In the early hours of Thursday, Jan. 7, Congress confirmed Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential election. The vote came after a mob loyal to President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol—in an assault on democracy without precedent in the nation’s history.
Following congressional ratification of the election result, Trump’s social media director tweeted a statement from the president in which he repeated his false claims about the election but said there will be “an orderly transfer of power” on Jan. 20. Trump’s own account had been blocked by Twitter on Wednesday after he tweeted to the mob of supporters at the Capitol.
Shortly after 3:40 a.m., Vice President Mike Pence, who presided over the joint session of Congress, announced the tally, 306-232.
Like many of us, Rep. Joe Morelle recoiled in disbelief at the scene that unfolded at the Capitol Wednesday as the pro-Trump mob stormed and vandalized the building. Unlike most of us who watched the spectacle unfold on television, Morelle, the Irondequoit Democrat who is Monroe County’s congressional representative, witnessed the events firsthand.
The joint session had hardly begun when protestors stormed the building, sending Morelle and congressional representatives of both parties scurrying.
“The images seemed surreal. It was extraordinary to see,” Morelle told me Wednesday, before the police had forced the crowds to disperse.
Morelle spoke from an undisclosed, secure location that he had been hustled to as the mob broke into the building after smashing windows and breaking through doors.
“Don’t ask any questions that might give away Joe’s location,” Morelle aide Dana Vernetti cautioned, repeating an earlier warning before connecting me to the congressman.
A small contingent of Capitol Police guarding the building were quickly overwhelmed, leaving protesters to roam the halls and force their way into senators’ and congressional representatives’ offices. At approximately 5 p.m., when I spoke with Morelle, it was not clear how soon the building and its environs might be cleared.
Protestors at that point had occupied the Senate floor and broke into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s and other congressional offices
“I wanted to ask them: ‘What about the Constitution; what about the rule of law?’” Morelle said.
But more immediately, he and other Democrats were conferring remotely to discuss how to resume the joint session of Congress the storming of the Capitol had upended.
Communication across the aisle was also taking place, Morelle said. Republicans whom he and others spoke to expressed horror at the day’s events. Still, he said, few who had joined Trump to question the November election’s validity were willing to connect the protests to their own expressions of doubt.
In addition to Morelle, I reached out to Rep. Tom Reed, the Corning Republican who represents a congressional district spanning 11 Finger Lakes counties including Ontario, Seneca, Schuyler and Yates. As of early evening, Reed, who had not planned to protest Biden’s electoral win, had not responded to me.
In a statement posted on Twitter late Wednesday afternoon, Reed said: “Violence such as what we are seeing at the Capitol is absolutely unacceptable. We must de-escalate the situation immediately. We are Americans and do not do this.
“My heart breaks for our nation right now. Our country and its beautiful democracy is better than this. Our Constitution calls for the civil transition of power and though we may not agree with the election results, we must agree to always act with honor and civility towards all. We believe in the right to peacefully protest, but we must emphatically reject these horrible instances of physical attacks on our governing institutions and let democracy proceed.”
Around 8 p.m. Congress reconvened the session.
The event the riot interrupted was supposed to have been largely ceremonial, a session called every four years in which Congress formally counts and records the 50 states’ already certified Electoral College votes. In November, Trump, the Republican incumbent, had lost the popular vote to Biden, his Democratic challenger, by more than 7 million votes, and he was defeated 306 to 232 in the Electoral College.
Despite losing nearly 60 court challenges including a Supreme Court bid questioning the November election’s legitimacy, Trump has insisted for weeks that the election was rigged with many fraudulent votes counted.
Over the last week or so, Trump stepped up his own protests, repeatedly called for supporters to protest the Jan. 6 joint session. Roughly an hour before Congress gaveled in, Trump rallied crowds he had summoned to the capital for the protest, vowing to never concede the election.
Before protests upended the session, more than 100 House Republicans and at least a dozen senators had vowed to question several swing states’ electoral votes in what most agreed would amount to a symbolic protest. Those objections were expected to stretch what ordinarily would be an hourlong event into the night or even the next day.
The House and Senate were separately debating an objection to Arizona’s results when the Capitol was locked down. After the mob was evicted, plans to challenge a number of other states were dropped, but one additional objection, to Pennsylvania’s results, also advanced to a vote.
Eight senators and 139 representatives voted to sustain either or both the Arizona and Pennsylvania objections. Among lawmakers representing Rochester-area residents, Rep. Chris Jacobs was alone in voting in favor of one or both objections, the New York Times reported. In a press release, he pointed to “election irregularities,” though election officials nationwide from both parties have found no basis for such claims.
As events unfolded on the afternoon and evening of Jan. 6, a number of Trump confidants including former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway urged Trump to tell the protestors he had summoned to quit the scene.
Republican lawmakers including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., called for the protestors to stand down with no apparent effect. Similar urgings from Pence had earlier gone unheeded.
In a speech broadcast live on network TV, Biden condemned the protests as “insurrection” and also called for Trump to definitively tell the protestors to quit the scene.
Not long after that, Trump released a video in which he asked the protestors to disassemble. But he also said “I know your pain. I know you’re hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election, and everyone knows it, especially the other side.”
Speaking to ABC News anchor and political analyst George Stephanopoulos, Christie characterized the videotaped statement as “one step forward and two steps back.”
In the taped message, Trump began by expressing his “love” for the protestors, expressed sympathy for their feelings of “being cheated,” and went on to reprise his oft-repeated but unproven claim that he had actually won the election “by a lot” before asking protestors to “peacefully” disassemble.
Few would heed the president’s call for protestors to dispurse, Christie accurately predicted. Trump should have, like Biden, made a live address in which he concentrated more on a firm call for protestors to immediately quit, said Christie, a longtime Trump confidant who worked on both of Trump’s presidential campaigns.
Some commentators drew a direct line between Trump’s incitement and the mob action, wondering if Trump should somehow be held responsible for the unprecedented sight of American citizens storming the Capitol.
In early discussions, Democratic lawmakers had a lot of ideas about how Trump might be dealt with but were more immediately focused on completing the task that was supposed to be at hand, Morelle said.
“The first order of business today is to make sure we fulfill our constitutional obligation,” he said.
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. Executive Editor Paul Ericson contributed to this article.