Note: A modified version of this post appeared in the daily newsletter published by the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer.
Less than an hour after Congress started ratifying the electoral college votes that gave Joe Biden a win in the presidential election, hundreds of camouflage-wearing Trump supporters — egged on by the president’s claims that the election was stolen from him — stormed the Capitol building on Wednesday and forced their way inside. As members of Congress left the Senate and House chambers, taking the electoral college votes with them, rioters in paramilitary gear and wearing QAnon symbols filled the room, taking photos of themselves standing on the dais by the Speaker’s chair, and sitting in her office with their feet on her desk. Amid the melee, a woman was shot, reportedly by police, and later died of her injuries — she was identified as Ashli Babbit, a 14-year veteran of the Air Force. According to CNN, it was the first time the Capitol building had been breached since the War of 1812. By 6 pm, Associated Press quoted authorities as saying the Capitol was secure, and the National Guard was on the scene. One report said shots were fired within the Capitol building at one point, but most of those who occupied the building appeared to have been allowed to leave peacefully, although DC police reported there were about a dozen arrests. Fighting between police and rioters continued near the Capitol through the night.
“We are watching an attempted sedition,” Jake Tapper said on CNN during the occupation. “We are watching an attempt at a bloodless coup in the United States.” Though police deployed smoke explosives to try to halt crowds, the demonstrators managed to push the police line up the steps on the east side of the Capitol. Then a small group broke into the building, according to the Washington Post. One video posted on TikTok appeared to show Capitol police encouraging demonstrators to enter the Capitol, and other videos posted to TikTok appeared to show members of the police taking friendly photos with those who illegally entered the building. Capitol Police briefly ordered evacuations of two buildings — the Library of Congress James Madison Memorial Building and the Cannon House Office Building, both just across from the Capitol. Representative Elaine Luria, a Democrat whose office is in the Cannon building, tweeted: “I just had to evacuate my office because of a pipe bomb reported outside.” Luria also said she heard gun shots near her office.
“This is what you’ve gotten, guys,” Republican Senator Mitt Romney yelled as the mayhem unfolded in the Senate chamber, according to the New York Times live-blog of the events, apparently addressing his colleagues. The Times described “a scene of chaos and confusion seldom witnessed in the history of the capital,” with hundreds of protesters barreling past fence barricades. Just after 3 pm, MSNBC showed a woman being taken out of the Capitol on a stretcher, covered in blood, and a news report later said the woman had died of her injuries. “This is a coup attempt,” Republican Representative Adam Kinzinger said on Twitter. Washington Post reporter Aaron Davis said the Defense Department initially refused a request from DC officials to deploy the National Guard, but later relented (the Times said this was authorized by vice president Pence, not by Trump). “Amazing how the national guard gets deployed with the quickness in anticipation of protests when police kill someone but when Trump holds his fascist coup rally the national guard is nowhere in sight,” said Bree Newsome Bass. David Corn of Mother Jones wrote that Trump “is now a terrorist leader.”
“I reported from Ferguson. The difference in the aggression level of the police there against unarmed protesters vs what we’re seeing against white people attempting a coup in the capital is effing astounding,” said New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb. Republican Representative Mike Gallagher, a Trump supporter, said on CNN: “Call it off, Mr. President. Call it off. Call it off. It’s over,” and said he hadn’t seen anything like it since he was deployed in Iraq, according to Atlantic writer Derek Thompson. Nick Kristof of the Times wrote: “Wednesday was a horrifying and shameful moment in American history. I’ve covered attempted coups in many countries around the world, and now I’m finally covering one in the United States.” Democratic Congresswoman Cori Bush said she would be introducing a resolution calling for the expulsion of members of Congress who tried to overturn the election, and Representative Ilhan Omar said she was drawing up articles of impeachment asking for Trump to be removed from office. Conservative pundit David Frum wrote in The Atlantic that Republicans should “remove Trump tonight.” Late Wednesday night, CBS reported that Trump cabinet secretaries were discussing whether to invoke the 25th Amendment and remove the president from office. The Washington Post editorial board said the president “is unfit to remain in office” and must be removed.
Trump, who repeatedly urged his supporters during a rally Wednesday to march to the Capitol to demand that Congress overturn the election, tweeted a call to “stay peaceful” after the occupation was well under way. Later, Trump released a video statement in which he said that the election “was stolen from us, and the other side knows it” and that it was “a fraudulent election, so bad, so evil” but urged demonstrators — of whom he said “we love you, you’re special” to go home. Retweeting was disabled on the tweet containing the video, and if you clicked it a message popped up that said “We try to prevent a tweet like this that otherwise breaks the Twitter Rules from reaching more people, so we have disabled most of the ways to engage with it.” Another warning label on a Trump tweet said “this claim of election fraud is disputed, and this tweet can’t be replied to, retweeted or liked due to a risk of violence.”
LA Times editorial page editor Sewell Chan said Wednesday afternoon that “Trump’s silence on social media, as a far-right mob entered the Capitol, should be reason enough for @Twitter and @Facebook to finally shut him down. The final two weeks might be the most dangerous of this presidency.” Activist Deray said that “today would be a great day for Twitter to ban Trump.” Twitter’s official security account later said: “In regard to the ongoing situation in Washington, D.C., we are working proactively to protect the health of the public conversation occurring on the service and will take action on any content that violates the Twitter Rules.” Venture capital investor Chris Sacca posted a personal message to Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, saying “You’ve got blood on your hands, @jack and Zuck. For four years you’ve rationalized this terror. Inciting violent treason is not a free speech exercise. If you work at those companies, it’s on you too. Shut it down.”
Alex Stamos, former head of security for Facebook, said Wednesday that “there have been good arguments for private companies to not silence elected officials, but all those arguments are predicated on the protection of constitutional governance. Twitter and Facebook have to cut him off. There are no legitimate equities left and labeling won’t do it.” Late Wednesday afternoon, the VP of integrity at Facebook, said: “This is an emergency situation and we are taking appropriate emergency measures, including removing President Trump’s video. We removed it because on balance we believe it contributes to rather than diminishes the risk of ongoing violence.” On Wednesday evening, Twitter said that “as a result of the unprecedented and ongoing violent situation in Washington, D.C., we have required the removal of three @realDonaldTrump Tweets that were posted earlier today for repeated and severe violations of our Civic Integrity policy.” It said that the president’s account would be locked for 12 hours following the removal of the tweets. Facebook also said late Wednesday that Trump’s page would be blocked from posting for 24 hours.
Just before 6 pm authorities said the Capitol was secure, according to a report from AP. “You didn’t take it back, we gave it back” a rioter said to police, according to a CNN report. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo said that rioters were telling journalists “they’re planning to get violent tonight. The passive response to storming the capitol has clearly encouraged it. They’re not worried about repercussions since they’re showing their faces on camera.” A video shows some of the occupiers leaving the Capitol and one shouts “Next time we come back, we won’t be peaceful.”
Here’s more on the attempted coup:
Blood on his hands: The Kansas City Star editorial board wrote that Josh Hawley, the Republican senator from Missouri, “has blood on his hands” as a result of the Capitol coup attempt. “This, Sen. Hawley, is what law-breaking and destruction look like. This is what mobs do. This is not a protest, but a riot. One woman was shot and has died, The Washington Post reported, while lawmakers were sheltering in place. No longer can it be asked, as George Will did recently of Hawley, ‘Has there ever been such a high ratio of ambition to accomplishment?’ Hawley’s actions in the last week had such impact that he deserves an impressive share of the blame for the blood that’s been shed.”
Believable: Tanzina Vega, host of The Takeaway, said “Folks – this is not unbelievable. This is the logical culmination of events.” NBC presidential historian and author Michael Beschloss said that the president “has incited this danger of violence at the Capitol. This is the Frankenstein monster that the Vice President and Republican leaders have abetted and cosseted for four brutal years. They will have to answer to history,” Steve Inskeep of NPR said: “9/11 was a more violent attack than this. But today’s assault on democracy does direct violence to American ideals. It is an attack on a free and fair election. An attack on the rule of law. And it is an attack from within.”
Poisonous buffoonery: Kevin Williamson writes in The National Review that the word coup is overused, but “that is what this is: an attempted coup d’état under color of law.” He argues it would be appropriate to impeach Trump a second time and remove him from office before his term ends. “No one who has participated in this poisonous buffoonery should ever hold office again,” he says. “There was a time when there was a plausible if sometimes self-serving rationale for working for the Trump administration [but] there simply is no defending what it is up to.”
Consequences: Gillian Brockell writes in the Washington Post about fourteen senators who were expelled from Congress for refusing to accept the election of President Abraham Lincoln, who won despite not being on the ballot in ten Southern states and earning less than forty percent of the popular vote. A resolution expelled the senators on the grounds they were “engaged in [a] conspiracy for the destruction of the Union.”
Terminology: Daily Beast reporter Maxwell Tani said: “CBS News standards told staff “protestors, violent protestors, a violent mob, pro-Trump protestors” were all fine to use. NBC News said the crowd could be referred to as a mob or rioters, but cautioned staff against referring to the act as a coup or attempted coup.” Ben Smith of the Times said that Post editor Marty Baron told staff to call those storming the Capitol a “mob” rather than “protesters.” NPR told its reporters that “we won’t be calling the people who stormed the Capitol ‘protestors’ – they are ‘pro-Trump extremists’ and what they are doing is ‘insurrection’.”
Media enabled: Emily Bell of the Tow Center at Columbia said it was a “media-enabled disaster” and that “The Murdochs and Fox News are culpable. The Silicon Valley execs who courted this division on their platforms are culpable. Network executives and editors who lacked the ability to treat the threat seriously are culpable.” Her fellow Columbia professor Bill Grueskin agreed, saying: “You own this, GOP. WSJ edit page. Fox News. Rupert and Lachlan. This is the logical conclusion of everything you have tolerated, encouraged and enabled for 5 years.”
Always headed here: The pro-Trump movement was always headed towards something like the occupation of Congress, Charlie Warzel writes in the Times. “For years, professional grifters, trolls, true believers and political opportunists have sowed conspiratorial lies [and] we are now witnessing the reaping. For close observers of the pro-Trump and far-right extremist movements, this dark moment has felt almost inevitable. You can draw a straight line from the message-board fever swamps to Mr. Trump’s rallies to Charlottesville to “Stand back and stand by” to this. It is a desperate attempt to overthrow the democratic process. It is also the crash of a universe of toxic conspiracies against the rocks of human reality.”