GOP reckons with mob insurrection as Congress returns to finalize electoral votes

Officials of both parties said to be considering impeachment, 25th Amendment to shut down Trump's rebellion

Published January 7, 2021 5:00AM (EST)

Trump supporters take over the steps of the Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, as the Congress works to certify the electoral college votes. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Trump supporters take over the steps of the Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, as the Congress works to certify the electoral college votes. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Members of Congress reconvened in the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday to confirm Joe Biden's presidential victory after a mob of President Trump's supporters, spurred by the outgoing commander in chief's screed on the National Mall, stormed the building in a violent uprising without precedent in American history.

Vice President Mike Pence, standing at the dais where hours earlier an invading rioter had declared Trump the winner, told the joint session of Congress, "Violence never wins. Freedom wins. And this is still the people's house."

Pence's remarks kicked off a somber evening of debate after the momentous chaos, during which one woman was shot and killed while apparently trying to breach the building and several other people were hospitalized. The mob of Trump supporters had crashed the Capitol grounds at the president's urging, with incoherent hopes of overturning what Trump and his allies, including some Republican members of Congress, have falsely and repeatedly told them is a stolen election. The attack cast a pall over the federal government and the city that hosts it, with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announcing that the national capital will be under a state of public emergency until Jan. 21, the day after Biden's inauguration.

Hours later, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi vowed to reconvene that night, after the building had been cleared, saying that the "shameful assault" on democracy had been "anointed at the highest level of government."

"It cannot, however, deter us from our responsibility to validate the election of Joe Biden," she said.

That evening, Democratic and Republican senators and congressional representatives carried on the unusual business of debating the Electoral College votes, an exceedingly rare occurrence in what has been a routine formality for nearly 150 years.

Some moderate Republicans appeared chagrined at the attempted insurrection that happened on their watch, and was perpetrated by their voters. Pelosi's GOP counterpart, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, speaking on the Senate floor, told colleagues that "Congress will not be the same after today."

"The violence, destruction and chaos we saw earlier was unacceptable, undemocratic and un-American. It was the saddest day I've ever had serving as a member of this institution," McCarthy said, adding the caveat that he still believed the country needed a national discussion about election integrity.

Hours earlier, more than 100 members of McCarthy's caucus had joined more than a dozen Republican senators to object to the ratification of Biden's victory in Arizona, a number of them justifying the decision by parroting lies about election fraud that Trump and his allies have peddled for months.

Following the day's extraordinary violence, several GOP lawmakers abandoned their previous objections, including outgoing Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who on Tuesday lost a runoff election against Democratic challenger Rev. Raphael Warnock, one of two GOP losses in Georgia that will cost Republicans control of the Senate.

Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, a longtime Trump critic who had been the only Republican to vote for the president's removal after his impeachment trial, made clear where the blame for Wednesday's rioting lay in a memorable, stentorian speech on the Senate floor.

"We gather due to a selfish man's injured pride and the outrage of supporters who he has deliberately misinformed for the past two months and stirred to action this very morning," Romney said. "What happened here today was an insurrection incited by the president of the United States."

He implored his colleagues to give up their quixotic crusade and level with their constituents about the truth: Biden won the election.

"No congressional audit is ever going to convince these voters," he said, adding: "The best way we can show respect to voters who are upset is by telling them the truth. That's the burden, that's the duty of leadership." The speech drew applause.

Only six Republican senators stood firm in their objections to Arizona's electoral votes, among them Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri — who resides in Virginia. Hawley, who launched the objection movement, had just that afternoon been trashed in an editorial by the Kansas City Star, the newspaper of record in his home state, saying that he "deserves an impressive share of the blame for the blood that's been shed" because of the leading role he had assumed in backing Trump's futile crusade.

Hawley began by condemning the day's violence, invoking the words of Abraham Lincoln: "no appeal from ballots to bullets." He then pressed ahead with his plans to object to votes — which was the entire reason the pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol in the first place.

The success that the attackers had in accessing the heart of one of the most hardened targets in the United States, apparently without the use of firearms, has drawn scrutiny to the federal forces charged with protecting the grounds. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, the top House official who oversees funding the Capitol Police, told reporters after the rioters were cleared that "there were some strategic mistakes from the very beginning," and said that firings were imminent.

"I think it's pretty clear that there's going to be a number of people who are going to be without employment very, very soon, because this is an embarrassment," Ryan said, "both on behalf of the mob and the president, and the insurrection and the attempted coup, but also the lack of professional planning and dealing with what we knew was going to occur."

"You can bet your ass that we're going to get to the bottom of it," he said.

Outside the Capitol, Washington reckoned with the implications of the fact that the sitting president had unleashed a mob attack designed to thwart the normal work of his own government. Multiple reports indicated that following Wednesday's chaos, congressional and Cabinet officials have discussed invoking the 25th Amendment — often derided during Trump's term as a Democratic pipe dream — which grants Cabinet members the power to vote to relieve presidents of their duties if deemed unfit to lead. Among the officials involved, Axios reported, are top State Department and White House aides. Earlier in the day Pence reportedly deployed the National Guard to the Capitol without Trump's authorization, a highly unusual and as-yet-unexplained breach of the chain of command.

All Democratic members on the House Judiciary Committee sent Pence a letter demanding that he invoke the 25th Amendment and take control of the White House, citing in part Trump's videotaped address to the nation after the attack on the Capitol, which they said revealed the president was not "mentally sound" and was still unable to process his election loss. (Twitter and Facebook temporarily locked Trump's account, demanding that he delete that post and two others.)

A number of top administration officials were also reported to be weighing their resignations in the wake of Trump's attempted insurrection, according to NBC News, among them national security adviser Robert O'Brien and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao who is the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Retired Gen. Mike Mullen, former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Judy Woodruff of "PBS News Hour" on Wednesday night that Trump had "incited" the failed insurrection, and was "not in position to lead the next 14 days."

"I don't think we're done," Mullen added. "Today was not it." 

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

MORE FROM Roger Sollenberger