America” march and rally at the Ellipse near the White House on Jan. 6.Mark Peterson / Redux file

How the riot unfolded

For nearly two months after the election was called for Biden, Trump and his allies worked to undermine public faith in the results. Trump pleaded with the Justice Department and state election officials to overturn the outcome.

But as the date of the congressional certification drew closer, he trained his focus on then-Vice President Mike Pence. One of Trump’s legal advisers, John Eastman, drafted a memo explaining how Pence might try to use his constitutionally mandated role in the proceedings at the Capitol to block the certification of electors, a process that had largely been viewed as perfunctory.

Pence considered the plan but decided against it.

On the morning of Jan. 6, before speaking at a “Save America” rally just outside the White House gates, Trump tweeted a message urging Pence to execute Eastman’s extralegal stratagem. When Trump spoke, around midday, he blasted Pence repeatedly. His friend Rudy Giuliani already had called for “trial by combat” for Trump’s political adversaries.

During Trump’s speech, members of the Proud Boys began making their way from the Washington Monument to the Capitol. Trump encouraged the crowd to “fight like hell” and to march the mile-and-a-half to the Capitol to “peacefully” protest the election results.

Before 1 p.m., the mob at the Capitol began breaching barriers as Trump continued speaking. Hundreds streamed toward the Capitol, joining the increasingly violent crowd that had morphed from protest to riot.

Pence entered the House chamber at 1 p.m.

Protesters who identified themselves as members of the Proud Boys march in support of then-President Donald Trump.Carolyn Kaster / AP file

The proceedings in the chamber unfolded quickly. Twelve minutes after Pence began, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, objected to Arizona’s electors. Outside the Capitol, police tried to fend off rioters, many of whom struck officers or sprayed them with irritants.

Shortly after 2 p.m., rioters broke into the Capitol. Pence, now in the Senate chamber, was whisked away by security. Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman distracted rioters and drew them away from Pence and the Senate chamber. Outside the building, chants of “hang Mike Pence” echoed as a gallows was erected.

Then-Vice President Mike Pence leaves the House floor during the certification of Electoral College votes at the Capitol.Erin Schaff / Pool via Getty Images file
Gallows and a noose erected by protesters near the Capitol.Shay Horse / NurPhoto via Getty Images file

Until Jan. 6, the Capitol was not just the beacon of global democracy — the physical manifestation of a representative form of government — but a fortress and a sanctuary for the tens of thousands of people who work in or visit its labyrinthine complex every day. They are lawmakers, legislative aides, journalists, police officers, groundskeepers, tour guides, cafeteria workers, engineers, architects, artists, parliamentarians and interested citizens.

That day, a building that felt eerily empty because of the ongoing pandemic became overrun with rioters.

Trump egged them on.

“Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify,” Trump tweeted as his supporters ransacked the Capitol.

Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., comforts Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., while taking cover as protesters amassed outside the House Chamber.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images file

Meadows received text messages from Donald Trump Jr. and several Fox News hosts that pleaded with him to get Trump to denounce the rioting. “Condemn this s—,” Trump Jr. wrote. “It has gone too far and gotten out of hand.”

Rioters broke into the Senate chamber, swarming the desks where so much of America’s legislative history has been made and rifling through papers, and infiltrated the office of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Shortly before 3 p.m., Babbitt was part of a crowd that pressed forward into the speaker’s lobby, a long anteroom that adjoins the House chamber.

Officer Michael Byrd defended a position near the wood-framed double doors. After rioters smashed glass panes in the doors, and with Babbitt apparently trying to get into the lobby, he fired a single shot into her shoulder. She would die from the wound.

More than an hour later, shortly after 4 p.m., Pence got on the phone with a top Defense Department official and pleaded with him to “clear the Capitol.” Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., made a similar appeal to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley to intervene.

About 10 minutes later, Trump released a video in which he repeated the lie that the election had been stolen but said to his supporters, “Go home, we love you.”

Protesters and police clash near a broken window outside; Pro-Trump rioters inside the Capitol.Ashley Gilberston / VII via Redux file

Republicans and Democrats hid under chairs and in secret offices.

There was a moment, amid the sounds of screams and busting glass, that Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., considered leaping from the observation balcony above the House floor. He was trapped with about 20 of his Democratic colleagues.

On the main level, where there are fewer entry points, Capitol security officers with guns drawn and a small cadre of Republican lawmakers worked to stop the mob from breaching the chamber. But the second floor gallery is dotted with doorways, and the lawmakers there were uncertain that police could hold off the rioters.

Capitol Police draw their guns near a barricaded door in the House Chamber.Andrew Harnik / AP file

“I tried to calculate the distance down,” Phillips recalled in an interview, noting that he concluded that the risk of grievous injury or death was too great.

When he and his colleagues finally escaped the chamber and made their way to an elevator so they could use the tunnel system to go to an office building, they heard the gunshot that killed Babbitt, he said.

A year later, he still meets regularly with the same set of colleagues for “camaraderie, support, friendship,” Phillips said. “I think about it every day.”

Congress reconvened on the night of the riot to finish certifying Biden’s election, and to send a message that, as Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, put it, lawmakers would “not be intimidated” out of doing their jobs.

And yet the political violence did not stop most Republican House members and a handful of Senate Republicans from objecting again to the election results. About two-thirds of the House Republican Conference — 139 members — voted against certifying electors from Arizona, Pennsylvania or both. In the Senate, eight of 50 Republicans voted against certification.

Flashes of light from police munitions illuminate the Capitol and protesters.Leah Millis / Reuters file

‘We’re still in the middle of it’

Two weeks after the riot, Biden was sworn in as president on the same Capitol steps where the mob had fought the police.

“Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed,” Biden said. “So now, on this hallowed ground where just days ago violence sought to shake this Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries. We look ahead in our uniquely American way — restless, bold, optimistic — and set our sights on the nation we know we can be and we must be.”

A year later, the nation, and its government, remains fractured. The Democratic-led House’s quick effort to impeach Trump for “incitement of insurrection” put on full display a partisan chasm that would only widen.

On Jan. 13, 232 House members — all of the Democrats and 10 of the Republicans — voted for the single article of impeachment. By the time the Senate could arrange its trial and vote, Trump had been out of office for three weeks. Seven Republicans joined all 50 Democrats in voting to convict Trump — well short of the two-thirds majority necessary.

Even as he voted against conviction, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called Trump “practically and morally responsible” for the riot. But in May, McConnell blocked the establishment of an independent commission to conduct an investigation into the attack.

Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell walks through the Capitol after resuming the electoral college vote certification.Erin Scott / Bloomberg via Getty Images file
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks after reconvening the election certification at the Capitol.Erin Schaff / Pool / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

That prompted Pelosi, in June, to announce the creation of a select committee, doing so largely on partisan lines and forming a panel that included only two Republicans after Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., refused to name members who had not worked to aggressively undermine the election.

The committee, in addition to the hundreds of witness interviews, has received more than 35,000 pages of records, collected more than 250 substantive tips, sent 52 subpoenas and launched contempt-of-Congress referrals against Bannon and Meadows.

The committee is backed up against one date on the calendar — Jan. 3, 2023 — when the next Congress is sworn in.

But in an important way its work has barely begun. Committee officials hope that they will be able to begin a round of hearings in the spring that will give the public a better understanding of who bears responsibility for the attack and how it was carried out.

Opinion surveys show that Americans are divided over whether the attack was a serious threat to the republic. In a University of Massachusetts Amherst poll released last week, more than two-thirds of Democrats — 68 percent — said the terms “insurrectionists,” “white nationalists” and “rioters” apply to the group that stormed the Capitol. But 80 percent of Republicans described the event as a “protest,” 62 percent said participants were “protesters” and 26 percent said they were “patriots.”

That is consistent with the framing preferred by Trump and his allies, including many Republican lawmakers. For example, Georgia Rep. Andrew Clyde once compared the violent breach of the Capitol to a “normal tourist visit.”

Thompson said he has learned from the House’s last major public investigation of Trump, which led to the then-president’s 2019 impeachment, and 2020 Senate acquittal, over his dealings with Ukraine. Back then, Democrats were unable to sway enough public sentiment against Trump to force Republicans to vote to convict him in the Senate. While he is not building an impeachment case — and it would be the Biden Justice Department, not the Senate, that would deal with any criminal referrals — Thompson sees the importance of telling the story in a way that the public can easily grasp.

“What we want to do is not make our investigation so technical and so complex that the majority of American citizens won’t understand it,” he said. “People saw what occurred on Jan. 6 with their own eyes, and they just want to know who caused it, why and how we can prevent it from ever occurring again. And that’s the charge we have as a committee.”

A pro-Trump protester inside the Capitol.Win McNamee / Getty Images file

Outside of Congress, there is a legal strategy to hold organizers of the attack accountable.

In mid-December, Karl Racine, the attorney general for the District of Columbia, filed a civil suit against the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers in federal district court, a move that could bleed the groups dry of money.

The suit is designed “to send a very clear message that there are serious consequences, legal and financial, for stepping outside the bounds of our democracy,” said Joanna Lydgate, founder of States United Democracy Center, a nonpartisan voting-rights and election-security think tank that is providing counsel in the case.

At the same time, Lydgate said, state-level efforts to rewrite election rules remain a danger to the American system of government.

“People are not as tuned in about this kind of legislative insurrection,” she said. “In many ways the insurrection has kind of gone underground, and unfortunately, I think understandably, people have a lot of other things they’re concerned about.”

Susan Stokes, chair of the University of Chicago Center for Democracy, likens Trump’s actions to a “self coup,” a term political scientists apply to autocrats who nullify elections — usually with the help of a portion of the military — to remain in power.

The effort began with Trump’s deceitful election-night claim that the presidential vote was rigged against him — an assertion he made despite simultaneously declaring victory. But, Stokes said, it did not culminate with the riot on Jan. 6.

“We’re still in the middle of it,” she said.

More than two-thirds of Republicans tell pollsters that they believe real cases of fraud affected the result of the 2020 election. Several GOP secretary of state candidates in politically competitive states have embraced the lie that the 2020 election was stolen and vowed to enforce “election integrity.” And 34 laws restricting voting rights were enacted by state governments in 2021, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, with more up for consideration in 2022.

In other words, Trump has married the Republican Party to the false notion that election fraud cost him the last election, created a political imperative for GOP candidates to show their loyalty to him and the party by embracing that lie, and provoked efforts to change voting laws to help Republicans.

Some Republican state legislators want to take the power to pick electors away from voters.

And while there are signs that some GOP officials on the local level want to move on, it is becoming more difficult to separate partisan brawling from Trump’s crusade to undermine the integrity of elections.

With Trump still active in the political arena — raising money, giving speeches and making endorsements — his lie about the 2020 election could become a centerpiece of the next Republican nominee’s campaign for president. And that’s why Stokes says America is still watching a self-coup unfold.

“Fifty years from now, the end of the story of this coup attempt doesn’t happen on the night of Jan. 6,” she said. “It probably comes after the 2024 election, and I don’t think we know what the outcome will be.”

Phillips remains more optimistic than many of his Democratic colleagues that Republicans will eventually break with Trump.

“There are many righteous Republicans who have been quiet but understand the risk and understand the responsibility, and I am hopeful that they recognize that principle must be placed above self-preservation,” he said. “Jan. 6 is analogous to the first attack on the World Trade Center that failed. We should take heed of that.”

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