As Congress was certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election that day, a mob of supporters of President Donald Trump, many coming directly from a rally where Trump had urged them to “fight like hell,” stormed the Capitol in an attempt to stop the process.
The officers eventually cleared the building and the final certification took place in the early morning of Jan. 7. But in the months since, some Republicans have sought to rewrite the events of the day, downplaying the violence, putting blame elsewhere and in some cases mythologizing the rioters as heroes.
That was the story line Biden sought to challenge Thursday.
“The tragedy of that day deserves the truth above all else,” the president said. “We cannot allow history to be rewritten. We cannot allow the heroism of these officers to be forgotten. We have to understand what happened — the honest and unvarnished truth. We have to face it. That’s what great nations do.”
On Tuesday, the Senate unanimously approved legislation awarding the Congressional Gold Medal — the legislative branch’s highest honor — after initially voting to award the medal only to Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman. Videos from Jan. 6 showed Goodman diverting rioters away from the Senate chamber, giving lawmakers time to escape.
But the House pushed to broaden the award to recognize all the officers who protected the Capitol, passing the measure last June in a 406-to-21 vote. The 21 votes against the legislation were all from Republicans, many of whom objected to wording in the legislation that referred to the riot as an “insurrection” and to the Capitol as the “the temple of our American democracy.”
The legislation authorized two medals to be distributed to the Capitol Police and the D.C. police. Two more are to be provided to the Architect of the Capitol and the Smithsonian Institution, who are directed to put their medals on public display.
Biden said Thursday these exhibits will ensure that officers “remember the heroism of their colleagues and the importance of their work” and that visitors to the Capitol and the Smithsonian “can understand what happened that day.”
The violence and menace of the Jan. 6 assault, now being investigated by a special House committee, have become increasingly clear as more information and videos have emerged. Lawmakers were forced into hiding, and rioters rampaged through the building, threatening to kill Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
One Capitol Police officer, Brian D. Sicknick, died after confronting the rioters, and four other officers who were at the Capitol that day have died by suicide in the days and months since.
Trump and his supporters, meanwhile, have become more outspoken in portraying the riot as a largely peaceful gathering of supporters, justifiably upset by the election, who have been unfairly targeted by Democrats and the media. They have even started to blame Pelosi for the violence, saying it was her responsibility to protect the Capitol.
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), the newly selected chair of the House GOP, recently said Pelosi “bears responsibility” for the violence, describing her as “an authoritarian who has broken the people’s house.”
Ashli Babbitt, a rioter and Trump supporter who was killed while storming the Capitol, has increasingly been transformed into a martyr among the former president’s supporters. Babbitt was shot as she attempted to jump through a door that led to the House chamber as police were trying to hold the chamber and defend those in it against the mob.
At a rally last month in Florida, Trump called the shooting “a terrible thing” and said “there was no reason for it.”
Vice President Harris, who was at the Capitol on Jan. 6, also spoke at the Rose Garden Thursday, reflecting on her return to the Senate chamber after the rioters were cleared and the Senate had certified the election results.
Ticking off historic legislation that has been passed in the Senate chamber, including the New Deal, the Great Society and voting rights legislation, she said, “In that chamber just before 1 a.m., as officers stood guard, the final vote was tallied. Democrats, independents and Republicans came together and upheld the vote and the voice of the American people. As those officers continued even at that late hour to secure our capital, they secured our democracy.”
Pelosi, Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and more than a dozen Capitol Police officers also attended Thursday’s event. Klobuchar and Blunt lead the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, which oversees the Capitol Police, while Leahy is the dean of the Senate as its longest-serving member.
Family members of police officers who died were also in attendance. The president, who spoke of his losing members of his own family, greeted and consoled the families of the deceased officers.
The battle to define the narrative of the Jan. 6 attack is underway in various arenas — including the courts, Congress and the media — as Trump contemplates whether to seek the presidency again.
After Pelosi announced a special committee to investigate the events, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) named five members to it, but Pelosi rejected two of them who she said have not shown a serious desire to find the truth. McCarthy then withdrew all his appointees, and the speaker named two other Republicans to the committee, Reps. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.).
The debate is unfolding in the courts as well. On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson rejected claims that defendants charged in the Capitol breach are “political prisoners” or that riot participants acted out of patriotism.
“He was not a political prisoner,” Jackson said in sentencing Karl Dresch, 41, of Calumet, Mich. “He was arrested because he was an enthusiastic participant in an effort to subvert and undo the electoral process.”
Just a few days earlier, four Republican lawmakers — Reps. Paul A. Gosar (Ariz.), Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Louis Gohmert (Tex.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) — showed up at the D.C. jail demanding to inspect the treatment of those detained in connection with the Capitol assault.
On Thursday, Biden was at pains to emphasize that it was the police officers, not the rioters, who had acted patriotically that day.
“The fallen, in my view, are casualties of a struggle literally for the soul of America,” Biden said. “A struggle that they didn’t start, a struggle we didn’t seek, and a struggle that, by the grace of God, we’ll win.”