WASHINGTON, DC — Congress formally affirmed President-elect Joe Biden's 2020 victory early Thursday morning, completing a final step in the electoral process after a mob incited by President Donald Trump breached the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday and forced lawmakers to evacuate both the House and Senate chambers.
Vice President Mike Pence, who presided over the count conducted by a joint session of Congress, finally announced that Biden had won the Electoral College vote after the House and Senate easily defeated Republican objections lodged against the votes sent by two states, Arizona and Pennsylvania.
Following the formal affirmation by Congress, Trump issued a statement early Thursday pledging an "orderly" transfer of power to Biden.
Lawmakers in both parties had made clear they were determined to finish the count following the chaos at the Capitol, which delayed the proceedings for more than five hours while lawmakers were forced into lockdown by a pro-Trump mob that overran U.S. Capitol Police.
The nation’s elected representatives scrambled to crouch under desks and donned gas marks, while police futilely tried to barricade the building, one of the most jarring scenes ever to unfold in a seat of American political power. A woman who was shot and killed inside the Capitol was among four people who died during the siege, and Washington’s mayor instituted an evening curfew in an attempt to contain the violence.
Pence was back presiding over the session Wednesday night and into the wee hours of Thursday as congressional leaders vowed to finish counting the Electoral College votes.
"To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today, you did not win," Pence said as the session resumed. "As we reconvene in this chamber, the world will again witness the resilience and strength of our democracy, even in the wake of unprecedented violence and vandalism in this Capitol."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has pushed back against Trump's effort to use the joint session to overturn the election results, said that Congress has "faced down much greater threats than the unhinged crowd we saw today."
"They tried to disrupt our democracy. They failed," the Kentucky Republican said.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer charged that Trump "bears a great deal of the blame" for Wednesday's violence and rioting.
"This mob was a good part President Trump's doing, incited by his words, his lies," the New York Democrat said. "Today's events almost certainly would not have happened without him."
The rioters were egged on by Trump, who has spent weeks falsely attacking the integrity of the election and had urged his supporters to descend on Washington to protest Congress’ formal approval of Biden’s victory. Some Republican lawmakers were in the midst of raising objections to the results on his behalf when the proceedings were abruptly halted by the mob.
Together, the protests and the GOP election objections amounted to an almost unthinkable challenge to American democracy and exposed the depths of the divisions that have coursed through the country during Trump’s four years in office. Though the efforts to block Biden from being sworn in on Jan. 20 were sure to fail, the support Trump has received for his efforts to overturn the election results have badly strained the nation’s democratic guardrails.
The president gave his supporters a boost into action Wednesday morning at a rally outside the White House, where he urged them to march to the Capitol. He spent much of the afternoon in his private dining room off the Oval Office watching scenes of the violence on television. At the urging of his staff, he reluctantly issued a pair of tweets and a taped video telling his supporters it was time to “go home in peace” — yet he still said he backed their cause.
A somber President-elect Biden, two weeks away from being inaugurated, said American democracy was “under unprecedented assault,” a sentiment echoed by many in Congress, including some Republicans. Former President George W. Bush said he watched the events in “disbelief and dismay.”
The domed Capitol building has for centuries been the scene of protests and occasional violence. But Wednesday’s events were particularly astounding both because they unfolded at least initially with the implicit blessing of the president and because of the underlying goal of overturning the results of a free and fair presidential election.
Tensions were already running high when lawmakers gathered early Wednesday afternoon for the constitutionally mandated counting of the Electoral College results, in which Biden defeated Trump, 306-232. Despite pleas from McConnell, more than 150 GOP lawmakers planned to support objections to some of the results, though lacking evidence of fraud or wrongdoing in the election.
Trump spent the lead-up to the proceedings publicly hectoring Pence, who had a largely ceremonial role in the proceedings, to aid the effort. He tweeted on Wednesday: “Do it Mike, this is a time for extreme courage!”
But Pence, in a statement shortly before presiding, defied Trump, saying he could not claim “unilateral authority” to reject the electoral votes that make Biden president.
Shortly after the first GOP objections, protesters fought past police and breached the building, shouting and waving Trump and American flags as they marched through the halls. Lawmakers were told to duck under their seats for cover and put on gas masks after tear gas was used in the Capitol Rotunda. Some House lawmakers tweeted they were sheltering in place in their offices.
Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., told reporters he was in the House chamber when rioters began storming it. Security officers “made us all get down, you could see that they were fending off some sort of assault, it looked like. They had a piece of furniture up against the door, the door, the entry to the floor from the Rotunda, and they had guns pulled,” Peters said.
“And they just told us to take our pins off,” he added, referring to lapel pins members wear so Capitol Police can quickly identify them. Then the lawmakers were evacuated.
Staff members grabbed the boxes of Electoral College votes as the evacuation took place. Otherwise, said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., the ballots likely would have been destroyed by the protesters.
Trump supporters posting on internet forums popular with far-right fringe elements celebrated the chaos. Messages posted on one turned from profane frustration over the content of Trump’s speech to glee when supporters stormed the building. At least one leading figure was livestreaming video from inside the Capitol during the siege.
The mob’s storming of Congress prompted bipartisan outrage, mostly from Democrats but from Republicans as well, as lawmakers accused Trump of fomenting the violence with his relentless falsehoods about election fraud. Several suggested that Trump be prosecuted for a crime, which seems unlikely two weeks from when his term expires.
“I think Donald Trump probably should be brought up on treason for something like this,” Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., told reporters. “This is how a coup is started. And this is how democracy dies.”
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who’s at times clashed with Trump, issued a written statement saying, “Lies have consequences. This violence was the inevitable and ugly outcome of the President’s addiction to constantly stoking division.”
Despite Trump’s repeated claims of voter fraud, election officials and his own former attorney general have said there were no problems on a scale that would change the outcome. All the states have certified their results as fair and accurate, by Republican and Democratic officials alike.
The Pentagon said about 1,100 District of Columbia National Guard members were mobilized to help support law enforcement at the Capitol. More than a dozen people were arrested.
As darkness set in, law enforcement officials worked their way toward the protesters, using percussion grenades to try to clear the area around the Capitol. Big clouds of tear gas were visible. Police in full riot gear moved down the steps, clashing with demonstrators.