At the White House, Trump set the tone for the day with an 8:17 a.m. tweet: “States want to correct their votes, which they now know were based on irregularities and fraud, plus corrupt process never received legislative approval. All Mike Pence has to do is send them back to the States, AND WE WIN. Do it Mike, this is a time for extreme courage!”
Many of Trump’s advisers knew this would never actually happen. They chalked the president’s tweet up to theater. Vice President Pence could have the courage of a lion, but there was no doubt that he would fulfill his constitutional duty and preside over the pro forma certification of Biden’s win. As one senior official recalled, “All of us knew this was the endgame. The clock had run out. By January 6th, it was game over … We knew we would take the blows. This was date certain. The vice president knew this.”
As Nancy Pelosi left her luxury condo building in Georgetown, she greeted her security agents who would drive her to the Capitol. “This is going to be quite a day,” the House speaker said to them. She kept the rest of her thoughts to herself, but later recalled thinking: “I know the Republicans will try some stunts. But at the end of the day, Joe Biden will be the president of the United States — the ascertained future president.”
In the Oval Office later that morning, Trump huddled with aides and family members. The president went in and out of the dining room to check on TV coverage, hoping to gauge the size of the crowd on the Ellipse. Stephen Miller was there going over the remarks he and his team had prepared for the president to deliver at the rally. Senior White House officials Mark Meadows, Keith Kellogg and Eric Herschmann were there, too, as were the president’s adult children Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump and Eric Trump, and Kimberly Guilfoyle, Trump Jr.'s girlfriend. Some of those around the president encouraged his fantasy of Pence the hero stepping in to overturn the election. Guilfoyle, referring to the growing crowd on the Ellipse, told him, “They’re just reflecting the will of the people. This is the will of the people.”
Ivanka Trump did not agree and was upset about what attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani and others had been advising her father. At one point that morning, she said: “This is not right. It’s not right.”
Trump called Pence, who was spending the morning at his Naval Observatory residence before heading to the Capitol. Pence again explained the legal limits on his authority as vice president and said he planned to perform his ceremonial duty, as prescribed by the Constitution. But Trump showed him no mercy.
“You don’t have the courage to make a hard decision,” he told Pence.
Ivanka Trump, standing next to Kellogg near a grandfather clock in the back of the room, had a hard time listening to her father badger the vice president to do something she knew was not possible. “Mike Pence is a good man,” she said quietly to Kellogg, the vice president’s national security adviser who was close to Trump.
“I know that,” he replied. “Let this ride. Take a deep breath. We’ll come back at it.”
After hanging up with Pence, Trump went back into the dining room to check on the crowd on TV. Ivanka Trump followed her father and tried to convince him to see the situation rationally. But she was unpersuasive. Trump had given Pence instructions and was hellbent on getting him to follow through.
Meanwhile, at the U.S. Capitol Police headquarters near Union Station, Chief Steven Sund had gathered in the agency’s command center to monitor protests. A 25-year veteran of security planning for major D.C. events and protests, Sund suggested that a technician pull up on the center screen a live broadcast of the crowds gathering on the Ellipse. Trump’s supporters were boisterous. Despite the permit for 30,000 people, police estimated that as many as 40,000 could assemble.
Just before 11 a.m., the police commanders heard Giuliani onstage telling the crowd the many reasons Pence should not certify the election results that afternoon: “criminality” in the vote tallies; “corrupt” voting machines; states “begging” for a recount; the “unconstitutionality” of an 1800s election law. But then Giuliani said a phrase, best known from the HBO series “Game of Thrones,” that caught a few of the commanders’ attention: “Let’s have trial by combat.” Why was Giuliani suggesting a fight to the death?
Standing onstage with Giuliani was John Eastman, a conservative lawyer who had been seeding Trump’s mind with the theory that Pence had the power to overturn the results. Screaming into a microphone, Eastman alleged that election officials stored ballots “in a secret folder in the machines” and that, once polls closed and officials determined who had voted and who had not, they could “match those unvoted ballots with an unvoted voter and put them together in the machine” to give Biden just enough votes to win. This was a new far-fetched theory for which the Trump team had no evidence, yet the crowd ate it up.
Under a large tent backstage at the rally, Trump hung out with his entourage before stepping out to deliver his speech. There was a party atmosphere. Laura Branigan’s 1982 hit “Gloria” boomed over the loudspeakers. Trump Jr. recorded the scene with his cellphone to post on Instagram. “I think we’re T-minus a couple of seconds here, guys, so check it out,” the president’s son said. He turned the camera to Meadows, the White House chief of staff, and called him “an actual fighter,” then turned it to Guilfoyle. After realizing she was being recorded, she began dancing to the music and implored Trump’s supporters to “have the courage to do the right thing — fight!”
Ivanka Trump was in the tent, too, tending to her father. Melania Trump had chosen not to attend the “Save America” rally, telling aides that she was not sure it was a good idea for her to participate. The first lady was busy that morning overseeing a scheduled photo shoot of rugs and other decor in the White House residence. Yet the first daughter, who typically was just as careful as the first lady about when and where she appeared in public, attended, which surprised White House officials.
“You, who curates your image, you, who looks down on many of the rest of us, what are you doing there? Honestly,” a Trump adviser later remarked.
Ivanka Trump did not appear onstage, however. Rally organizers repeatedly had asked her to give a speech, but she declined. The first daughter told aides that she decided to attend only because she had hoped to calm the president and help keep the event on an even keel.
At noon, Trump took the stage. Sund and his team at Capitol Police headquarters turned up the volume a bit and heard the thundering applause. At the Pentagon, Gen. Mark A. Milley was watching on television from his office as well, deeply disturbed by the rhetoric.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff already had been on edge. A student of history, Milley saw Trump as a classic authoritarian leader with nothing to lose. He had earlier described to aides that he kept having a stomach-churning feeling that some of the worrisome early stages of 20th-century fascism in Germany were replaying in 21st-century America. He saw parallels between Trump’s rhetoric about election fraud and Adolf Hitler’s insistence to his followers at the Nuremberg rallies that he was both a victim and their savior.
“This is a Reichstag moment,” Milley told aides. “The gospel of the Führer.”
This and other episodes recounted in this book are based on hundreds of hours of interviews with more than 140 people, including the most senior Trump administration officials, friends and outside advisers to the 45th president. Most of the people interviewed agreed to speak candidly only on the condition of anonymity. Scenes were reconstructed based on firsthand accounts and, whenever possible, corroborated by multiple sources and buttressed by a review of calendars, diary entries, internal memos and other correspondence among principals.
In his speech on the Ellipse, Trump said, “Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore, and that’s what this is all about. To use a favorite term that all of you people really came up with, we will ‘stop the steal.’ Today I will lay out just some of the evidence proving that we won this election, and we won it by a landslide.”
The president repeated more lies about the election outcome, then said, “I hope Mike is going to do the right thing. I hope so. I hope so, because if Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election.”
He concluded his speech by urging his supporters to march to the Capitol and suggesting that he would join them.
“We’re going to walk down to the Capitol and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women,” Trump said. He added, “We’re going to try and give our Republicans — the weak ones, because the strong ones don’t need any of our help — we’re going to try and give them the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.”
At noon, the same time Trump began speaking at his rally, police reported that roughly 300 members of the Proud Boys were outside the Capitol. About 20 minutes into the speech, Capitol Police received reports of suspected bombs on Capitol Hill: suspicious packages at the Supreme Court and near the Democratic National Committee headquarters, as well as a pipe bomb with a timer found outside the Republican National Committee headquarters.
At the Capitol Police’s command center, Sund and his team had turned their attention to the bomb threats and did not hear Trump urge his supporters to march to the Capitol, but within a few minutes of his call, thousands of people started walking along Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues toward the Capitol.
They were pouring into the streets to join the first pack of Trump supporters who had already hit the barricades hard on the Capitol’s western front. That first and more organized group had arrived at 12:45, while the president was still speaking on the Ellipse. They clearly intended to force their way up to the building. The streaming crowds quickly knocked over the temporary fencing that resembled bike racks and stormed onward toward the foundation and series of steps and patios. Many rushed toward the raised platform that had been partly set up for Biden’s inauguration, just two weeks away.
Sund and his team could sense a level of preparation on the part of the protesters. Some of the men leading the first charge and snaking their way up the hill were barking into walkie-talkies in their hands. Many wore backpacks, and some had on battle helmets and bulletproof vests.
Around the same time, Pence arrived at the Capitol to begin the day’s proceedings, set to start at 1 p.m. Just as his motorcade deposited him at the building’s eastern front, the vice president’s office released a three-page letter to members of Congress signed by Pence outlining his interpretation of his legal duties and the limits of his power as presiding officer. In it, Pence wrote, “I share the concerns of millions of Americans about the integrity of this election,” adding that he would ensure that they “receive a fair and open hearing.”
But, Pence stressed, “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.”
Pence vowed to hear any objections, and then to count the electoral college votes “in a manner consistent with our Constitution, laws, and history.” His final words: “So help me God.”
Outside the Capitol, the pro-Trump protest was quickly morphing into a battle scene. Demonstrators so outnumbered law enforcement officials that hundreds of Capitol Police officers on the western front of the complex had no chance of holding the crowds away from the grounds. This was no ordinary political protest. It was a riot. Many of those crashing through the outer barricades were wearing military gear and carrying Trump flags, and some were wielding pipes, batons and cans of bear spray. A few had climbing gear, and some even brought night-vision goggles and fire-retardant gloves. Some engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the police officers, who chose not to fire on the crowd for fear of triggering gruesome violence.
Inside the Capitol, the joint session was underway in the House chamber. Lawmakers from both chambers began considering electoral vote counts state by state, in alphabetical order, but were interrupted by a Republican objection to Arizona’s tally and soon disbanded. Senators returned to the Senate chamber for debate, where at 1:35 Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rose to strenuously condemn the move by some of his Republican brethren to block certification.
Reading from a carefully prepared text, McConnell said, “The Constitution gives us here in Congress a limited role. We cannot simply declare ourselves a National Board of Elections on steroids … [If] this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral.”
McConnell and most of his colleagues did not know about the mayhem building outside. But Sen. Mitt Romney had been more attentive than others. On Jan. 2, the senator from Utah received a call from Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, warning him about unsettling personal and specific threats. Milley had shared with King online chatter he had discovered through an app on his phone called Dataminr.
Pro-Trump rhetoric was interlaced with calls for violence and references to smuggling guns and other weapons into Washington to “stop the steal.” One message said something along the lines of, “Let’s burn Senator McConnell’s house down while he’s in it.”
“We are coming to kill you. Just wait a few days,” read another message, which appeared to be aimed at members of Congress who supported certifying the election.
Romney told his wife, Ann, about King’s call.
“Mitt, you can’t go back,” Ann Romney told her husband. She called his Senate staff and said she feared for his safety.
Mitt Romney tried to reassure her. “It’s the Capitol and I’m careful and I do have precautions and security. I’ll be very, very careful,” he told his wife. He said he had a responsibility to go back to Washington to certify the election.
Romney solidified his plans to fly to Washington while his aides arranged for additional security. He was harassed by Trump supporters at Salt Lake City International Airport on Jan. 5 and aboard his flight; some passengers chanted, “Traitor! Traitor! Traitor!”
As Romney sat in the Senate on Jan. 6, his phone buzzed with a text message from aide Chris Marroletti.
“I’m not liking what’s happening outside the Capitol,” Marroletti wrote to his boss. “There are really big, violent demonstrations going on. I think you ought to leave.”
“Let me know if they get inside the Capitol and I will go to my hideaway,” Romney texted back.
At 2:10, the first rioter entered the Capitol by breaking a window and climbing inside. A stream of Trump warriors followed him.
In the Senate chamber, where Pence was presiding at the rostrum, Romney was the first to move. After Marroletti texted him, “They’re inside the Capitol,” Romney walked off the floor and started to make his way alone toward his small hideaway office in the Capitol. He ran into Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman, who was guarding the area outside the chamber. “Go back in,” Goodman instructed Romney. “There are people not far. You’ll be safer inside.” Romney turned around and returned to his desk on the Senate floor.
At 2:13, Pence’s Secret Service detail removed the vice president from the Senate floor and took him through a side door to his ceremonial office nearby, along with his wife, Karen, their daughter Charlotte, and his brother, Greg, a congressman from Indiana. The Pences were hurried across one of the Capitol’s many ornate marble hallways to get there, but the path proved eerily close to danger. One or two minutes later, marauders chanting Pence’s name charged up the stairs to that precise landing in front of the hallway, and a quick-thinking Goodman led the rioters in a different direction, away from the Senate chamber. Had Pence walked past any later, the intruders who called him a traitor would have spotted him.
The Senate immediately went into recess. The C-SPAN feed providing live footage of the proceedings was shut off. The same was happening at the other end of the building, where plainclothes Capitol Police officers barricaded the door to the Speaker’s Lobby just off the House chamber to keep the protesters from charging in. The House adjourned at 2:20. Pelosi had been presiding when her security team yanked her from the rostrum. “I thought they were just switching off because of mischief,” she later recalled. “I didn’t know it was because of real danger.”
Capitol Police officers whisked away the leaders of both houses of Congress to an undisclosed safe location in the Hart Senate Office Building. Other lawmakers were evacuated, too, although the process of getting to safety proved chaotic.
“We’re walking down the tunnels and there happened to be two officers there and we said, ‘Where are we going?’ ” Romney recalled. “They said, ‘Well, I’m sure the senators know.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m a senator and I don’t know.’ ”
At the White House, Trump was back in his private dining room watching everything unfold on television. Aides, including Dan Scavino and Kayleigh McEnany, popped in and out. The president was riveted. His supporters had heeded his call to march on the Capitol with “pride and boldness.” For Trump, there was no more beautiful sight than thousands of energetic people waving Trump flags, wearing red MAGA caps and fighting to keep him in power.
“He thought, ‘This is cool.’ He was happy,” recalled one aide who was with Trump that afternoon. “Then when it turned violent, he thought, ‘Oh, crap.’ ”
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham said, “It took him a while to appreciate the gravity of the situation. The president saw these people as allies in his journey and sympathetic to the idea that the election was stolen.”
As rioters marauded through the Capitol, it was clear whom they were looking for. Some of them shouted, “Hang Mike Pence!” Trump didn’t exactly throw them off the hunt. At 2:24, the president tweeted, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.”
At that moment, Pence was still in his ceremonial office — protected by Secret Service agents, but vulnerable because the second-floor office had windows that could be breached and the intruding thugs had gained control of the building. Tim Giebels, the lead special agent in charge of the vice president’s protective detail, twice asked Pence to evacuate the Capitol, but Pence refused. “I’m not leaving the Capitol,” he told Giebels. The last thing the vice president wanted was the people attacking the Capitol to see his 20-car motorcade fleeing. That would only vindicate their insurrection.
The third time Giebels asked Pence to evacuate, it was more of an order than a request. “They’re in the building,” Giebels said. “The room you’re in is not secure. There are glass windows. I need to move you. We’re going.”
At 2:26, after a team of agents scouted a safe path to ensure the Pences would not encounter trouble, Giebels and the rest of Pence’s detail guided them down a staircase to a secure subterranean area that rioters couldn’t reach, where the vice president’s armored limousine awaited. Giebels asked Pence to get in one of the vehicles. “We can hold here,” he said.
“I’m not getting in the car, Tim,” Pence replied. “I trust you, Tim, but you’re not driving the car. If I get in that vehicle, you guys are taking off. I’m not getting in the car.”
The Pences then made their way to a secure underground area to wait out the riot.
Back at the White House, Kellogg was worried about Pence’s safety and went to find Trump.
“Is Mike okay?” the president asked him.
“The Secret Service has him under control,” Kellogg told Trump. “Karen is there with the daughter.”
“Oh?” Trump asked.
“They’re going to stay there until this thing gets sorted out,” Kellogg said.
Trump said nothing more. He didn’t express any hope that Pence was okay. He didn’t try to call the vice president to check on him. He just stayed in the dining room watching television.
Around this time, Kellogg ran into Tony Ornato in the West Wing. Ornato, who oversaw Secret Service movements, told him that Pence’s detail was planning to move the vice president to Joint Base Andrews.
“You can’t do that, Tony,” Kellogg said. “Leave him where he’s at. He’s got a job to do. I know you guys too well. You’ll fly him to Alaska if you have a chance. Don’t do it.”
Pence had made clear to Giebels the level of his determination and Kellogg said there was no changing it.
“He’s going to stay there,” Kellogg told Ornato. “If he has to wait there all night, he’s going to do it.”
Ornato, through a spokesman, denied having this conversation.
Sund’s effort to secure the Capitol with military reinforcements hit a major snag. He was shocked to learn that, on that day, Gen. William Walker didn’t have permission to dispatch the National Guard to help him. Only the top official at the Pentagon could order that, because of a memo Chris Miller, the acting defense secretary, had signed a few days earlier. Defense Department leaders were gun-shy after the intense criticism of the military’s role in clearing Lafayette Square in June. Now, in a tense conference call, Sund pleaded with two lieutenant generals to get the Army secretary to send immediate help, but they initially resisted, wary of the “visual” of troops on the Capitol grounds.
At the Pentagon, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy rushed into Miller’s office suite where senior leaders were meeting to try to get a handle on the rapidly deteriorating situation. It was about 2:30 p.m. They had just learned that the crowd outside the Capitol was estimated at 25,000, and that some members were armed and many were violent.
McCarthy gave Miller and the group a rapid update. Police at the Capitol were badly outnumbered by rioters and losing the fight to secure the building. As many as 8,000 protesters had pounded their way through barricades and were streaming through the halls of Congress.
The Pentagon leaders were aghast.
“What do you think, Chairman?” Miller asked Milley.
“Get on the phone with the A.G. right now and get every cop in D.C. down there to the Capitol this minute, all 7[,000] to 8,000 of them,” Milley said. He recommended that National Guard Commander Daniel Hokanson mobilize the entire D.C. National Guard and send out a call for National Guard reinforcements from the nearby states of Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Most lawmakers had been evacuated from the Capitol for their own safety, but most of their staff members were left to fend for themselves as armed mobs of violent rioters started to roam through hallways and in and out of offices. Some of them punched and kicked doors. They yelled, “Stop the steal!” As if trapped in a building with multiple active shooters, Hill staffers suffered the terror of not being sure whether they would live or die. Many of them were in their 20s and 30s — part of a generation of Americans who had grown up with the scourge of mass gun violence and had learned in school what to do in active-shooter situations.
After first evacuating congressional leaders to the secure area of the Hart Building, Capitol Police decided to err on the side of caution and transported leaders, including Pelosi, McConnell, Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer and House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, to Fort McNair, an Army post in Southwest Washington.
At the Pentagon, Miller’s office was a hub of activity. At 2:45 p.m., the acting defense secretary had a group conference call with acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen to urge him to deploy all law enforcement officers at his disposal. Milley said the National Guard had to move as soon as possible, too, although he acknowledged that it would surely take longer to mobilize troops than police forces.
At 3:04 p.m., Ryan McCarthy transmitted the decision to call up National Guard units from D.C. and neighboring states. The units would begin to arrive on the Capitol grounds about 2½ hours later — which the Pentagon considered lightning speed.
Lawmakers were horrified as they hid from rioters. People who appeared to be maniacs — some wearing horns, carrying zip ties and chanting about hanging the “traitors” — were coursing through the halls of Congress waving Confederate and neo-Nazi flags. A mob had taken over the Senate floor.
At 3:15 p.m., Dan Sullivan called Milley. “This is really f----- up down here,” said the Republican senator from Alaska.
Sullivan told Milley that the senators were safe in a secure location and that Capitol Police had a tentative plan to evacuate them by bus. Sullivan, who had military training, thought the movement would put them in more danger. “I’m going to tell them it’s a bad idea,” he told Milley. “Can I mention that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs agrees?”
“Yes,” Milley said. The plan never came to be.
At 3:33 p.m., Pelosi and Schumer called Miller, who had other Pentagon leaders standing by listening. There was high anxiety in their voices. They sounded angry, although not panicked.
“We want action now,” one of them said. “We must have active-duty troops.”
Milley spoke up: “We have the Guard coming.”
Miller said the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies were on their way.
Pelosi and Schumer said that wasn’t enough. They needed active-duty troops to get control of the situation. This was a matter of life and limb.
“The country is at stake,” Pelosi said.
At 4 p.m., Pence called Miller from his secure location. The vice president was calm. He had no anxiety or fear in his voice. Pence delivered a set of directives to the defense chief.
“Get troops here; get them here now,” the vice president ordered. “We’ve got to get the Congress to do its business.”
“Yes, sir,” Miller said.
It was the sternest Miller or the other Pentagon officials listening had ever heard Pence.
“Get the Capitol cleared,” he told Miller. “You’ve got to get down here. You’ve got to get the place cleared. We’ve got to do what we have to do.”
“Yes, sir,” Miller answered.
As Pence gave orders to the military, the actual commander in chief was effectively AWOL. Trump spent the afternoon glued to the television watching the drama unfold.
After his tweet castigating Pence amid the height of the attack, Trump had issued two tweets that many of his aides felt still missed the mark. In neither did Trump call on his supporters to leave the Capitol.
As soon as she saw on the television in her second-floor office that the rioters were inside the Capitol, Ivanka Trump said to her aides, “I’m going down to my dad. This has to stop.” She spent several hours walking back and forth to the Oval trying to persuade the president to be stronger in telling his supporters he stood with law enforcement and ordering them to disperse.
Just when Ivanka Trump thought she had made headway and returned upstairs, Meadows would call her to say that the president still needed more persuading. “I need you to come back down here,” Meadows would tell her. “We’ve got to get this under control.” He would clear the room of other aides and say, “I only want Ivanka, myself and the president in here.”
This cycle repeated itself several times that afternoon. As another presidential adviser said, “Ivanka was described to me like a stable pony. When the racehorse gets too agitated, you bring the stable pony in to calm him down.”
Other White House officials also pleaded with Trump to condemn the violence unequivocally.
“You need to tweet something,” Kellogg told the president. “Nobody’s going to be watching TV out there, but they will be looking at their phones. You need to tweet something.”
He added: “Once mobs get moving, you can’t turn them off.”
Kevin McCarthy, who had been trying to reach Trump at the White House, finally succeeded and asked him to publicly and forcefully call off the rioters. Trump falsely claimed that the attackers were members of antifa. McCarthy told the president that in fact they were his own supporters.
“Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” Trump said, according to the account that Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler said McCarthy gave her.
Other advisers who were away from the White House tried to call Trump, but he didn’t answer. They figured he knew what they were going to say, and he didn’t want to hear it. Plus, he was busy watching TV.
Kellyanne Conway tried to talk to Trump and left a message with his office, asking that her name be added to the chorus of people calling on the president to do something.
“This is really bad,” Conway said. “People are going to get hurt. Only he can stop them. He can’t just tweet. He’s got to get down there.”
Alyssa Farah, watching on television from Florida, was heartbroken and reached out several times to Meadows, her former boss. “You guys have to say something,” she told him. “Even if the president’s not willing to put out a statement, you should go to the [cameras] and say, ‘We condemn this. Please stand down.’ If you don’t, people are going to die.”
Some other White House officials felt helpless. Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, watched the riot on television from his second-floor West Wing office. At one point, Chris Liddell, a deputy chief of staff, came in to join him. They were horrified, but they didn’t believe there was anything they could do to stop it. These were two of the most powerful people in the government, yet what could they do if the president refused to act?
Lindsey Graham wanted to get through to the president as well. He had an idea: call Ivanka Trump. The senator rang the first daughter on her cellphone numerous times until she finally picked up.
“You need to tell him to tell these people to leave,” Graham said.
“We’re working on it,” she replied.
On Capitol Hill, most of the senators, along with about 50 staff members, were in a large undisclosed room secured by Capitol Police. Tensions were high. Romney was as upset as he’d ever been. He went up to Josh Hawley and Ron Johnson, two of the dozen Republican senators objecting to the certification.
“This is what you have caused,” Romney told them.
At 4:05 p.m., Biden delivered remarks from Wilmington, Del. The senators stopped what they were doing and silently watched on television screens. Trump still had not appeared on camera since the siege began, but the president-elect stepped in to try to calm the nation.
“At this hour, our democracy is under unprecedented assault, unlike anything we’ve seen in modern times,” Biden said. He added: “This is not dissent. It’s disorder. It’s chaos. It borders on sedition. And it must end now.”
Biden said, “The words of a president matter, no matter how good or bad that president is. At their best, the words of a president can inspire. At their worst, they can incite.”
Watching from their secure room, the senators stood and applauded — Republicans and Democrats alike. “It was like, wow, we have a leader who said what needed to be said,” Romney recalled.
At 4:17 p.m., Trump posted on Twitter a video of remarks to the nation that he had recorded in the Rose Garden after those closest to him had pleaded for hours. He began by repeating his fraudulent line that the election was rigged.
“I know your pain. I know you’re hurt,” Trump said. “We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election and everybody knows it, especially the other side. But you have to go home now. We have to have peace. We have to have law and order.”
Then the president said: “We love you. You’re very special. You’ve seen what happens. You see the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil. I know how you feel, but go home, and go home in peace.”
The president’s message was jarringly inconsistent. He had recorded three takes, each time veering off the script his speechwriters had prepared. The version released was the most palatable option.
As the sun began to go down over the city, the Capitol still was not secure.
At 4:39 p.m., Miller gave Meadows an update on the status of removing protesters from the complex. McConnell joined the call at different points and sounded furious.
“I want it clear,” the Senate majority leader demanded. “I want it cleared out now. The Senate needs to get its business done.”
He added: “We’re going back in session at 8 o’clock in prime time. If you haven’t secured the entire area, you have to secure the two chambers, because we’re going to go back on the air in prime time and let the American people know that this insurrection has failed.”
Pelosi also insisted that the House return to session that evening. At one point, defense officials suggested to her they transport House members by bus to Fort McNair and hold their session there, because it could more easily be secured than the Capitol.
“No, you’re not,” Pelosi said. “We’re going back to the Capitol. You just tell us how long it will take to get rid of these people. We’re coming back to the Capitol.”
Pence agreed. He, too, was adamant that the Senate and the House finish their work that evening.
“We need to get back tonight,” he said on a call with congressional leaders and defense and security officials. “We can’t let the world see that our process of confirming the next president can be delayed.”
Despite Milley recommending that the Pentagon call up neighboring National Guard units immediately, Ryan McCarthy hadn’t gotten around to it until more than 2½ hours after the Capitol was breached. About 750 Guard troops from Maryland would soon begin arriving, along with 620 from Virginia.
By 6 p.m., the Capitol was emptied of rioters but not fully secure. Explosives teams were sweeping for bombs and were nearly done. But they still expected that it would take 90 more minutes to give the all-clear for lawmakers to return.
At 6:01 p.m., Trump tweeted again: “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. Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”
At no time that Wednesday since the Capitol siege began did these government and military leaders hear from the president. Not even the vice president heard from Trump.
At 8:06 p.m., an emotional Pence called the Senate back into session. “To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today, you did not win,” he said. “Violence never wins. Freedom wins, and this is still the people’s house.”
As Pence got to work doing precisely what Trump had ordered him not to do, Romney thought to himself: “High personal cost. Five years of praising the president in every possible way, both visually and verbally, to instead have all of that flipped upon him and be criticized by the president had to be a reversal of historic proportion."
The floor debate picked up where it left off, with Arizona’s electoral votes. And although some Republicans continued to object, there were fewer than before the siege.
Graham gave an animated speech in which he appeared to be grieving for a friend who had lost his way.
“Trump and I, we had a hell of a journey. I hate it being this way,” he said. “All I can say is: Count me out. Enough is enough. I tried to be helpful.”
When it was Romney’s turn, he had sharp words not only for the president but also for some of his fellow senators.
“We gather today due to a selfish man’s injured pride and the outrage of his supporters, whom he has deliberately misinformed for the past two months and stirred to action this very morning,” Romney said.
In the end, six Republican senators objected to the counting of Arizona’s electoral votes and seven objected to counting Pennsylvania’s.
In the House, where Pelosi gaveled the session to order an hour later, at 9 p.m., the Republican resistance was greater still. One hundred twenty-one House members, nearly two-thirds of the Republican conference, voted against counting Arizona’s votes, and even more, 138, voted against counting Pennsylvania’s.
Pelosi could hardly believe it. “That they, in the middle of the night, would say, ‘We still want to [object to] Pennsylvania,’ just showed you the total cavalier disregard they had for our country,” she recalled. They weren’t beholden to country, she said, but to Trump, “this insane person spreading this insanity.” Maybe the House Republicans feared him, maybe they agreed with him, Pelosi said, “or they were just in a cult.”
At 3:24 a.m., Congress completed its duty and voted to confirm Biden’s 306-to-232 electoral win. Pence formally declared him the next president of the United States.
Trump stayed silent through much of the evening. Twitter that night took the extraordinary step of suspending his accounts temporarily, saying that his messages had violated its civic policies against spreading misinformation. Facebook soon followed.
Senior adviser Jason Miller worked with Trump, suddenly deprived of his megaphone, and the first lady to draft a statement that Dan Scavino would release on the president’s behalf once the outcome was official. For Trump, conceding to Biden was out of the question. But Miller pressed him to, at a minimum, commit to an orderly transition of power. After Jan. 6, there could no longer be a peaceful handover. But he argued that the country needed to be assured that Trump would not try any more gambits.
On that, Trump agreed. His statement read: “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. I have always said we would continue our fight to ensure that only legal votes were counted. While this represents the end of the greatest first term in presidential history, it’s only the beginning of our fight to Make America Great Again.”
Copyright 2021 by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker. Reprinted with permission from Penguin Press. All rights reserved.