The storming of the Capitol by an extremist right-wing mob incited by Donald Trump has left America’s adversaries elated, its allies despondent, and the enemy within emboldened and threatening further strife.
A tumultuous day – in which four people died – ended in the early hours with Joe Biden’s election victory being certified by Congress, and Trump agreeing that there would be an orderly transition to the next administration. But the departing president also insisted that he totally disagreed with the result and continued to claim victory, while failing to mention, let alone condemn, the attack.
Trump was locked out of his Twitter and Facebook accounts for breaking their policies over the risk of violence, and there is apprehension about what he will say once he is back on social media, and what effect it will have on the followers he had whipped up into a frenzy.
While leaders of western countries and the secretary-general of Nato, Jens Stoltenberg, expressed their shock at the assault on the heart of democracy in the US, there were expressions of satisfaction in China and Russia over the chaos.
In Beijing, the Global Times, a Communist Party mouthpiece, declared that the violence was a “beautiful sight to behold”, parodying praise from the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, for Hong Kong’s peaceful pro-democracy protesters. In Moscow, Konstantin Kosachyov, the head of the Duma’s foreign affairs committee, declared: “American democracy is limping on both feet.” He added that “the losing side has more than enough grounds to accuse the winner of falsifications” – further propagating the baseless conspiracy theories that the Kremlin has been promoting.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said she was “angry and saddened”, adding: “Doubts over the election outcome have been stoked, and that created an atmosphere which made these events possible.” The French president, Emmanuel Macron, spoke about “supporters of an outgoing president taking up arms to challenge the legitimate results of an election” and said that “what happened ... is not America, definitely”. Boris Johnson, who once called for Trump to be given the Nobel Peace Prize – and whose government has assiduously courted the president – condemned the “disgraceful scenes”.
A number of senior US officials said that with what has unfolded, the Biden transition cannot come fast enough. The Justice Department and intelligence services have been severely weakened by the removal of officials deemed to be insufficiently loyal to Trump, and the outgoing president has been in dispute with senior military leaders over his attempts to use the armed forces both home and abroad.
There has now been further haemorrhaging of senior officials. The deputy national security adviser, Matt Pottinger, resigned on Wednesday in protest over Trump’s behaviour. He was followed by Mick Mulvaney, the former chief of staff who was serving as special envoy to Northern Ireland, who said: "Those who [still] choose to stay ... are choosing to stay because they’re worried the president might put someone worse in.” There are also reports that Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, who took over from the recently departed John Bolton, is also considering leaving, along with the deputy chief of staff, Chris Liddell.
It has emerged that it was not Trump but the vice president, Mike Pence, who drove the decision on the eventual calling out of the national guard. The outgoing president, who had been very eager to use armed forces during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, was resistant to the deployment for a long time, according to reports.
There was bewilderment, as well as dismay, among European security officials that even someone like Trump would try to instigate something so damaging, with potential long-term consequences. “It was almost like a version of Mussolini’s march on Rome”, one reflected, “although not as successful, thankfully.”
What happened in Washington may not have been an organised coup attempt, but there was general astonishment at the ease with which the crowd of a few thousand got through the police lines in what should be one of the most well-guarded institutions in the country.
The attack, described as an act of sedition and domestic terrorism both by Democrats and Republicans (apart from Trump and what’s left of his team) had plenty of symbolic resonance: the stars and stripes taken down and replaced with a Trump banner; the Confederate flag paraded through the halls of Congress 157 years after Gettysburg; a hangman’s noose strung up on the grounds.
Beyond all that are very real dangers from the armed thugs who have become “Trump’s army”. Many like dressing up as soldiers and some are Walter Mittys – with fanciful accounts of serving in special forces. But they have already shown a propensity for violence and there are those among them who have the capacity to cause great harm.
The risk posed by Trump has now become so acute, say some of America’s most senior military and security officials, that he needs to go now rather than after the wait for Biden’s inauguration.
Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that Trump was acting like a dictator, with further trouble lying ahead, and that invoking the 25th Amendment – under which a president can be removed from office if he is unable to fulfil his duties – needed to be urgently considered.
The admiral said that Trump had “incited” the failed insurrection and was “not in position to lead the next 14 days. I don’t think we are done yet, we need to act to prevent more from happening. It’s very, very important to discuss the 25th amendment.” Trump, he continued, was like “dictators around the world who pull the levers of power to stay in power, desperate, doing anything he can to hold on to power, to the point of what I consider grossly illegal actions today”.
Mark Esper, who recently resigned as defence secretary and was among 10 living defence secretaries to write a public letter warning Trump not to try and use the military to overturn the election result, pointed out: “The perpetrators who committed this illegal act were inspired by partisan misinformation and patently false claims about the election.”
Former CIA director John Brennan also held that Trump must go now. “One person is responsible for the surreal act of sedition unfolding at our nation’s Capitol. His name is Donald J Trump, and he is being enabled by many Republicans in Congress. Trump must be held accountable. He is an indelible blight on America’s soul,” he said. “The incitement of a lawless mob that has assaulted the centre of our democratically elected government is unforgivable, unconscionable, and likely indictable.”
Former US marines general James Mattis, who resigned as Trump’s defence secretary in 2018, said that the “violent assault on our Capitol, an effort to subjugate American democracy by mob rule, was fomented by Mr Trump. His use of the presidency to destroy trust in our election and to poison our respect for fellow citizens has been enabled by pseudo-political leaders whose names will live in infamy as profiles in cowardice.”
General Joseph Dunford, another former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, condemned not just Trump but his Republican backers in Congress who have continued to try to reverse his election defeat.
“Leaders who have continued to undermine a peaceful transition in accordance with our constitution have set the conditions for today’s violence,” he said. “This is an outrageous assault on our democracy and a sad day for our nation.”
The Trump supporters at the Capitol were eventually dispersed. However, far-right elements on social media have been proclaiming victory and urging further action. They have to be taken seriously. The toxic forces that Trump nurtured and encouraged – feeding them daily venomous resentment – are not going to go away.
Let us not forget that the deadliest domestic terrorist attack in the US, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, was carried out by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, two homegrown right-wing extremists.
Merrick Garland, whom Biden has just introduced as his nominee for attorney general, knows the threat particularly well. He helped to prosecute McVeigh and has said: “It is the most important thing I have ever done.”
Garland keeps a framed photograph of Oklahoma’s Alfred P Murrah Federal Building, the site of the blast that killed 168 people, in his Washington office. He has spoken of how the indiscriminate murders, and the shattering grief felt by the bereaved families, left a profound effect on how he views the administration of justice.
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