Seething with anger, mostly unmasked, Donald Trump’s supporters stormed and breached the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, stoked by his defiant speech claiming the election had been stolen from him. Tens of thousands of supporters braved bone-chilling temperatures to hear him speak at the Ellipse below the White House, then many marched to Capitol Hill and up the steps, pushing their way past Capitol Police, as some of the lawmakers’ office buildings were evacuated. Washington, DC’s mayor issued a city-wide curfew, from nightfall through the next morning.
“If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” Trump had told the crowd, urging them to head to the Capitol. By nightfall, 4 people were dead, and offices throughout the Capitol were trashed by the angry rampage, with lawmakers forced to barricade themselves in the House debating chamber or sheltering in their offices.
Democrat Rep. Elaine Luria, a Navy veteran, tweeted: “I had to evacuate my office because of a pipe bomb reported outside. Supporters of the President are trying to force their way into the Capitol and I can hear what sounds like multiple gunshots.”
Democratic Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut tweeted that lawmakers had been asked to get out gas masks “as there has been tear gas used in the rotunda,” the circular building in the center of the Capitol.
During the melee, Trump tweeted pleas to the crowd to “stay peaceful,” adding “No violence! Remember, WE are the Party of Law & Order.” As the confrontations continued, the President tweeted again, posting a video of himself. “You have to go home now,” he said, adding, “We don’t want anybody hurt.” But he also doubled down on his claims the election was “fraudulent,” and told his supporters he loved them.
By nightfall, one woman rioter shot by Capitol police had died, later as identified as Ashli Babbit, and three more had died from medical emergencies. The crowds largely stayed put, despite the threat of arrest after the 6pm curfew, matched by a similar curfew declared by the Virginia’s governor in Alexandria, just across the Potomac River from the capital. And Twitter, Facebook and You-tube had all deleted Trump’s video calling for calm but repeating his election claims, and Twitter froze the President’s account for 12 hours and threatened to permanently delete his account if he continued to violate its policies.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser called on the mob to “go back to their state,” in an interview with CNN, adding, “What we’ve seen at the Capitol today is certainly unpatriotic. It’s wrong and it’s illegal.” But she dodged a question as to whether D.C. police should have been better prepared to block the rioters, only offering, “We will continue to work with our partners to get it under control.”
Trump’s supporters have come from California, Florida, the Midwest and deep South, united by a fury with many targets: the mainstream media that reports the November U.S. presidential polls were free and fair; poll workers who they believe changed or hid or destroyed votes for Trump; and the Republicans who have acknowledged President-elect Joe Biden’s legitimate win.
They came to answer the call of a lame duck president who is still refusing to recognize he was beaten by Biden. Trump asked his followers to come to Washington to fight the result on the day Congress formally recognizes the results and declares Biden the winner – normally a pro-forma exercise, made historic this time, with a dozen or so Republican Senators vowing to vote against the Biden win.
The pro-Trump demonstrations that started on Tuesday already resulted in a slew of arrests and clashes with counter-protestors — raw evidence of the growing schism in the U.S. body politic, of extremes refusing to compromise, or to believe their side could have lost.
“I come all the way from Idaho to …let my voice be heard that this election was not right,” says a maskless Christie Nicholson, wrapped in a pink Women for America First flag. “President Trump won it fair and square,” she says, adding that the coronavirus pandemic was “BS” and her vote had been robbed.
As President Trump’s motorcade arrived at the Ellipse before noon on Wednesday to address the crowd from a flag-bedecked stage emblazoned with the words “Save America March,” the song “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey blared over the loudspeakers. That was the same message Trump sent to the sea of supporters when he took the stage, though with a dangerous twist: he urged them to believe, against evidence and reality, that he won the election over Biden. “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,” Trump said. “We will never give up. We will never concede.”
Trump slammed “weak” and “pathetic” Republicans, and called on Vice President Mike Pence to impede Congressional certification of Biden’s win later that day. “If Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election,” Trump said. (While Trump was still onstage, Pence released a letter to Congress stating: “It is my considered judgment that my oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not.”)
“History is going to be made,” Trump said. “We’re going to see whether or not we have great and courageous leaders, or whether or not we have leaders that should be ashamed of themselves.” He continued with a warning: “If they do the wrong thing, we should never, ever forget that they did.”
Many of those who came to see today’s certification as a “final stand” and loyalty test to Trump, have already directed their ire at Pence. In widely shared posts, prominent rightwing personalities called him a “traitor,” a “coward” who “stabbed Trump in the back” who should face “execution by firing squad.” Their animosity extended to Republican lawmakers who have been openly critical of Trump. On a flight to Washington on Tuesday, Trump supporters on the plane heading to the protests heckled Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney with chants of “Traitor!”
A popular meme shared tens of thousands of times ahead of Wednesday’s rallies showed Congress deciding between two buttons labeled “Certify Trump” or “Get Lynched by Patriots.” In the days leading up to the protests, posts on pro-Trump forums as well as Parler, a Twitter alternative popular with rightwing activists, had turned to increasingly violent language about civil war, hanging lawmakers and “taking back America by force.” Livestreams by participants in D.C. showed people with megaphones urging “If you don’t get the right answer today, you come back with your rifles!” and “Storm the Capitol!”
Eric Trump, the president’s son, spoke from the flag-spangled stage on the Ellipse, through the crowd, to the party his father is splintering. “Today, Republicans, you get to pick a side,” he said. “Choose wisely.”
Washington police and national guard troops were arrayed throughout the blocked off and mostly empty streets around the White House and National Mall, with shops and offices boarded up, braced for worse to some. By Thursday morning, there had been more than 50 arrests, with charges including carrying a pistol and a rifle without a license, assault on a police officer and unregistered ammunition and firearms, and two pipe bombs had been found around Capitol grounds.
Florida Republican Rep. Mike Waltz, a staunch Trump supporter, condemned the violence, writing on Twitter, “This is not who we are as a people or as a country. This is wrong and condemnable.”
Fox News anchor Chris Wallace called the violence at the Capitol that followed Trump’s speech “the rule of the mob versus the rule of law and the Constitution,” stoked by the President “filling a crowd with misstatements, with facts that have been absolutely shredded” more than 50 times by Trump judges and his own attorney general, but added there are still many people who will believe him.
Waiting for Trump to speak earlier in the day, Kira Innis, a 34-year-old who calls herself “a Black millennial, female, Los Angelino” and conservative political activist, says she is convinced the vote was stolen. “A blind man can tell this was as all rigged as all get out,” she says, pulling her mask down to speak. “Between the dead voting, illegals voting, citizens voting more than like 10 times, let alone more than twice…gerrymandering, ballot harvesting, Dominion,” she adds, in a reference to widely disproven reports that voting machines provided by Dominion Voting Systems were somehow hacked or used to falsify votes.
Activists like Innis were joined by Trump backers who embraced more extreme perspectives, like QAnon believer Zach, who would only give his first name. Zach, who came from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to attend the rally, believes the online conspiracy group is a “military-intelligence operation” that’s been “micro-dosing the American public” with hard truths, including the claim that a cabal of Democrats including Biden are working together with pedophiles to traffic children globally.
Zach, his face unmasked and wearing a General Flynn baseball cap in honor of Trump’s former national security advisor Mike Flynn, believes evidence of such criminality lies in Biden son Hunter’s laptop. “The Hunter Biden emails, once they come out, people are gonna start realizing this is not crazy conspiracies. These people traffic children,” he says.
The protests had already started on Tuesday, when several Trump-world celebrities spoke to the crowd, including Flynn, who was recently pardoned by Trump. “We should not accept this,” Flynn said. “Everybody in this country knows who won the election on the 3rd. Who won the election on the 3rd? Donald Trump.”
—With reporting by Tessa Berenson and Alana Abramson/Washington