Trump supporters gather in front of the Capitol building. Inside, Congress debates objections raised against the electoral vote certification. (Blinofanaye/Flickr)
On Wednesday, January 6, Congress convened to count electoral votes for the 2020 presidential election. In typical elections, certification is merely ceremonial. This year, the nation expected a series of objections and a drawn-out vote count. Instead, a crowd of pro-Trump supporters descended on the Capitol building and broke into the Senate and House chambers.
Throughout Wednesday, Americans struggled to grasp how the Capitol building could have been breached. And beyond the short-term effects ― security concerns, prosecutions, arrests ― the storming of the Capitol has brought up questions about President Trump’s involvement. The last few days have been a flurry of headlines about the 25th Amendment, Cabinet resignations, and the accountability of the President. The attack on the Capitol has changed the narrative of the 2020 election, irreversibly.
What happened on Wednesday?
On Wednesday morning, Democrat Raphael Warnock won the Georgia runoff Senate election, narrowly defeating incumbent Republican Kelly Loeffler. Later, on the same day, Democrat Jon Ossoff won the second Georgia runoff for the Senate, splitting the Senate 50–50. Democrats will have a majority, since Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is able to break ties.
By late morning, Congress began a joint session to certify the results of the Electoral College. Just prior, Vice President Mike Pence, who would preside over the count, released a letter revealing that he did not intend to obstruct the counting of the electoral votes, despite previous pressure from President Trump. Once Congress convened, objections were raised, and eventually Congress split into the Senate and House chambers to debate.
Meanwhile, a crowd of Trump supporters congregated at the Ellipse, a park near the White House, where Trump delivered a speech, in which he falsely claimed he won the election and urged the crowd to march to the Capitol. They did just that. Within another hour, the crowd broke barriers and security fencing, overwhelmed Capitol Police, and entered the complex.
The crowd of Trump supporters gathered outside the Capitol building and eventually broke through, into the halls outside the Senate and House chambers. (Brett Davis/Flickr)
Chaos descended over the Capitol building. Pence was evacuated from the building, and Congress members in both the Senate and House chambers were told to shelter in place. Senators were eventually evacuated, rioters occupying the Senate floor in their wake. An armed standoff occurred at the doors to the House chamber. Rioters sifted through desks on the Senate floor, took photos lounging in Congress members’ offices, and walked through the halls of the Capitol with MAGA and Confederate flags. A woman was shot after multiple warnings from law enforcement. She later died in a D.C. hospital.
Meanwhile, Trump tweeted criticism of Pence for not preventing the electoral vote count. When footage of the crowd began to circulate in headlines and make breaking news, Trump tweeted for his supporters to “stay peaceful” and “remember, WE are the Party of Law & Order.” In a video released on his Twitter account (which has subsequently been deleted by Twitter), Trump told his followers to go home, again claiming victory in the election. “We love you,” he said. “You’re very special.” He received widespread criticism for not condemning the violent breach of the Capitol in stronger terms.
Eventually, the Capitol complex was secured by FBI and Homeland Security agents. Pipe bombs were found at the Democratic and Republican National Committees (DNC and RNC, respectively), which were destroyed. At the start of the demonstration, Trump was against calling in the National Guard. Pence took a more active role in deploying the National Guard, which was activated by the Department of Defense.
“Go home with love & in peace,” Trump tweeted, after the Capitol complex had been cleared of rioters. “Remember this day forever!”
Despite everything, the Senate and the House resumed session to continue debate and certify the results of the Electoral College. Congress members from both parties condemned the violence at the Capitol. “To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today,” Pence said, “you did not win.” Many Republicans, such as Senator Kelly Loeffler, dropped objections to the count. Still, debate continued into the early hours of Thursday. A little before 4 a.m., Congress certified the electoral vote results. Pence declared Biden winner of the Electoral College, with 306 votes to Trump’s 232.
Government officials and the American public alike were stunned by the events of Wednesday. The U.S. Capitol has only been breached once before, during the War of 1812 ― more than 200 years ago.
Since Wednesday, leaders from Congress and the executive branch have spoken out about the violence at the Capitol. Both parties have condemned the crowd. The nation has grappled over whether the crowd of Trump supporters were protestors or insurrectionists or domestic terrorists. But Democrats and most Republicans agree that what happened on Wednesday was not just a protest.
“The storming of the U.S. Capitol today is unacceptable,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, on Wednesday. “Lawlessness and rioting ― here or around the world ― is always unacceptable.”
Criticism of Trump has increased. Democrats have been looking into ways to remove him from office before the January 20 inauguration. More and more Republicans have faulted Trump for inciting the siege, and some have joined in calling for Trump’s removal from office. “This was an insurrection incited by the President,” Republican Senator Mitt Romney tweeted. Romney has been one of the most outspoken Republican critics of Trump, and was the only Republican to vote to remove him from office after impeachment earlier this year. But a growing number of Republicans have dropped support for the President, disillusioned by his response to the violence and his role in starting it.
Several high-ranking White House officials have resigned. Stephanie Grisham, chief of staff for First Lady Melania Trump, resigned on Wednesday afternoon. She also served as the communications director and press secretary, and had been a loyal supporter of Trump. White House Social Secretary Anna Cristina Niceta resigned on Wednesday. Grisham and Niceta were two of the longest serving White House officials in the Trump administration.
On Thursday, two Cabinet members also announced resignations: Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. “The peaceful transfer of power is what separates American representative democracy from banana republics,” DeVos said. “The work of the people must go on.” White House and Cabinet officials are less than two weeks away from the end of Trump’s presidency, but their resignations are still representative of growing dissatisfaction with the President’s involvement in inciting the Capitol riot.
Betsy DeVos served on President Trump's Cabinet as the Education Secretary since 2017. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger and Deputy Chief of Staff Chris Liddell are reportedly considering resigning. They would be joining a long string of resignations. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien was also considering resigning, but he decided to stay, concerned about national security if there are too many vacant posts in the last days of Trump’s presidency.
Calls for Removal
January 20 is Inauguration Day, when the presidency will be handed off from Trump to Biden. There’s less than two weeks left before the end of the Trump presidency, but many Congress members are pushing for him to be removed from office.
One way to remove the President is through the 25th Amendment. It would require Pence and a majority of the Cabinet to vote to remove Trump from office as “unable to discharge the powers and duties of the office.” Pence would become the president of the U.S. until January 20. Invocation of the 25th Amendment has been supported by House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and both Democrats and Republicans. On Thursday morning, Congressman Adam Kinzinger from Illinois became the first Republican to call for Trump’s removal from office through the 25th Amendment. Others soon followed.
In order to use the 25th Amendment to remove the President from office, Vice President Pence would have to lead the Cabinet in determining Trump unable to perform his duties as president of the United States. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
However, it doesn’t seem likely that the 25th Amendment can be invoked successfully. Although some Cabinet members have had preliminary discussion about it, Pence has not discussed it with the Cabinet. And since all reports make it unlikely that he will call for Trump’s removal, invoking the 25th Amendment is a less plausible path to removing Trump from office.
Others are looking into impeachment. The President has already been acquitted by one impeachment trial at the beginning of 2020. It’s highly unlikely that the Senate could act on articles of impeachment before January 20, but that doesn’t mean impeachment can’t occur. On Friday, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released a memo to Republican senators detailing how an impeachment trial would play out. It would almost certainly happen immediately after Biden’s inauguration.
Biden, on the other hand, has not expressed interest in removing Trump from office before Inauguration Day. While many legislators are adamant that Trump must be held accountable for his part in inciting the violence at the Capitol, others would rather wait out the remaining days before Biden is inaugurated. Those who feel more strongly about removing the President have floated the idea that if impeached, Trump could be prevented from holding federal office in the future.
Federal prosecutors initially said they were looking into everyone involved in storming the Capitol, sparking speculation about whether Trump could be criminally convicted. But on Friday, Ken Kohl, a prosecutor from the U.S. attorney’s office, said not to expect Trump to face criminal charges.
Social Media Suspensions
Throughout Wednesday, Trump’s tweets were flagged as containing disputed information about the election. His later Tweets, including the video message he sent to his supporters, were deleted by Twitter. By Wednesday evening, Twitter had temporarily suspended his account for 12 hours, warning that he could be permanently banned.
On Thursday, Trump released another video on his Twitter account, in which he condemned the violence at the Capitol. He also acknowledged, for the first time, his defeat in the election. “The demonstrators who infiltrated the Capitol have defiled the seat of American democracy,” he said. “To those that engage in the acts of violence and disruption, you do not represent our country. To those that broke the law, you will pay.” He said nothing about his role in the events of Wednesday. A White House adviser said, “I think that video was done only because almost all his senior staff was about to resign, and impeachment is imminent.”
Trump’s Twitter account was permanently suspended on Friday. Twitter sits at the front of a long line of social media sites banning him or content related to his supporters. His Facebook account will be suspended until at least Inauguration Day. Instagram followed suit. YouTube, TikTok, and Reddit have instituted more restrictions on content that incites violence.
What happens next?
Ultimately, Congress was still able to certify the electoral vote count. Biden will still be inaugurated as the 46th president on January 20, though Capitol Police have been bracing for the possibility of a second riot on Inauguration Day. The biggest uncertainty is how an impeachment trial could play out, how Trump will react, and how widespread backlash will affect his political future.
What happens next rests on how the nation reckons with the effects of the storming of the Capitol. Biden’s inauguration is in less than two weeks, but how America chooses to remember Trump’s presidency will continue to affect national politics.