The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden condemns Trump and his allies as a danger to democracy on the anniversary of the Capitol insurrection

On Jan. 6, Congress marked one year since a pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

President Biden denounced his predecessor Thursday as a threat to the constitutional order at home and the democratic project abroad, using the first anniversary of the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol by Donald Trump’s supporters to rally support for the most basic precepts of the American system.

The remarkable condemnation of the former president was delivered in a building and a country that remains divided over the meaning of the mob attack intended to prevent Biden from taking office after his electoral victory. Biden spoke from Statuary Hall, where one year ago marauding protesters had broken in and set off battles with police for control of the seat of American democracy.

Democrats spent the day recounting from the congressional chambers the terror they felt last year; Republicans, with few exceptions, avoided the proceedings. The current Republican congressional leadership did not participate, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) traveling to Georgia for a funeral, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) working outside of Washington.

Only a few Republican lawmakers issued condemnations of the year-old attack, while fringe members of the GOP tried to fill the void by staging a news conference to elevate unsubstantiated theories that federal agents may have secretly played a role in fomenting the rioters, who have been described by prosecutors and judges as Trump followers inspired by his rhetoric.

Rather than suggest the country had learned from and begun to heal the wounds of the national trauma on Jan. 6, 2021, the day’s events underscored the fundamental challenges that remain. A chorus of national leaders issued statements of alarm about their doubts that the nation will be able to hold on to its founding vision in the coming years.

“The former president of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election,” Biden said, breaking with his recent practice of declining comment on Trump. “He’s done so because he values power over principle, because he sees his own interests as more important than his country’s interests and America’s interests, and because his bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution.”

It was a return to the themes that Biden successfully used in his presidential campaign, which cast Trump as a challenge to the “soul of America.” He addressed his remarks directly to American citizens, asking them repeatedly to reflect on their memories of the last election and the subsequent attack on the Capitol. Biden said the leaders of Russia and China, two prominent American rivals, are betting that “America is a place for the autocrat, the dictator, the strongman.”

“We are living at an inflection point in history, both at home and abroad,” he said. “We’re engaged anew in a struggle between democracy and autocracy, between the aspirations of the many and the greed of the few, between the people’s right of self-determination and [the] self-seeking autocrat.”

Biden’s claims were echoed by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who said Trump continues to “egg on the mob,” and by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who led a moment of silence on the House floor. They hosted a panel of presidential historians, who cast the challenge of last year’s attack in the context of other historic national trials, including the tenuous months in 1861 after the election of President Abraham Lincoln and before the start of the Civil War over slavery.

Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) was one of the few Republican lawmakers to offer a statement on the occasion. “Democracy is fragile,” he said in an implicit rebuke of those in his party who have sought to dismiss the impact of last year’s assault. “[I]t cannot survive without leaders of integrity and character who care more about the strength of our Republic than about winning the next election.”

Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) was the only Republican present on the House floor for a midday moment of silence to commemorate the officers who died in the aftermath of the attack. She was joined by her father, former Republican vice president and congressman Richard B. Cheney, in a show of solidarity. Pelosi told reporters that Democrats were “very honored” by his decision to attend.

“I think they are doing a hell of a job, and I am here to support it,” the elder Cheney told reporters about the commission, of which his daughter is a member, that is investigating the Capitol attack, before criticizing Republican leaders of the House as being unlike those who led the chamber when he served in Congress.

One of Cheney’s former political advisers, Karl Rove, also published an article Thursday in the Wall Street Journal, endorsing the congressional investigation into the attack and criticizing Republicans who have tried to move on prematurely.

“There can be no soft-pedaling what happened and no absolution for those who planned, encouraged and aided the attempt to overthrow our democracy,” he wrote.

Democratic former presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter also issued warnings timed with the anniversary of the Capitol attack.

“The truth is that our democracy is at a greater risk today than it was back then,” Obama said. Clinton said the effort to undermine democracy had “only grown stronger over the last year.” Carter described American democracy as “dangerously fragile.”

Trump, who had once planned to stage his own televised event on the anniversary, opted not to appear in public, bowing to concerns among some of his advisers that such an event would do him political harm. Instead, he released a statement after Biden spoke, falsely claiming that Biden had used his name, while repeating his untrue claim that the 2020 election was “rigged.”

“This political theater is all just a distraction for the fact Biden has completely and totally failed,” Trump said in the statement.

Two of his strongest allies in Washington, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) held a news conference to show video clips of people who participated in the protests around the Capitol who had not yet been charged for their roles. They claimed, without specific evidence, that the people in question could have been working with federal authorities at the time of the attack.

Before, during and after the Capitol insurrection

The Jan. 6 attack, an effort to disrupt the certification of electoral votes awarding the presidency to Biden, took place after a rally near the White House, which had been organized after Trump called supporters to the city for a protest he promised “will be wild.” During the rally, Trump urged his followers to march to the Capitol.

Five people, including a Capitol Police officer, died as a result of the riot, which injured about 140 members of law enforcement. Four other officers who were at the Capitol that day later died by suicide. As battles raged at the Capitol, Trump waited more than three hours, despite the urging of friends and advisers, to release a video that asked his supporters to go home.

More than 725 participants in the riot have been charged by federal prosecutors, including more than 75 who were charged with using a deadly or dangerous weapon against police officers.

In the year since the attack, a strong majority of Americans continue to side against the rioters who sacked the Capitol and favor congressional investigators seeking more information on the attack, despite persistent efforts by Trump and Republican leaders to defend the protests and undermine the probe.

Two recent public polls by news organizations have found that 62 percent and 71 percent of Americans support the investigation. About 6 in 10 Americans in multiple polls say Trump holds significant responsibility for the attack.

“This is a moment in history where the videos don’t lie,” said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster who works for Biden. “When you wake up in the morning and are watching Gayle King, and you are watching a police officer clubbed by a baseball bat, there is nothing partisan about it.”

But a distinct minority of the country, including 62 percent of Republicans, continues to believe falsely that there is solid evidence of widespread election fraud. A smaller fraction of the Republican Party — 24 percent, according to a CBS News-YouGov poll — said they approved of those who forced their way into the U.S. Capitol.

The 1 in 3 Americans who believe Trump’s false claims about the election are also more likely to have a more forgiving view of political violence. In a recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll, 45 percent of those who said they believe Biden’s election was not legitimate said violence against the government can be justified, compared to 30 percent among those who said they believe Biden was legitimately elected.

Sen. Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Lofgren (D-Calif.) discuss what's being done to protect the U.S. Capitol after the Jan. 6 insurrection. (Video: The Washington Post)

Democratic election strategists broadly believe that the Jan. 6 attack and concerns over Trump’s potential return to power in 2024 will be assets in the coming midterm elections, where Democrats otherwise face steep headwinds from Biden’s low approval ratings and continued frustration over the federal government’s response to the covid-19 pandemic and the nation’s economic health.

Three different Democratic groups — Priorities USA, the congressional Hispanic Caucus’s Bold PAC and a new group called Stop Him Now — announced small ad campaigns Wednesday that used violent images from the Jan. 6 attack to warn voters about a Republican return to power.

“Every vote we take this November is a vote against Trump,” ran the tag line of the spot by Priorities USA Action, which the group said was backed by a symbolic investment of more than $100,000.

Republican strategists are similarly wary of the midterms becoming a referendum on Trump or the attack on Jan. 6. They have encouraged Trump and the party’s candidates to focus on Biden’s performance as president. But several expressed the hope that the events of the day would not have a big impact on Republican odds.

“Your typical voter looks at this and says, ‘This is Washington nonsense,’” said Jim McLaughlin, a Republican pollster who advises Trump. “ ‘What I care about is what is going to help my pocketbook, who is going to deal with crime, who is going to fight inflation.’ ”

Elections aside, the day’s events made clear that few speakers were confident, one year after the assault on the Capitol, about the legacy it would leave the country.

“It’s either a step on the way to the abyss,” historian Jon Meacham, a friend and informal adviser to Biden, said at the congressional discussion, which was attended by Schumer and Pelosi. “Or it is a call to arms, figuratively, for citizens to engage and say, ‘No, we are more important, the work we are about is more important than the will and the whim of a single man, or a single party, or a single interest.’ ”

The day of commemoration ended with a candlelight vigil led by Democrats on the Capitol steps for the assault’s victims.

Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.

The Jan. 6 insurrection

Congressional hearings: The House committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol held a series of high-profile hearings to share its findings with the U.S. public. What was likely to be the panel’s final public hearing has been postponed because of Hurricane Ian. Here’s a guide to the biggest hearing 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.