The peaceful transfer of power in the US ground to a halt for hours on Wednesday after angry mobs of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building and forced lawmakers to temporarily abandon the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory.
The violent clashes capped two months of political turmoil during which President Donald Trump has repeatedly refused to accept defeat and stoked anger among his supporters by peddling baseless allegations of mass voter fraud.
The incursion into the halls of Congress stoked fears about the resilience of America’s political institutions and raised questions about Mr Trump’s fitness to remain in office for the remaining two weeks of his term.
Mr Biden said that US democracy was under “unprecedented assault” and called for Mr Trump to appear on national TV to “demand an end to this siege”.
Moments later, Mr Trump appeared in a video posted to his Twitter and Facebook accounts, in which he repeated false claims that he won the election in a “landslide”. The outgoing president professed his “love” for his supporters, describing them as “very special”, while also urging them to “go home”.
The president later redoubled his support for the rioters on Twitter, justifying and glorifying their actions: “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!”
Republicans and Democrats resumed the certification of Electoral College votes on Wednesday night after the Capitol complex was secured. But in the wake of the events of the afternoon, some lawmakers called for Mr Trump to leave or be removed from office even before Mr Biden’s inauguration on January 20, accusing the outgoing president of fomenting the attack.
Some Democrats called for invoking the 25th amendment, which allows for a president to be forced out of the White House by a majority of his cabinet if he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”.
“President Trump revealed that he is not mentally sound and is still unable to process and accept the results of the 2020 election,” Democratic members of the House judiciary committee wrote in a letter to Mike Pence, the vice-president.
The committee members said Mr Trump’s “willingness to incite violence and social unrest to overturn the election results by force clearly meet” the standard required to invoke the 25th amendment.
A spokesperson for Mr Pence denied that there had been any discussions between the vice-president and cabinet members about removing Mr Trump from office.
Thousands of Trump supporters had massed in Washington on Wednesday to obstruct the certification of Mr Biden’s victory at the joint session of Congress, which was presided over by Mr Pence before it was broken up by the mob.
Even before the violence, the session — which is traditionally a ceremonial rubber-stamping exercise — was expected to be politically explosive after several Republican lawmakers said they would object to Mr Biden’s certification, in effect aligning themselves with Mr Trump’s last-gasp attempt to cling to power.
The Capitol was put on lockdown after the protesters, some of them carrying pro-Trump paraphernalia and flags of the US and the Confederacy, swept through the hallways of Congress. Capitol police evacuated lawmakers, staffers and reporters, who were told to grab gas masks located under their seats.
At one point, law enforcement drew their guns as mobs tried to break down the doors to enter the Senate chamber. One adult woman was shot and killed by a Capitol police officer, Washington DC police said, while three more people died due to medical emergencies during the protests. Fourteen police officers were injured, including two who were hospitalised.
Muriel Bowser, the mayor of the District of Columbia, called a curfew between 6pm on Wednesday and 6am on Thursday to maintain public order. Robert Contee, the city’s police chief, told reporters that 52 arrests had been made, including 26 on the grounds of the Capitol. He added that police recovered two pipe bombs and a cooler containing a long gun and Molotov cocktails.
Images from reporters inside the Capitol complex revealed the scale of the security breach, with protesters roaming the legislative chambers and ransacking lawmakers’ offices, including that of Nancy Pelosi, House speaker.
Their actions prompted a rare rebuke from George W Bush, the former Republican president, who said: “I am appalled by the reckless behaviour of some political leaders since the election and by the lack of respect shown today for our institutions, our traditions, and our law enforcement.”
Ms Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader, and other congressional leaders were taken to a secure location earlier on Wednesday.
The Capitol Police failed to control the demonstrations as they awaited reinforcements. Christopher Miller, the acting defence secretary, said he and General Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, had fully activated the DC National Guard.
US presidential election 2020: You tell us
How do you feel now the election is over? Are you happy with the winner? Do you feel the election process was fair? How do you see the outlook for America? Do you feel positive about the incoming president or uncertain? Share your thoughts with us.
Mr Miller said that he and Gen Milley had spoken separately to Mr Pence and congressional leaders but made no mention of any discussions with Mr Trump.
Mr Pence was earlier escorted by security from the Senate floor, where he was presiding over a debate about the certification. Only hours before, he had defied Mr Trump by saying he would not stop Mr Biden from being certified as the winner of the presidential election.
“The violence and destruction taking place at the US Capitol Must Stop and it Must Stop Now. Anyone involved must respect Law Enforcement officers and immediately leave the building,” Mr Pence wrote on Twitter.
“Peaceful protest is the right of every American but this attack on our Capitol will not be tolerated and those involved will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” he added.
Letter in response to this article:
Get alerts on US Capitol attack when a new story is published