Before noon, the president of the United States, their rogue hero, told thousands of his supporters that this was the last stand, the moment to overturn the result of November’s election and ensure a second term for Donald Trump.
“We’re going to have to fight much harder,” Trump told several thousand red-clad, flag-waving acolytes gathered on the Ellipse, with the White House as backdrop.
And then the 45th president of the United States unleashed a mob.
Thousands of Trump loyalists stormed the Capitol. Members of Congress hid under desks, stripped their identification pins from their lapels to avoid being attacked and escaped into secret passageways. Rioters ransacked the office of the House speaker. Flag-waving protesters smashed windows and assaulted police inside the nation’s iconic symbol of democracy.
The process of affirming the next president was halted by mob violence.
Time will decide whether Wednesday’s assault on the Capitol was a riot, an insurrection, a last gasp of a renegade president or an early skirmish in a civil war organized on far-right social media, but it was already clear that Jan. 6, 2021, would go down in history as one of America’s ugliest days.
It began with the president’s false promise: “After this, we’re going to walk down and I’ll be there with you,” Trump said. He wasn’t going anywhere but back to the White House, where he had 14 days remaining in his term.
“You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” he told his followers. “You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”
They did as they were told. By the thousands, they walked 16 blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue NW and surrounded the U.S. Capitol.
By the hundreds, they climbed the grand marble staircase and breached police gates and smashed windows and shoved police officers and broke through doorways and forced their way in. They burst into the offices and chambers of the Capitol, taking over the place as though it were their own, lounging in members’ offices, strolling through the statuaries, halting the constitutional process of completing Joe Biden’s election to the presidency and raising the specter of a coup against this 232-year-old democracy.
LEFT: Trump had repeatedly urged his followers to come to Washington on Wednesday, when Congress would affirm the result of November’s election. (Astrid Riecken/for The Washington Post) RIGHT: The pro-Trump crowd sought to protest the peaceful transfer of power to the administration of President-elect Joe Biden. (Astrid Riecken/for The Washington Post)
The attack, which some historians called the most severe assault on the Capitol since the British sacked the building in 1814, was “instigated at the highest level,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). It was “what this president has caused today, this insurrection,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), his party’s 2012 presidential nominee.
The assault left one woman — a Trump banner draped around her neck — fatally shot inside the Capitol, and three others dead from medical incidents. It led to at least 52 arrests, four hours of chaos, the evacuation of congressional buildings, the paralysis of the city and the humiliation of a nation that has long considered itself the world’s greatest democracy.
Inside the Senate, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) heard Capitol Police order people away from the doors, and then, suddenly, out of the chamber — now. Some people ran, scrambling to a single exit that police had opened. It led to a staircase, which led to an undisclosed evacuation area.
“There was obviously a great deal of anxiety and concern,” Cardin said. “It was like we might be in harm’s way any second.”
The attack and siege seemed like a surprise: CNN kept showing the debate on the Senate floor even as the mob breached the building, only a handful of Capitol Police officers were posted at the building’s ceremonial front steps, and as the debate unfolded, not one legislator said anything about the mob outside.
But the insurrection was hardly spontaneous. It was carefully, methodically planned, spelled out on far-right social media, where die-hard Trump supporters openly traded advice on how to steer clear of D.C. police officers, how to pry open the doors of the Capitol and how to get illegal guns into the city.
In forums devoted to the QAnon conspiracy theory movement and among hard-right groups such as the Proud Boys, plans to turn a pro-Trump rally into a full-on capture of the Capitol had been plotted, dissected and disseminated for months.
The ultimate inspiration of the mob’s passion, the president himself, had repeatedly urged his followers to come to Washington on the day when Congress would affirm the result of November’s election.
“Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” Trump tweeted last month. “Be there, will be wild!”
A presidency that began with Trump standing on the Capitol steps and declaring that “this American carnage stops right here and stops right now” was now ending in anarchy, with an unchecked mob bringing one of the country’s most sacred ceremonies — and the peaceful transfer of power — to a screeching, scary halt.
The unprecedented interruption of what is ordinarily a moment of pomp and peace sent shock waves throughout the world. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) ordered a 6 p.m. curfew. The region’s transit system shut down. Shops closed, streets emptied.
“America is so much better than what we’re seeing today,” Biden tweeted, but in the nation’s capital city, the end of that sentence seemed very much to demand a question mark.
Their president told them to move to the Capitol and so they did, converging on the East Front steps after 1 p.m., shouting, chanting, singing the national anthem, waving Confederate flags and Trump 2020 banners.
Some spoke of civil war. Some shouted out the Pledge of Allegiance. Some shouted the pledge even as they rushed the police line meant to keep unwanted visitors out of the building, which has been closed to the general public for months because of the coronavirus pandemic.
They said this was their house, the people’s house, and they had every right to push their way in, all in service of ensuring Trump would somehow reverse the will of the people and grab a second term in office.
Over the course of an hour, waves of protesters arrived in front of the Capitol, just as inside the House and Senate convened in a rare joint session to affirm the electoral college vote and officially decree Biden the next president.
Very quickly, the crowd outnumbered the Capitol Police, who had expected a far smaller gathering, according to law enforcement officials. Police had set up barricades outside the building as a show of police presence, but the protesters simply ignored them — easily knocking them over and hopping over them.
Dozens of protesters pushed onto the steps and ledges of the building on all sides. On the grand staircase opposite the Library of Congress, there were only a handful of officers, arrayed against a crowd reaching into the hundreds.
LEFT: Pro-Trump protesters scream at police deployed to protect the Capitol and the city. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/for The Washington Post) RIGHT: Trump supporters took over the stage set up for the Jan. 20 inauguration of Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
There was pushing. Men in Trump regalia shoved police, called them “traitors,” cursed at them. At some doors to the building, no officers were visible.
In one big push, Trump supporters surged up the steps and overwhelmed the officers atop the flight of stairs. Hundreds, then thousands followed. Some scaled the walls to get up; others climbed over one another to reach the top.
Inside, after only 12 votes had been certified in the presidential election, both houses of Congress suspended their debates.
For over an hour, people banged on the doors of the Capitol on the north and west sides, chanting, “Let us in! Let us in!”
“The Capitol Police weren’t prepared for so many protesters who were pushing their way in,” said one law enforcement official briefed on the incident, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter. “Not all windows and entrances were protected.”
Officials had not anticipated that Trump would dispatch his rally crowd to the Capitol.
“Capitol Police did have a plan, but apparently they assumed business as usual,” the official said. “They didn’t expect Trump to incite them and that they would forcefully push their way in. Bottom line, there just wasn’t enough personnel.”
Federal law enforcement officials had decided against any large, visible show of force on city streets, not wanting to repeat the huge assemblage of heavily armed agents that flooded the nation’s capital in June to dispel civil unrest over police conduct.
After 2:10 p.m., a man in the crowd swung a clear plastic riot shield to break through first-floor windows on the Capitol’s south side, making a hole big enough to climb through. A stream of protesters pushed in.
Police said those first trespassers then opened one or more doors to let more of the swelling, chanting mob inside. Police tried to disperse the group with pepper balls and smoke bombs, but more people came in behind those at the front.
A Capitol Police officer shouted from a higher stairway, ordering the intruders to halt. When they didn’t comply, the official said, the officer fired his gun at a man who kept coming toward him. The scene was chaotic, with some rushing away from the sound of gunfire. Protesters saw that a woman in their group had fallen.
A medical squad pushed into the building and carried the woman — later identified by her former husband as Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran and avid Trump supporter — out on a gurney.
“White female, shot in the shoulder,” an officer said as they hurried away.
Babbitt gazed vacantly to one side, her torso and face covered in blood. As the gurney was loaded into an ambulance, pro-Trump protesters swarmed, screaming “Murderers!” Capitol Police officers with long guns pushed the crowd back, and the ambulance drove off.
Babbitt died from her wounds, police said.
Protesters, by that point nearly surrounding the building, kept pouring in, breaking through entrances that had been locked but not secured by the Capitol Police.
Inside, officers in riot gear sprayed intruders with chemical irritants and made a few arrests, but outside, crowds climbed up scaffolding, hanging a giant American flag and winning cheers. Pockets of the crowd chanted “four more years” and “USA” as a few people shouted QAnon conspiracy theories through a megaphone.
Police escorted a line of arrested protesters away from the building, and some in the crowd called out to the officers, “Join us!” and “ ‘We the people’ means you, too!”
The rally that morphed into a march had turned into a violent mob, intent on stopping the rites of democracy.
2:24: On Parler and Gab, the far-right-friendly social media sites, Trump followers urged the crowd in Washington to find and accost Vice President Pence, whom Trump had been pressuring to use his ceremonial role Wednesday to help overturn the election results. Within minutes, the chant arose from factions of the mob at the Capitol: “Where is Pence?”
The vice president had been whisked to a secure location in the Capitol complex.
“This is a coup attempt,” tweeted Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.).
2:30: The intruders fancied themselves revolutionaries, or something. On the west side of the Capitol, they erected a gallows, complete with a hanging rope. They defied orders to disperse, shoved police officers wielding pepper spray, laughed when they heard that Bowser had ordered a citywide 6 p.m. curfew.
“Guess who’s going home? None of us!” someone yelled. “Time to take back what’s ours!” someone else screamed. “A new 1776 has just begun!”
One large cluster of people rushed the steps after a handful of protesters called on others to “storm the Capitol!”
“Get these kids out of here!” a woman shouted at families.
“Storm it!” a man cried. “If you’re not serious about storming the Capitol, get out of here!”
Hundreds made it inside, dismantling metal barricades.
“This is amazing,” a woman in a star-spangled hoodie said. “They’re doing it!”
Inside the Capitol, hundreds broke into an a capella rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” their voices echoing off the marble walls.
2:38: Just 14 minutes after the president had slammed his vice president, tweeting that “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country,” Trump finally admitted the reality of the violent mob attacking the Capitol in his name.
Trump tweeted: “Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement. They are truly on the side of our Country. Stay peaceful!”
Thirty-five minutes later, slightly stronger: “I am asking for everyone at the U.S. Capitol to remain peaceful. No violence! Remember, WE are the Party of Law & Order — respect the Law and our great men and women in Blue.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), unimpressed, tweeted his response: “It’s a little late for that. Don’t you think?”
Trump stayed inside the White House, seeing only a small group of loyal aides, including Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, social media director Dan Scavino, personnel director John McEntee and policy adviser Stephen Miller.
2:52: “I am in the House Chambers,” Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.) tweeted. “We have been instructed to lie down on the floor and put on our gas masks. Chamber security and Capitol Police have their guns drawn as protesters bang on the front door of the chamber. This is not a protest. This is an attack on America.”
Packs of intruders had made their way to both chambers of Congress, and House and Senate members were locked inside, watching their handful of security officers point their service weapons at the doors — the only barrier between the mob and the nation’s lawmakers.
Your gas masks are under your chairs, the legislators were told.
“You could hear a pounding on the doors on the outside,” said Rep. David Trone (D-Md.). “At that point, they had us get our gas masks out.”
Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) listened to the mob ramming up against the doors, and all he could think about was his family. His 25-year-old son died last week, a tragedy that had shaken the House, and Raskin had taken one of his daughters and his son-in-law to the Capitol to watch the debate over presidential electors, “because we wanted to be together,” he said.
“I thought I could show them the peaceful transfer of power in the United States of America,” Raskin said on C-SPAN. “What was really going through my mind was their safety because they were not with me in the chamber, and I just wanted us all to get back together.”
LEFT: In the House, people were told to grab gas masks as police deployed chemical irritants against the mob. (Andrew Harnik/AP) RIGHT: Legislators take shelter as rioters try to break into the House chamber. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
House members were informed that police had deployed chemical irritants in Statuary Hall, and Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), a former CIA case officer, prepared to be exposed to tear gas.
Capitol Police officers barricaded the chamber doors with tables and bookshelves.
“It is a low for this country I never thought we would reach,” Spanberger said. “This is what we see in failing countries. This is what leads to a death of democracy.”
2:54: Trump’s former communications director, Alyssa Farah, tweeted a message to her former boss: “Condemn this now, @realDonaldTrump — you are the only one they will listen to. For our country!”
3:00: A cluster of protesters using ropes and makeshift ladders reached the north side of the Capitol, although they might have saved themselves the trouble. Far more people simply walked around the corner and made it right up to the building on foot.
A woman wearing a “What would Jesus do?” sandwich board read from scripture before handing the mic to someone who led a prayer for the police.
On the building’s main steps, dozens of protesters, many in Make America Great Again hats, chanted “Fight for Trump.” Hardly anyone wore a mask.
A middle-aged couple from Idaho snapped pictures of each other, smiling.
“These are heroes,” said Dawn, who declined to give her last name. “I am so proud of them.” She pronounced herself “amazed” that so many people believed, as she did, that the election had somehow been stolen from Trump.
3:15: The president’s daughter Ivanka Trump, in the absence of any statement by her father, tweeted a call for the mob to cease all violence. She addressed them as “American Patriots.” Minutes later, she took down the tweet.
Schumer and Pelosi called on Trump to demand that the protesters vacate the Capitol grounds. He did not.
3:30: As dozens of military police marched toward the Capitol, wearing gas masks and carrying batons and shields, at least as many screaming protesters trailed them, calling the authorities “oath breakers,” “cowards” and “traitors.”
3:40: Hours into the insurrection, the police seemed vastly outnumbered. The D.C. Council, the capital city’s legislature, announced that the Defense Department had denied the mayor’s request to give the D.C. National Guard the authority to restore order at the Capitol.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) had already called up members of the Virginia National Guard and sent 200 Virginia state troopers to the District at the mayor’s request. Around the same time, Pence, responding to Bowser’s request, ordered the city’s entire National Guard, more than 1,100 strong, activated.
Inside the Capitol, a man who had gotten into Pelosi’s office made himself at home. Dressed in jeans, a flannel coat and a baseball cap, he propped his boot up on a desk, rested what appeared to be a weapon against his hip, draped an American flag over a pile of documents and posed for pictures, a satisfied grin sweeping across his face.
When he left, a file folder was placed atop a computer keyboard. In red capital letters, someone had scrawled “WE WILL NOT BACK DOWN.”
Shortly after, photos popped up online of protesters holding shards of the sign they’d torn off the entrance to Pelosi’s office.
4:00: Hundreds of protesters trying to break in through a door on the Capitol’s north side ran smack into a fresh line of police. Both sides splashed each other with pepper spray. Officers hit the crowd with batons, and protesters struck back with flagpoles.
The mob outnumbered the police. They overpowered the officers and rushed the building, chanting “Treason” and “Our house.” A few minutes later, clouds of tear gas emerged over the crowd, leading many to run from the Capitol.
4:15: In the president’s absence, Trump’s duly-elected successor went on national TV to implore the president to do his job: “I call on this mob to pull back and allow the work of democracy to go forward,” Biden said.
The president-elect, looking deeply saddened, called the mob “a small number of extremists” whose behavior “borders on sedition.”
“The words of a president matter,” Biden said. “I call on President Trump to go on national television now to fulfill his oath and defend the Constitution.”
The president did no such thing.
Instead, Trump did what he’s done for most of his adult life: He doubled down on his provocation.
“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,” Trump tweeted. “Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”
Twitter quickly removed the tweet.
“Go home, we love you, you’re very special,” Trump said in a short video he tweeted, but after the bulk of his message focused on his insistence that the election had been rigged against him, Twitter removed that presidential emission, too. And then the company locked Trump’s account for 12 hours, effectively silencing the president’s primary mode of communication.
4:30: Outside the east side of the Capitol, a man with a megaphone announced to a crowd of hundreds: “Hey, everyone, Donald Trump says he wants everyone to go home.”
In response, some in the crowd booed loudly. One man shouted back: “Shut the f--- up! We’re not going to bend a knee, motherf-----!”
Around that time, news organizations filled in the last remaining piece of the electoral puzzle, declaring victory for Democrat Jon Ossoff in Tuesday’s runoff election in Georgia, giving Democrats a sweep of the state’s two U.S. Senate seats and control of the chamber. In ordinary circumstances, this would have been a day of unadulterated triumph for Biden and his party, as they won complete control of the executive and legislative branches of government, opening a path toward achieving his agenda.
But there was nothing ordinary about this day, and any triumph of democracy would have to rise from the ashes of American democracy’s darkest moment in decades, perhaps since the removal of a criminal president in 1974 or the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.
4:40: Hundreds of riot police, from the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the D.C. police, arrived and made their presence felt. They began to clear the Capitol and its surrounding office buildings.
As the sun set, officers in riot gear threw explosive flash-bangs into the crowd outside the Capitol. Dozens of Capitol, D.C. and National Guard officers — drooping after hours of confrontations — emerged from the Capitol building.
The fresh troops beat back the mob, which had been banging on the doors and windows of the Capitol for hours. Pushed away, the rioters yelled at the officers, chanting “Traitors! Traitors! Traitors!”
5:00: Police finished clearing the upper level of the Capitol. Officers, some with shields, formed a human barrier to block anyone else from getting inside.
As the intruders emerged, they were greeted as celebrities. One woman who said she had footage on her phone of Capitol Police pointing guns at rioters was encircled by dozens of protesters eager to see her show.
Just away from the building, about a hundred people rushed a media staging area where TV cameras were trained on the Capitol. They knocked over barricades and stomped on camera equipment, sometimes using Trump flags as weapons.
“CNN sucks!” they yelled.
People milled on the Capitol grounds, eating, taking pictures, chatting on the phone. Some were jubilant, reveling in their ability to take over their country’s seat of government.
“You’re seeing something in America you haven’t seen since 1776,” one man said.
Others remained angry, defiant. They gave police the finger and cursed at them.
At 5:40, the Capitol was declared secure. Pelosi said she and Pence had agreed to resume the electoral college count later in the evening. Some Democrats renewed talk of impeaching Trump — again — with less than two weeks remaining in his term.
The National Association of Manufacturers, which represents 14,000 small and large manufacturers, called the violence “sedition” and asked Pence to “seriously consider working with the Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment to preserve democracy.” A section of the amendment — never invoked — allows the vice president and Cabinet to declare a president unable to fulfill his duties and to remove him temporarily from power.
At 6 p.m., the mayor called the rioters’ behavior “shameful, unpatriotic and above all . . . unlawful.” She said those who violated the law “will be held accountable. There will be law and order.”
At 6:15, police at the Capitol announced: “A curfew is now in effect. All individuals must leave the U.S. Capitol grounds.”
Hundreds of protesters slowly walked away as police in riot gear marched behind them.
“We’ll be back!” a man yelled.
As members of Congress prepared to return and resume the count of the electoral college votes, hundreds of police officers surrounded the building. Some removed Trump flags that had been left behind.
The police presence now was enormous, imposing — and too late, said Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio). “There was a strategic breakdown, for sure,” he said, “and you can bet your a-- we are going to get to the bottom of it.”
By 8:45, the officers who had formed a human shield on the Capitol’s east steps had dispersed. A cluster of officers headed off together, saying good night, joking about how badly they needed the bathroom.
Inside the building, members of Congress resumed their vote count, pausing now and again, deep into the night, to debate disproved claims of election fraud. After the attack, some Republicans backed away from their objections to accepting the election, but more than 100 House Republicans maintained their absolute allegiance to Trump, rejecting overwhelming evidence that the vote was fairly conducted and accurately counted.
LEFT: Aides carry boxes containing electoral college votes Wednesday at the Capitol. (Oliver Contreras/for The Washington Post) RIGHT: Certification of the vote from Nevada is held up with an objection. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
At 3:41 Thursday morning, Pence finally declared Biden the 46th president of the United States.
Trump, temporarily barred from Twitter, put out word through Scavino that, “Even though I totally disagree with the outcome of the election, and the facts bear me out, nevertheless there will be an orderly transition on January 20th.”
As dawn broke Thursday, a handful of joggers and dog walkers passed by the Capitol as National Guard troops and police milled about. Barricades had been reopened. On the ground, the mob had left its mark, including a pile of empty beer bottles and a discarded book titled “The Great Controversy: Will Two Former Rivals Unite?”
Four years ago, in his inaugural address, Trump declared, “The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action.”
Trump’s hour on the national stage is finally ending, indeed with action, with violence against the very structure and core of the nation he was entrusted to protect, violence fomented and encouraged by the president of the United States.
Late Wednesday night, Washington’s mayor issued an order extending by 15 days the public emergency she had declared earlier, now covering right up until the first full day of President Joe Biden’s turn at the helm of a hurting land.
Devlin Barrett, Rachel Chason, Aaron Davis, Josh Dawsey, Peter Jamison, Marissa Lang, Katie Mettler, Ashley Parker, Philip Rucker, Rachel Siegel, Perry Stein and Rebecca Tan contributed to this report.