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What happened at the Capitol ‘was domestic terrorism,’ lawmakers and experts say

Trump supporters overtook Capitol Police officers to enter the building as lawmakers attempted to count the electoral college votes on Jan. 6. (Video: The Washington Post)

After supporters of President Trump descended on the U.S. Capitol building, hoping to stop the counting of electoral college votes, lawmakers and experts alike repeated a phrase to describe the violent mob: “domestic terrorists.”

“Those who performed these reprehensible acts cannot be called protesters; no, these were rioters and insurrectionists, goons and thugs, domestic terrorists,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a speech after lawmakers reconvened. “They do not represent America.”

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said Thursday that the band of people who occupied the House floor were “terrorists, not patriots,” evoking the fact that September will mark 20 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“What happened today was domestic terrorism,” GOP spokesman Michael Ahrens tweeted.

Members of both political parties pointed to the destruction of government property, threats to law enforcement and two explosive devices found near the Capitol as acts of terrorism as far-right extremist groups rallied in the nation’s capital to contest the results of the presidential election. In the media, CNN executives told the organization’s journalists that they could refer to the siege as “domestic terrorism.”

National security experts agreed with that assessment, comparing the aggressive takeover of the federal landmark to the FBI’s definition of domestic terrorism: “Violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.”

The FBI, which is investigating the violence, declined to comment when asked if the raid was considered domestic terrorism.

But the agency has acknowledged that homegrown violent extremism has become an increasingly prevalent threat, especially in the past four years.

“A majority of the domestic terrorism cases that we’ve investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacy, but it includes other things as well,” FBI Director Christopher A. Wray told Congress in 2019.

In April, the State Department designated the Russian Imperial Movement as “Specially Designated Global Terrorists,” the first time in history the government classified a white supremacist group as a terrorist threat.

Kid glove treatment of pro-Trump mob contrasts with strong-arm police tactics against Black Lives Matter, activists say

Even members of groups that have publicly supported Trump, such as the Proud Boys and the “boogaloo” movement, have faced prosecution after last summer’s unrest.

But the violence Wednesday indicates how anti-government, white supremacy and other far-right groups are still able to subvert law enforcement, even as their plans were widely shared on social media. Despite the masses that breached the Capitol, only 52 arrests were made, according to D.C. police.

“The fact that the planning to assault the Capitol happened in public shows the bankruptcy of the intelligence apparatus that has been built since 9/11,” Michael German, a former FBI special agent and Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program fellow, told The Post.

The United States has no domestic terrorism statute, and concerns that the government could infringe on citizens’ constitutional protections of speech and assembly have hampered the ability to respond to threats, experts say.

Recent intelligence assessments focusing on Black and environmental rights extremists have allowed some white supremacy and anti-government groups to act with impunity, German said.

“That has conditioned them to believe they are authorized to act this way,” he said. “So it’s not surprising at all that you would see people who aren’t covering their faces, aren’t trying to hide their identity, attacking police officers and invading and vandalizing the Capitol and disrupting our democracy in the process.”

After the largely White mob was allowed to leave the Capitol mostly unscathed, Black Lives Matter protesters compared the police treatment with their own confrontations with law enforcement.

President-elect Joe Biden, conjuring the well-known image from the summer’s anti-racism protests when members of D.C. National Guard lined the Lincoln Memorial steps, said those who stormed the Capitol were not protesters.

“Don’t dare call them protesters," he said in a speech Thursday. “They were a riotous mob. Insurrectionists. Domestic terrorists.”

The unrest could also encourage further violence, experts warned.

On their social media channels, white supremacists and neo-Nazi groups have celebrated the disruption of the election process, said Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, a nonprofit think tank focused on global security issues. In one meme posted on Telegram, an app used by these fringe groups, the woman who died after she was shot in the Capitol building is lauded and compared to a photo of a Black person instigating violence.

“I truly think that the imagery that we’re seeing already today from the Capitol is going to serve as critical propaganda for militia groups, for neo-Nazis and for far-right extremist groups,” Clarke said. “I think what they gained today was so valuable for this movement.”

Clarke said the groups have grown online in recent years with the spread of conspiracy theories, and Trump’s recent baseless claims that the election was stolen has further enraged them.

After the election, Clarke warned in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that Trump’s rhetoric could encourage a “sizable minority” that the government is illegitimate — a catalyst for past uprisings internationally.

“I’ve seen this play out in other countries,” he told The Post. “I’m just shocked to see now playing out in my country.”

The Jan. 6 insurrection

The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection has held a series of high-profile hearings throughout the summer: Find Day 8′s highlights and analysis.

Congressional hearings: The House committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol has conducted a series of hearings to share its findings with the U.S. public. The eighth hearing focused on Trump’s inaction on Jan. 6. Here’s a guide to the biggest moments so far.

Will there be charges? The committee could make criminal referrals of former president Donald Trump over his role in the attack, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said in an interview.

What we know about what Trump did on Jan. 6: New details emerged when Hutchinson testified before the committee and shared what she saw and heard on Jan. 6.

The riot: On Jan. 6, 2021, a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 election results. Five people died on that day or in the immediate aftermath, and 140 police officers were assaulted.

Inside the siege: During the rampage, rioters came perilously close to penetrating the inner sanctums of the building while lawmakers were still there, including former vice president Mike Pence. The Washington Post examined text messages, photos and videos to create a video timeline of what happened on Jan. 6.