Capitol riot: What happened on 6 January 2021?

Botched assault on cradle of American democracy by misguided Donald Trump supporters remembered as deeply shameful climax to his chaotic and divisive reign one year on

Joe Sommerlad
Thursday 06 January 2022 13:41
‘Violence never wins’: Pence condemns Capitol riot

Thursday, 6 January 2022 marks the one-year anniversary of the failed insurrection at the US Capitol in which a mob of enraged Donald Trump supporters stormed the legislative complex in an attempt to prevent the Senate from certifying the previous November’s presidential election result and officially confirming Democrat Joe Biden as the winner.

Mr Biden, a longtime member of the US Senate and Barack Obama’s vice president between 2009 and 2017, won the Electoral College vote by 306 to 232 and the popular vote by more than 81.2m ballots to 74.2m, he and Mr Trump securing more support than any other candidates in American political history, such was the importance placed on the contest after four years of the 45th president’s chaotic, crass and divisive reign.

There was no reason to doubt the outcome but Mr Trump raged at his defeat, refusing to concede and immediately launching into spurious claims that he was the victim of organised voter fraud, apparently an elaborate nationwide conspiracy orchestrated by the Democrats to tamper with voting machines and “lose” ballots with an X marked next to the Republican former reality TV star’s name in large quantities.

Rather than graciously concede, Mr Trump kept up his bogus position throughout November and December, insisting the election had been “stolen” from him, despite no evidence having been found to prove his howls of “mass voter fraud” and with over 60 court cases thrown out, his attorney Rudy Giuliani an increasingly ridiculous and discredited figure thanks to his garden centre press conferences and running black hair dye.

The new year had begun with Mr Trump once more finding himself mired in scandal, again regarding his conduct on an official phone call.

As had been the case with Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky in July 2019 – the subject of his first impeachment – the president was recorded pressuring Georgia’s Republican secretary of state Brad Raffensperger into doing him a favour, this time asking the official to help him “find” the 11,760 votes he needed to overturn the crucial southern swing state’s election result after it had unexpectedly turned blue for Mr Biden.

The Washington Post got hold of the tape of the hour-long exchange and duly published it, prompting legendary journalist Carl Bernstein to call the incriminating audio “worse than Watergate”.

The following Tuesday, the same state held two Senate runoff elections that saw Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff beat Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, flipping the upper chamber of Congress to give their party the majority in the process and smoothing President-elect Biden’s legislative path considerably.

But the jubilation over that outcome – which gave the Peach State its first Black and first Jewish senators in a major milestone for civil rights in America – would quickly be lost in the shocking events of Wednesday 6 January 2021, a day destined to live on in infamy.

A joint session of Congress had been scheduled to allow the legislature to formally recognise November’s election results state by state, the procedure usually a formality presided over by the vice president – this time, Mr Trump’s deputy Mike Pence would be overseeing proceedings – but which granted lawmakers an opportunity to raise any objections they might have to the count.

Grandstanding Republican senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz – two prospective 2024 presidential hopefuls – were among those loudly declaring their intention to protest the certification in advance, pushing the Trumpian “Big Lie” to the bitter end.

Republican senator Josh Hawley cheers on the insurrectionsists

Mr Trump himself had meanwhile been using his Twitter account, arguably his most significant weapon during his tenure in the Oval Office, to heap pressure on Mr Pence by asking him to overturn the result, subverting his customarily ceremonial role.

As the vice president honourably refused to have any part in the plot to pervert the course of democracy, the president and his allies spoke at a “Save America Rally” on the Ellipse in Washington DC, an event planned and organised for months in advance on social media by the so-called “Stop the Steal” movement, with Mr Trump promising supporters the gathering would be “wild” in a pre-Christmas tweet.

An angry crowd of loyalists – Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, QAnon believers, neo-Nazis, local government Republicans and ordinary working folk led on by the president’s repeated but disingenuous cries of foul play – had crossed the country to be in attendance.

Donald Trump supporters gather to hear his fateful speech at the Ellipse

When President Trump himself took to the lectern that afternoon, behind bullet-proof glass and shamelessly using the White House as his backdrop, he declared: “All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical left Democrats, which is what they’re doing and stolen by the fake news media. That’s what they’ve done and what they’re doing. We will never give up. We will never concede, it doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved.”

The outgoing president concluded his remarks by saying: “So we’re going to, we’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, I love Pennsylvania Avenue, and we’re going to the Capitol and we’re going to try and give… The Democrats are hopeless. They’re never voting for anything, not even one vote. But we’re going to try and give our Republicans, the weak ones, because the strong ones don’t need any of our help, we’re going to try and give them the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.”

While Mr Trump failed to join his supporters in their misguided march on the US Capitol building, despite promising he would, the mob duly descended, many of its constituents decked out in ominous homemade combat gear in addition to the red Trump-branded caps and Stars-and-Stripes flags.

DC and Capitol Hill police, apparently hopelessly understaffed and reluctant to present a show of force similar to that deployed against Black Lives Matter activists the previous summer in the wake of the outrage over George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, looked on helplessly as the crowd shoved back metal barricades, scaled scaffolding towers and smashed cameras belonging to assembled members media as they chanted half-understood revolutionary slogans and calls to arms.

Rioters scale a wall at the US Capitol

Flash-bang grenades rained down in retaliation but what followed was nothing less than the first attack on the cradle of American democracy since British soldiers set alight to it in 1814.

The protesters eventually wore down the official resistance by sheer weight of numbers and stormed their way inside, breaking windows, looting offices and stealing souvenirs.

Someone scratched “Murder the Media” into a door while others took selfies or live-streamed their antics on pay-per-view apps as they roamed the corridors of power, many in disbelief at their own success and the magnitude of what they had undertaken.

Inside, word of the violent attempted insurrection had reached the chamber, causing the terrified representatives to be evacuated and staffers to cower under desks in locked rooms, the certification process temporarily brought to a halt as the rioters had intended.

Shocking images of participants like Jake Angeli, known as the the QAnon Shaman,Eric Munchel, dressed like a special forces commando with a fistful of zipties to use as handcuffs, and Richard Barnett, who sat back with his boots on House speaker’s Nancy Pelosi’s desk, raced across social media as world history unfolded in real-time.

The QAnon Shaman screams “Freedom” inside the Senate chamber

All would eventually be arrested, along with Confederate-flag bearer Kevin Seefried and fascist Robert Keith Packer, pictured wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie, among many others, but not before five people had been killed – QAnon believer Ashli Babbit and police officer Brian Sicknick among them.

Heroes would emerge in the aftermath, not least police officer Eugene Goodman, who single-handedly stopped the mob bearing down on a hallway that would have led them straight to the congressmen and women and senators they planned to kidnap or execute by misdirecting them elsewhere.

Ultimately, it all could have been far worse, especially given that pipe bombs had been planted at both Democratic and Republican headquarters, police officers were brutally attacked with fire extinguishers and flag poles (without a hint of self-awareness from the “patriot” perpetrators) and cries of “Hang Mike Pence!” had rung out in appalling, nightmarish scenes that rightly attracted the condemnation of world leaders across the globe.

And where was President Trump while all of the horror he had sanctioned played out in his name?

Watching it all unfold on TV in the West Wing, reportedly pleased with the spectacle but disappointed the mob looked “low class” and ignoring appeals from the likes of Kellyanne Conway, Lindsey Graham, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy and his media allies at Fox News to call off the dogs.

When he finally did release a video condemning the violence, he told the rioters to go home but added: “You’re very special, I love you.”

Donald Trump delivers video message distancing himself from events of 6 January 2021

In the aftermath of the storming of the Capitol, the president was temporarily banned from Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat and permanently from Twitter and was swiftly impeached by the House of Representatives for an unprecedented second time, the article accusing him of “incitement to insurrection”.

In voting in favour of that article, Speaker Pelosi said Mr Trump represented “a clear and present danger” so long as he remained in office and accused him of trying to “repeal reality” in challenging the election result.

Never admitting that he was at fault – and largely silenced without his Twitter megaphone – the ex-luxury property mogul slunk out of view for his final days in office, ducking Mr Biden’s inauguration to hole up at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida home, where he has remained ever since, only occasionally emerging from the company of the sycophantic courtiers who reside there to fan the flames of public interest surrounding his possible second tilt at the presidency in 2024.

Many of his supporters, meanwhile, felt duped by the anti-climax of 6 January, expressing their anger on right-wing forums about “the final betrayal” Mr Trump had carried out by distancing himself from them in a second statement in which he accused the insurrectionists of having “defiled the seat of American democracy”.

No one could have felt more cheated than the would-be revolutionary who attended the “Save America Rally” at the Ellipse that day brandishing a flag bearing the motto, “We stand up now or we stand for nothing”, only to find that “nothing” was precisely what he had stood for.

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