In the 1970s, Gil Scott-Heron did not trust the TV media to give proper coverage to the fight for racial justice. If he were still among us, he might have been pleased to see that virtually every news outlet (well, the cable ones) gave wall-to-wall coverage of the insurrection that took place in Washington, D.C., yesterday. “Insurrection” is a pretty strong word to use, but that’s the one everyone was using, from President-elect Joe Biden to Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) to former president George W. Bush. These are not men prone to overreaction or to careless rhetoric, so their collective assessment carries a fair bit of weight.
This is obviously a big, big story with a lot of moving parts. And so, we’re going to divide this lengthy item into parts:
Part I: Laying the Groundwork
When the day began on Wednesday there was, of course, reason for concern. The capital was full of protesters, including groups like the Proud Boys, who are known for their affinity for violence. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser activated the National Guard in advance, and she was hopeful—so were we—that would be enough to keep things peaceful. However, there were two major developments before Congress called itself to order at 1:00 p.m. that laid the groundwork for the disastrous afternoon/evening that was to follow.
The first of these was that Vice President Mike Pence, trying desperately to triangulate between fealty to Donald Trump and fealty to the Constitution, issued a carefully worded letter that explained that, while he was concerned about “voting irregularities,” he is unable to overturn the election results by fiat. Here’s the money passage:
As a student of history who loves the Constitution and reveres its Framers, I do not believe that the Founders of our country intended to invest the Vice President with unilateral authority to decide which electoral votes should be counted during the Joint Session of Congress, and no Vice President in American history has ever asserted such authority. Instead, Vice Presidents presiding over Joint Sessions have uniformly followed the Electoral Count Act, conducting the proceedings in an orderly manner even where the count resulted in the defeat of their party or their own candidacy.
You can read the entire letter here, if you wish. As it turns out—though of course this was not known at the time—Pence issued the letter less than an hour after meeting with Donald Trump, and once again resisting the President’s entreaties to overturn the results.
The second key event that took place yesterday morning was that Donald Trump hosted a star-studded rally for the folks who were in town to protest (and by “star-studded,” we mean “the Trump family plus Rudy Giuliani”). The rally was chock full of highly inflammatory language. Giuliani advised the crowd that “trial by combat” would be necessary. Was he proposing that he and Biden would each mount their trusty steeds, hold their lance, and gallop toward each other at full speed? Donald Trump Jr. warned the “disloyal” Republican members of Congress that “We’re coming for you.” And the President himself repeated his litany of “the election was stolen” complaints, slammed Pence, and urged his supporters to “fight much harder” and to “walk down to the Capitol.”
Part II: Violence Erupts
As per the Constitution, the counting of electoral votes began shortly after 1:00 p.m. ET. And, as per news reports, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) lodged the first objection of the day, joining with numerous members of the House to push back against Arizona’s EVs being awarded to Biden. The Senators and the Representatives each adjourned to their respective chambers, and the speechifying began. Not long thereafter, the Capitol Building was overrun by protesters.
Someone (perhaps multiple someones) will win a Pulitzer Prize for the photographs they took yesterday. And some of those images are going to linger in memory for a long time. So, let’s take a look at a few of them before we continue the narrative (photographer’s name in parentheses, when known):
Here’s a brief explainer for each of the eight images, from left to right and top to bottom:
- An overhead shot of the insurrectionists; this barely begins to do justice to the size of the crowd. (Bill Clark, CQ-Roll Call)
- No protest is taken seriously, of course, unless it includes at least one person dressed like a Viking. Many of the invaders of the Capitol posed for pictures like this, and then posted them to social media. They will probably come to regret that.
- Many members’ offices were invaded, including the office of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), shown here. If you cannot read it, the hastily scrawled message reads “WE WILL NOT BACK DOWN.” (Saul Loeb, Getty Images)
- The three men with guns out, aiming them at a protester, are plainsclothes U.S. Capitol police officers. (J. Scott Applewhite, AP)
- Until they could be escorted from the Senate chamber, members were instructed to shield themselves by hiding underneath their chairs. (Andrew Harnik, AP)
- The window closest to the rear door of the capitol was shattered, and numerous protesters climbed into the building that way. (Brendan Gutenschwager, Storyful)
- An insurrectionist carries the flag of America’s original insurrectionists through the halls of the Capitol. Note the portrait of South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, the foremost spokesman for both slavery and secession, to the left. Undoubtedly, he approves. On the other hand, Massachusetts senator and abolitionist Charles Sumner, to the right, probably doesn’t approve. The bust, incidentally, is of Richard Nixon. We don’t know what he thinks. (Eric Baradat, Getty Images)
- We are having trouble determining the details of this image, but we are assured it captures the attack on the Capitol Building. Our staff researchers are looking into it.
In any event, the bottom line is that things turned very ugly, right around 2:00 p.m. ET. Once the members of Congress and their staffers got their gas masks on, and were escorted from the Senate chamber, they largely hunkered down in their offices. Well, at least the ones whose offices are not in the Capitol (most congressional offices are located down the street). Some members, particularly those whose offices are in the Capitol (mostly the pooh-bahs, like Pelosi), hid out in the basement.
Meanwhile, the protesters did get somewhat violent, fighting back against police (and calling them “traitors;” so much for the party of law and order) and engaging in various acts of vandalism. During the most active portion of the insurrection, one woman was shot and killed, and another three people died from “medical emergencies.” Not too much is known beyond this, but apparently all four of the deceased were protesters. In addition, 14 police officers were injured, 52 people were arrested, and at least three pipe bombs were found and disarmed.
It took a fair bit of time for order to be restored. On the scene from the beginning, of course, were the Capitol police, though they are not well-suited to handle tens of thousands of rioters. By 3:00 p.m., Muriel Bowser had imposed a 6:00 p.m curfew, and about half an hour after that, the D.C. National Guard troops she had activated arrived on the scene, followed by the DCPD. Eventually, some Maryland state troopers, Virginia state police, and Virginia National Guard troops also made an appearance, and the crowd was moved away from the Capitol and dispersed.
That said, law enforcement was awfully passive on the whole, including barely enforcing the curfew, and even posing for selfies with protesters. One could not help noticing the incongruity between the approach seen on Wednesday as compared to the more aggressive handling of Black Lives Matter protests (see here, here, here, here, and here for some of the many, many commentaries making this point). Exactly why things were handled so differently is a question that will require an answer in upcoming weeks and months.
This is not the only question that will have to be answered, however. Equally important is: How did things get screwed up so badly, especially since everyone knew these protests were coming? Already, a few errors are evident. The muckety-mucks, from Muriel Bowser on down, did not realize how very large the crowd was going to be. Further, they relied far too much on temporary barriers (which were actually erected for Biden’s inaugural) to maintain crowd control. There was also a jurisdictional issue, as non-Capitol police are not allowed on the grounds of the Capitol without permission. Working that out apparently took some (precious) time. In any case, commissions are going to be appointed and studies are going to be conducted, and some people are going to lose their jobs. There’s a pretty good case to be made that Bowser should be at the top of that list.
Part III: Trump’s Response
Something is wrong with Donald Trump. We’re not just talking about the underlying psychological issues that Mary Trump and others have talked about. We mean that his election loss, and his obsession with reversing that, has triggered some sort of mental health crisis. He’s taken way too many careless risks in the past few weeks, wherein he crosses serious legal lines with no real chance of reward. The call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is one example, and the President’s clearly seditionist talk at Wednesday’s rally is another. He’s not even bothering to give himself plausible deniability anymore. And if you don’t believe us, then perhaps you will believe the White House insider who told CNN (off the record, of course), that Trump is currently “out of his mind” and that his loss is “all he can talk about, all he can think about. It’s all-consuming.”
Consistent with this obsession, the President reportedly spent the morning, and at least the first hour of the insurrection, stewing about Mike Pence’s letter and flaying the Vice President before anyone who was listening. As matters got out of control at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, staffers pleaded with Trump to say or do something. Of course, he is congenitally incapable of being critical toward anyone who loves and worships him. And so, his sluggish first response, delivered via Twitter of course, was as milquetoast as it gets:
If you don’t already know what happened next, but you sense that Charlottesville, Part II, is coming, you’re right. That tweet was the highlight, such as it is. It was followed by these two messages a bit later in the afternoon:
Trump also posted a video to Twitter, one he stepped out of the Oval Office and hastily recorded:
You should probably watch it, because it’s only about a minute long. But the key points are that Trump says he understands why his supporters are so angry, and that he really, really loves them.
You may notice that the tweets we’ve included are pictures, as opposed to our normal practice of embedding them. That is because Twitter, after slapping warning labels on the second and third tweets, suspended Trump’s account for 12 hours and told him that it would not be reinstated until those two plus the video tweet were deleted (which they were). They also warned that he is on his last chance, and that if he further violates Twitter policies, he may be permanently banned. Surely it’s pure coincidence that Twitter management has discovered their spines just two weeks before Trump will cease being president.
Trump’s response to the protests stood in marked response to that of Joe Biden, who was previously scheduled to deliver remarks on economic policy on Wednesday, and who—naturally—shifted gears to talk about the insurrection instead. Since it took extra time to prepare a new set of remarks, the press had to wait for the President-elect to speak, causing him to apologize twice to them for inconveniencing them. That means that Biden has already issued two more apologies as president-elect than Trump has as president. If you would like to watch the speech, here it is:
It’s about 7½ minutes, so maybe it won’t hold your interest. You can get the gist of the address from the very last bit:
And this godawful display today, let’s bring it home to every Republican and Democrat and Independent in the nation, that we must step up. This is the United States of America. There’s never, ever, ever, ever, ever been a thing we’ve tried to do that when we’ve done it together, we’ve not been able to do it.
So President Trump, step up.
God bless America. God protect our troops and all those folks at the Capitol. We’re trying to preserve order. Thank you, and I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.
The careful reader may just perceive one or two differences between this speech and the Trump approach.
And now let’s talk a little bit about consequences (or potential consequences) for Trump. To start, Wednesday’s events are going to shatter his relationship with many of his underlings. Some of them are deeply disturbed by what they saw from the President on Wednesday. Others realize that it might be wise to put some distance between themselves and Trump at this point, especially since they’re out of a job in two weeks anyhow. Add it up, and there is talk of mass resignations. Already, at least four staffers—Chief of Staff to the First Lady Stephanie Grisham, Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Matthews, White House Social Secretary Rickie Niceta, and Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger—have tendered theirs.
Given the now-fractured relationship with Mike Pence, and the fury that at least some of Trump’s cabinet officers currently feel, there is also talk of invoking the 25th Amendment and declaring Trump incapable of performing his duties. Should this come to pass, Pence & Co. would certainly be on strong footing. That said, there is very little time left in Trump’s term, and he’s stacked the cabinet with several die-hard loyalists. Plus, there is the question of whether acting secretaries count for purposes of the “majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments” needed to reach a finding of incapacity. Add it up, and a proper invocation of the 25th Amendment is highly unlikely.
On the other hand, a “soft” invocation is probable and, in fact, is already happening. By that we mean that Trump will officially retain power, but important decisions will actually be brought to Pence. On Wednesday, when it came time to strategize about restoring order, it was Pence who talked to Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Gen. Mark Milley, and it was Pence who approved the deployment of the National Guard. If you are nervous that an off-his-rocker Trump might try to nuke, say, Greenland, don’t be. Clearly—as with the drunken and discombobulated Richard Nixon in his final days in office—any such attempt would be headed off at the pass. In Nixon’s case, then-Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger instructed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs not to obey any orders to use nuclear weapons unless the order came directly from him. It isn’t known if anyone has given the current chairman, Gen. Mark Milley, similar instructions, but Milley can be expected to hold the line himself if it comes to that.
Yesterday’s events also have folks on The Hill talking impeachment again. Most of the punditry pooh-poohed such talk last night, wondering what the point would be with just a couple of weeks left in Trump’s term. We will answer that question: If there was to be a second impeachment and a second trial, the point would not be removal from office, but instead disqualification from future office-holding. We doubt it will happen, but “no second impeachment” is not quite the slam dunk that some commentators would suggest.
Even if Trump avoids re-impeachment, however, he’s put himself at grave risk of indictment and criminal prosecution. It would be very divisive to put a former president on trial, but it is also the case that a line has to be drawn somewhere. In the span of less than a week, Trump has been recorded suborning election fraud, and then been recorded again encouraging insurrection. At a certain point, it’s not possible to look the other way anymore. It could be that Trump is planning to self-pardon in a week, and that he thinks that will wipe the slate clean. If so, that’s very risky, because a self-pardon might not stand up in a court of law. In any event, we now know that the notion of resigning, and getting a pardon from president-for-a-week Mike Pence isn’t an option anymore.
And finally, before we leave this subject behind, Trump’s behavior yesterday drove the wedge between “Establishment GOP” and “MAGA GOP” even deeper, and surely bled away at least some of the influence he will enjoy after leaving the White House. It is one thing when Trump’s words and actions damage the democracy on an abstract, theoretical level. It’s another thing when he tells his supporters to march on the Capitol and “fight,” and an hour later, they do it. That’s going to be a bridge too far for some Republicans (or for the voters whose support they need to get reelected). We saw the first evidence of that on Wednesday night, once Congress reconvened.
Part IV: Congress Gets Back to Business
Order was finally restored around 7:30 p.m. ET, and Congress was able to resume its work around 8:15 p.m. ET or so. The speechifying about Arizona that was interrupted by the protesters commenced again, but there was a clear shift in tone. The Democrats who spoke, of course, condemned the whole thing. But so too did nearly all of the Republicans who spoke (well, at least in the Senate). That includes folks who had previously said they would support the challenges (e.g., James Lankford, R-OK), folks who had declined to take a public position on the issue (e.g., Chuck Grassley, R-IA), and folks who have consistently bent over backwards to protect the President (e.g., Lindsey Graham, R-SC). Interestingly, none of the speakers actually uttered the word “Arizona.” It’s almost like the returns in that state were just being used as an excuse to do some political grandstanding.
Probably the quickest and most efficient way to cover the proceedings is to list the states that were objected to:
Arizona: As noted, Ted Cruz lodged the actual objection. That was followed by 20 minutes of speeches, six hours of lockdown, and then another 1 hour and 40 minutes of speeches. At the start of the day, Trump was expected to get at least 14 votes in the Senate. He got six (Cruz; Josh Hawley, R-MO; Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-MS; Roger Marshall, R-KS; John Kennedy, R-LA; and Tommy Tuberville, R-AL). He was also expected to get at least 140 votes in the House. There, the Trumpsters did a better job of holding the line, though the President still got just 121 votes.
Georgia: Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA) raised this objection, which was originally going to be seconded by Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA). However, Loeffler backed out at the last minute, citing the riots as her reason. Maybe that’s true, or maybe it’s that she has no need to score political points anymore, having lost her seat on Tuesday. In any case, once Hice was forced to admit to presiding officer Mike Pence that there was no senator to join in the objection, it immediately failed, triggering a wave of applause from the gallery.
Michigan: Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) brought this objection. It also failed due to having no Senator on board, triggering another wave of applause.
Nevada: It was Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) this time. In case you haven’t sensed the pattern, we’ll now make it explicit: Anytime a representative objected, it’s because there was no senator to do so. And so, this was the third objection to fail immediately, and led to the third wave of applause.
Pennsylvania: This objection was made by Hawley. He then promptly ceded the debate period, which made clear that: (1) He was just grandstanding, and had nothing important to say; and (2) he knew he was wasting his colleagues’ time. Unfortunately for all involved, Hawley’s allies in the House were not so…generous, and insisted on the full two hours of debate. This time, when the votes were counted, Trump got seven senators (Cruz; Hawley; Hyde-Smith; Cynthia Lummis, R-WY; Marshall; Rick Scott, R-FL; and Tuberville) and 138 representatives.
Wisconsin: Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) had the “honor” of lodging the final objection of the night. True to the pattern, there was no senator willing to get on board, and so this one also failed immediately. No round of applause this time, though; presumably the members were too tired by then to clap.
We will see if any of these folks pay a price for their votes, but we think it’s entirely possible that Cruz and Hawley, in particular, just torpedoed their political futures. As we’ve already noted, it’s one thing when the assault on democracy is abstract and theoretical. It’s another thing entirely to have a front-row seat for a coup attempt, and to respond to that, literally minutes later, by choosing to shrug one’s shoulders and keep on keepin’ on. The photos above aren’t going away. And the two men may not have noticed, but the Democrats now run the Senate, which means they’re now in line to be appointed to the Select Committee on Getting Chuck Schumer His Coffee. Further, it’s inconceivable they can win a presidential election (or even a nomination), as their behavior yesterday will be wielded by opponents like a sledgehammer. And when and if they run for reelection to the Senate (2024 for both), they’ll be running in a presidential year, in states that aren’t deep red, and having won fairly close victories back in 2018.
Congressional leadership was determined to finish its business on Wednesday, both to make a statement that democracy cannot be derailed, and also to avoid providing another day’s fodder for rioting. And they did indeed get it done; at 3:33 a.m., Joe Biden’s election as the next President of the United States was finally confirmed. Shortly thereafter, a statement was posted to Dan Scavino’s Twitter account (remember, Trump’s was suspended) in which the President committed to an orderly transition of power. Perhaps we’ve finally moved to stage five of grief: acceptance.
Part V: Reader Responses
We do not customarily run reader comments on any day other than Sunday, but yesterday was not a normal day, and it’s often helpful to see how others are responding. So, we’re making an exception. Here’s a selection of the feedback sent to the comments inbox yesterday:
M.V. in Kitchener, ON: Well…that was a long day for your Congress. When was such an utterly pro forma process witness to such an interesting day? My heart goes out to shaken Americans everywhere. I saw an opportunity for your nation to remake itself in the horrific aftermath after 9/11, and unfortunately that didn’t happen. In fact, things really just got worse. I hope this opportunity this week and this month and this year is not wasted…for the sake of your citizens everywhere with hurts and burdens.
J.E. in New York, NY: This was an attempted coup. The Trump supporters built a noose outside the Capitol; what do you think they would have done had they come across Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (both D-NY) or Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)? They would have killed them, no question about it. That was clearly the plan—find a Congressperson of color and kill them, as many as possible.
The United States never did the equivalent of De-Nazification of the South after the Civil War, and we are paying the price now. The hard-core supporters of Trump are, by and large, upset that non-white people, gay people, and trans people have the temerity to exist and worse yet, demand a voice in the government. It is a fascist movement, and I use that term precisely. (See David Neiwert’s work on the subject; the man has studied the right for decades.) One party decided that if they could not win democratically, then democracy has to go. It wasn’t the Democrats, and the irony of that is not lost on this reader.
S.B. in New Castle, DE: Jan. 6, 2021, is a day that will go down in Epiphany…er, infamy. Seriously though, if there was any doubt about President Trump going down in history as the absolutely worst U.S. President ever, he removed all doubt and hung that millstone around his own neck. I’ve been on the fence regarding post-term prosecution. Today tackled me off that fence. Trump. Prison. 2021. Make America Sane Again.
L.Y. in Scranton, PA: From now until the fall of our civilization, there will be pictures of rioters, wielding flags that bear Donald J. Trump’s name, who are crossing the threshold into the Capitol and unlawfully occupying different areas within the building. These images will give future generations visual evidence of Trump’s corrosive and cancerous legacy on the United States, and a handful them will probably become iconic, like famous stills of the fall of the Berlin Wall or 9/11.
But despite the chaos of the afternoon, forget not the morning of January 6, when the wonderful people of Georgia gave us two Democratic senators for the twelfth day of Christmas! It gets better.
G.W. in Oxnard, CA: Obviously, there will be pardons all around for the protesters/rioter/insurrectionists. And the guy who incited them to do it in a speech at the rally will get a pardon. I hope they suffer some consequences like the white supremacists at Charlottesville, like losing jobs, friends, and becoming pariahs in their communities.
R.E. in Birmingham, AL: Such a sad, sad day for our country.
P.B. in Lille, France: I am speechless. I am French, but still, I am crying today looking at CNN. I am remembering a very beautiful speech by a really great president who really deserved that title: “a date which will live in infamy.” I think that Jan. 6, 2021, will join the list of infamous days in American history. Trump is now the worst president. The American democracy is sick, and I don’t know what the cure could be. I really hope that the American nation finds one.
T.K. in Warsaw, IN: For the first time since the War of 1812, enemies of the United States Constitution seized the U.S. Capitol…and the President of the United States said he loved them.
God damn you, Donald Trump.
Undoubtedly, we will receive more comments, and will run some of them on Sunday.
There you have it. We don’t know if you were looking for nearly 6,000 words on yesterday’s fiasco, but that’s what you got. (Z)
The authors C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley both died on the same day. Under normal circumstances, their passing would have been front-page news, given their stature as writers, as well as the coincidence of them shuffling off this mortal coil at the same time. Unfortunately for them, they just so happened to expire on November 22, 1963. As you may recall, there was another rather prominent passing on that day, one that meant that Lewis and Huxley’s demise got virtually no coverage at all.
This is somewhat similar to Jon Ossoff’s situation on Wednesday. As expected, his victory over Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) became official. Not only that, but he opened up a large enough lead (50.4% to 49.6%, and a bit more than 30,000 votes) that the Senator will not be able to ask for a recount, and any lawsuits will be a fool’s errand.
Under normal circumstances, this would have been the lead story for virtually every media outlet across the land, and Ossoff would have been lionized by folks on the left as the conquering hero who formally reclaimed control of the Senate for the blue team. However, given that there was a tiny bit of other news on Wednesday, the Senator-elect got pushed to the bottom of the page, or off the front page entirely. Even the stories about how he will be the youngest U.S. senator since a fellow who took office in the 1970s named Joe Biden. Oh well, with the possibility of a multi-decade career in front of him, Ossoff will surely get his day in the sun eventually. (Z)
This is another story that got a tiny fraction of the attention it would otherwise have received. The first shoe from the Georgia runoffs has fallen: Joe Biden announced yesterday, right before Washington went to hell in a handbasket, that his pick for Attorney General will be Judge Merrick Garland. The next AG is going to have to make some very tricky decisions about possible prosecutions of Trump administration officials, and who better to unsnarl that puzzle than a fellow who has served 23 years on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, including 7 years as chief judge?
It is not likely that, even if the Senate had ended up 52-48 or 51-49 for the Republicans, Garland would have struggled to be confirmed. After all, he’s hardly a radical, and his qualifications are impeccable. On the other hand, getting his replacement seated on the most important appeals court in the land could have been a huge problem. It’s not impossible that Mitch McConnell, if given the opportunity, would just keep the seat open for four years. But now that is a non-issue.
The remaining cabinet positions are Commerce and Labor, and the remaining cabinet-level positions are Director of the CIA and Administrator of the Small Business Administration. Undoubtedly, Labor will go to an outspoken progressive, so as to throw at least one bone to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) & Co. It’s also plausible that Commerce/the SBA are being held for use in negotiations with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA). Now that his departure from the Senate would not cost the GOP its majority, he may be more open to a change of scenery. In any case, Biden has no particular reason to play his cards close to the vest anymore, so the last few announcements should come soon. (Z)
Get ready, get set, go. Here is the very first reader prediction for you:
C.K. is not only the first prediction, but also the first prediction to be proven correct. It takes a lot of time to get on top of a story as big the one on Wednesday, and then to write many thousands of words about it. We also don’t want to overwhelm readers with too much content on any one day. And finally, it occurs to us that some people might want to update based on recent events.
There are enough interesting predictions that we’re organizing them by theme, and we’re going to split them across two days. In order for those days to be consecutive, we’ll run them next week, on either Monday/Tuesday or Tuesday/Wednesday. If you would still like to submit, or you want to send in an update, please do. Please get them in by Sunday at 6:00 p.m. PT, and remember to include your initials (if they can’t be inferred from your e-mail header) and your city. (Z)
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