The president promised he would be there every step of the way.
It was a pledge Donald Trump made to thousands of supporters who had gathered Wednesday morning to protest Congress’s certification of the Electoral College vote. Behind bulletproof glass on a stage at the Ellipse, only a quarter-mile from the U.S. Capitol, Trump insisted he would not concede, warned “weak Republicans” that retribution was imminent, and urged his vice president to throw out the vote.
“Mike Pence, I hope you’re going to stand up for the good of our Constitution and for the good of our country,” the president said. “If you’re not, I’m going to be very disappointed in you.”
And just to be sure that Pence and a joint session of Congress demonstrated appropriate “courage,” Trump told his supporters that “we are going to walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen.” It was a necessary move, he explained, “to show strength.”
The president never made that promised trip: He was whisked back to the White House. The vice president did not heed the advice. Pence explained in a “Dear Colleague” letter that the Constitution didn’t grant him authority to do what his boss demanded. But the crowd made the trip anyway, parts of it devolving into an angry mob by the time they reached their destination.
For the first time since the War of 1812, the Capitol was breached. Yet, the man who dispatched them merely watched as they stormed past police lines and laid siege to the hallowed building, risking life and limb for his cause. In that moment, Trump’s legacy — the tax cuts and peace deals, the conservative judges, his unlikely ascension to power — were all overshadowed as a swarm enveloped and for a time dispersed a co-equal branch of government.
“I went to work for him in the fall of 2016 when there was a crowded Republican field,” Nancy Mace told RealClearPolitics before rattling off four years’ worth of accomplishments, from a supercharged economy to an expedited coronavirus vaccine. “It’s remarkable,” the South Carolina freshman said, “but all of those accomplishments are wiped out today.”
Many Republicans feel the same way: that the achievements of the populist president were undermined by a siege unleashed by the so-called “chaos candidate.” His supporters didn’t just break-and-enter. The vanguard of the MAGA crowd smashed windows and forced open doors to crash like a wave on an undermanned Capitol security force. The mass worked its way from George Washington’s Crypt to Statuary Hall and eventually outside both chambers. Police barricaded the door to the House Chamber, holding off rioters with pistols. One woman in the crowd was shot by police and killed. Nonetheless, the swarm made it onto the Senate floor, where one man hung from an ornate chandelier. Another dressed as a shaman in a headdress sat behind the dais.
Words like “coup” and “banana republic” and “shitshow” were thrown around with alarming frequency and seriousness as the strangely unprepared U.S. Capitol Police quickly evacuated the assembled members of Congress. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Pence were whisked away to safety as security struggled to regain control with clubs and tear-gas before nightfall.
But where was the president? On the Internet. “Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement. They are truly on the side of our Country. Stay peaceful,” Trump tweeted while a mob ran roughshod on Capitol Hill breaking into offices and rifling through desk drawers. “At this point, this is not enough,” Indiana Rep. Jim Banks told RCP of the president’s first Twitter attempt to bring calm. While sheltering in place, the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee added, “The president can say more and do more to bring tempers and bring the temperature down.”
That advice was echoed numerous times by House Republicans who called in live to Fox News, urging Trump to do more. Each member of that caucus, in one way or the other, would follow Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy who condemned the protest as “un-American.”
Trump kept tweeting.
The president went after his own vice president, his most loyal lieutenant, in a since-deleted tweet: “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. USA demands the truth!”
Trump suggested that the disorder was in order in another: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”
He did not make an on-camera appearance until after an address by President-elect Biden, who urged him “to go on national television now, to fulfill his oath and defend the Constitution and demand an end to this siege.”
Instead, he made a one-minute speech: “We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election, and everyone knows it, especially the other side. But you have to go home now. We have to have peace. We have to have law and order. We have to respect our great people in law and order. We don’t want anybody hurt,” the president said. Twitter flagged it for containing discredited claims about the election.
Democrats quickly cast the riot as the defining final chapter of the Trump era. “This will be a stain on our country, not so easily washed away. The final terrible indelible legacy of the 45th president of the United States. Undoubtedly our worst,” Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor once the Capitol was secured. He did not mince words: “The mob was, in good part, President Trump’s doing, incited by his words, his lies.”
After reconvening Wednesday night, the Senate rejected a challenge to the Electoral College votes of Arizona. Republican Sens. James Lankford of Oklahoma and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, notably, dropped their original objections, citing the chaos. Despite the fact that the way was cleared for Biden, GOP embarrassment erupted into public denunciations of the president who didn’t step up.
Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse blamed one man for the Wednesday’s unrest. “Today, the United States Capitol — the world’s greatest symbol of self-government — was ransacked while the leader of the free world cowered behind his keyboard, tweeting against his Vice President for fulfilling the duties of his oath to the Constitution,” Sasse said in a written statement. “Lies have consequences,” he added. “This violence was the inevitable and ugly outcome of the President’s addiction to constantly stoking division.”
Speaking on the Senate floor after order had been restored, Sasse spoke of how important it is for Americans to look out for one another and defend our venerable institutions. “The constitutional system is still the greatest order for any government ever,” Sasse told his colleagues, “and it’s our job to steward it and protect it.”
When things first got out of hand, Sen. Marco Rubio took to Twitter to call on the president to bolster law enforcement — and instruct those acting on his behalf to stand down. “There is nothing patriotic about what is occurring on Capitol Hill,” said the Florida Republican. “This is 3rd world style anti-American anarchy.” In remarks Wednesday night on the Senate floor, Rubio reiterated that point, evocatively telling his colleagues this his grandfather left Cuba because of the very kind of political instability the world had seen in Washington on Wednesday.
“It’s just about the only thing [Trump] will be remembered for, truthfully, and that’s a shame,” conservative commentator Scott Jennings said. The former George W. Bush aide and Trump ally told RCP he believes that the legislative accomplishments applauded by almost all Republicans will be forgotten. “Any discussion of Donald Trump will start and end with what happened today.”
Rep. Liz Cheney was more blunt. The chair of the House Republican Conference, who opposed the effort to block certification of the Electoral College vote, placed the blame squarely on Trump’s shoulders. “We just had a violent mob assault the Capitol in an attempt to prevent those from carrying out our constitutional duty,” Cheney told Fox News. “There is no question that the president formed the mob, the president incited the mob, the president addressed the mob. He lit the flame.”
The disorder was not, however, unexpected, one Trump loyalist explained. “Let’s be honest, there was a pressure valve that was building, and the system itself would not allow that pressure to be released,” the prominent ally told RCP on condition of anonymity. One reason? The Supreme Court never took up the case brought by the Trump campaign, a decision that robbed the president’s supporters of the opportunity, in the estimation of the ally, to say, “ ‘Well, I don’t agree with it, but at least we got heard.’”
Trump World didn’t have much of an appetite for reasoned arguments come Wednesday. “This gathering should send a message to them,” the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., told supporters before his father took the stage. “This isn’t their Republican Party anymore. This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party.” Rudy Giuliani was more extreme. Trump’s lawyer insisted that if the Senate paused the Electoral College vote for 10 days, enough time for an audit proposed by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, he was confident the long-alleged fraud would be exposed. “If we are wrong, we will be made fools of. But if we are right, a lot of them will go to jail,” Giuliani told an adoring crowd. “So, let’s have trial by combat!”
Watching the drama play out on cable news, every living former U.S. president condemned the carnage this rhetoric produced. Jimmy Carter declared the riots “a national tragedy” while Bill Clinton described them as the result of a “poisonous politics.”
“History will rightly remember today’s violence at the Capitol, incited by a sitting president who has continued to baselessly lie about the outcome of a lawful election, as a moment of great dishonor and shame for our nation,” Barack Obama added in his own separate statement.
George W. Bush, the only Republican ex-president, agreed that the day was a disaster. “It is a sickening and heartbreaking sight,” he wrote in his own statement. “This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic — not our democratic republic.”
The first draft of the day’s history, however, was not unanimous.
It was after dark and after Congress had been secured when the deputy director of the Department of Homeland Security called RCP. Ken Cuccinelli could even see onto the House floor through the door that the mob had breached. “The place is crawling with police officers,” Cuccinelli said after completing a review of the security situation, “and clearly that was part of the original problem — simply being outnumbered.”
But the riot on Capitol Hill didn’t occur in a vacuum, Cuccinelli insisted. It was instead, he said, a continuation of the summer violence that was allowed to fester during protests over police brutality. “I have never heard the president treat violence as something to be bandied about,” he said before condemning Democrats for looking the other way.
“I remember distinctly Speaker Pelosi, instead of condemning violent protesters, condemning police by calling them stormtroopers,” he said. The result: “When it’s effectively encouraged by the powers that be, and allowed to go on all over the country, well, expect it to continue, and expect other people to observe that then say, ‘Well, hey if they can do it, we can do it.’”
While condemnation of Trump was widespread, praise for Mike Pence was common — and bipartisan. Both Republicans and Democrats praised the vice president as he returned to the House chamber to oversee the certification of the vote. He and Congress returned after a nearly six-hour recess when Capitol Police finally gave the all-clear.
“To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today, you did not win,” the vice president said. “Violence never wins. Freedom wins, and this is still the people’s house.” More than eight hours later, the counting was over. Pence announced shortly after 3:30 a.m. that Joe Biden had won the presidency.
Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.
Photo: Editorial credit: vasilis asvestas / Shutterstock.com