Written by Michael D. Shear and Jim Tankersley
President-elect Joe Biden denounced the storming of the Capitol on Wednesday as the violent expression of President Donald Trump’s refusal to accept his defeat, calling it “an assault on the citadel of liberty” and saying the president had stoked the mob with his brazen and false claims that the 2020 election had been stolen.
In direct, forceful language, Biden called the scenes of chaos in the halls of Congress “a dark moment” in the nation’s history, appealed for calm and made clear that he held Trump accountable for instigating violence that left members of both parties and allies around the world appalled.
“At their best, the words of a president can inspire. At their worst, they can incite,” Biden said.
“This is not dissent,” the president-elect said in remarks from Delaware as scenes of the armed takeover of the Capitol played out on television screens. “It’s disorder. It’s chaos. It borders on sedition, and it must end now.”
The day had started as one of triumph for Biden and his party, with Democrats coming off elections the day before that sealed control of the Senate by picking up two seats in Georgia and Congress scheduled to clear away the last formal Republican objections to his victory by certifying the Electoral College outcome.
Filling out his Cabinet, Biden chose Judge Merrick Garland, whose Supreme Court nomination Republicans blocked in 2016, to be attorney general, placing the task of repairing a beleaguered Justice Department in the hands of a centrist judge. The choice left some Democrats on the left of the party disappointed that he had not picked a woman or person of color and underscored Biden’s willingness to seek bipartisan consensus.
But by early afternoon, the day had devolved into an intensely jarring reminder of what Biden will face when he takes office on Jan. 20: He will not only inherit a country racked by a pandemic and economic crisis, but also a political fabric that has been ripped apart by Trump and will not easily be woven back together.
The assault on the Capitol by pro-Trump demonstrators devolved into a physical confrontation that halted the process of certifying the Electoral College outcome and was egged on by an incumbent president who on Wednesday morning raged to thousands of his supporters that the election was “rigged” and vowed, “We will never concede.”
With Trump remaining mostly silent immediately after the mob entered the Capitol, Biden called on the president to “go on national television now to fulfill his oath and defend the Constitution and demand an end to this siege.”
“To storm the Capitol,” he continued. “To smash windows, occupy offices. The floor of the United States Senate, rummaging through desks. On the Capitol, on the House of Representatives, threatening the safety of duly elected officials. It’s not protest. It’s insurrection.”
Shortly after, Trump posted on Twitter a one-minute video in which he empathized with the rioters because “we had an election that was stolen from us,” but then urged them to “go home now. We have to have peace. We have to have law and order.”
The effect of the day’s events on Biden’s political strength remained unclear. In one sense, they were a reminder that in the view of Trump’s most die-hard supporters his election was illegitimate, a belief that could inhibit some Republicans in a closely divided Congress from working with him.
Or the “god-awful display” at the Capitol, as he put it, might push the parties together in some sort of temporary solidarity that could give him a chance to forge some early bipartisan deals.
Biden expressed hope that it would be the latter.
“The work of the moment and the work of the next four years must be the restoration of democracy, of decency, honor, respect, the rule of law,” he said, adding later: “We must step up.”
It was a reminder, if Biden or any of his aides needed one, that little in his transition to the presidency was normal.
As the rioters stormed the Capitol, Biden set aside plans to deliver a speech on the economy, in which he had been expected to hail the Georgia victories and to emphasize several of his economic priorities, including reiterating calls for another round of financial aid to help people, businesses and state and local governments weather economic pain from the virus.
Biden’s advisers are deep into the process of developing policy proposals to deliver to Congress in the coming weeks, starting with another stimulus package. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who will be the majority leader after Biden is inaugurated, told reporters Wednesday morning that lawmakers’ first priority will be approving the $2,000 payments to individuals that Biden and the two victorious Senate candidates, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, promised voters they would deliver if Democrats won both elections.
The Biden team is also drafting proposals to implement the president-elect’s “Build Back Better” campaign agenda, including new government spending on clean energy, infrastructure, health care and education, financed by tax increases on the rich and corporations.
The Democratic victories in Georgia put Biden’s party in control at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and reduced the risk of total partisan gridlock in Congress, at least for two years.
Without Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as the iron-fisted leader of the Senate, Biden’s campaign promise of a return to bipartisanship will be put to the test. Now, Schumer and Biden’s allies will bring the new president’s proposals to the Senate floor for a vote. And even with just the narrowest of margins — a 50-50 split that can be broken by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris — he may be able to turn some of those proposals into law.
Biden’s allies in the Senate expressed optimism that, armed with committee chairmanships and control of the legislative calendar, they could advance the president-elect’s policy goals.
“We need to fix a lot of the damage Trump’s done, and then there’s pent-up demand for a whole lot of things — what do we do about climate and about racial inequality, about wealth inequality, about structural racism,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who is set to be the top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., told reporters on Capitol Hill that “there’s a bipartisan agenda there that can unite us, and it should.”
“There’s a hunger for rebuilding our roads, highways, bridges and transit systems,” he said. “There’s a hunger for rebuilding our wastewater, clean drinking water infrastructure.”
Biden has also proposed the most ambitious climate agenda of any president in history, including $2 trillion in spending on green initiatives. A majority in the Senate gives Biden options to make some of that happen.
But Biden’s agenda will be constrained by the Democrats’ narrow advantages in the House and in the Senate, where moderate Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona will wield vast power over which plans can pass.
“The name of the game is still going to have to be modest, incremental progress on a bipartisan basis,” said Michael Steel, a partner at Hamilton Place Strategies in Washington who was a top aide to Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, when he was House speaker. “I can’t come up with a universe in which they are not better off doing a bipartisan process and a bipartisan product. I know that will annoy the left to no end, but that’s the way this president can get results.”
The violence unfolded on the same day that Trump’s Republicans lost their majority in the Senate as they lost two runoff elections in Georgia.
The mayhem stunned world leaders. “Trump and his supporters must accept the decision of American voters at last and stop trampling on democracy,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said.
Business groups, normally staunch allies of Republicans in Washington, also reacted strongly. The National Association of Manufacturers said Pence should consider invoking a clause in the Constitution that allows a president to be removed from office when he is unable to do his job.