Jan. 6, 2021, will be remembered as a day like no other in American history, even one that will live in infamy.
Wednesday marked the most significant breach of the U.S. Capitol since British troops set fire to the building in 1814 during the War of 1812.
Supporters of President Donald Trump who called themselves patriots forced their way into the Capitol where Congress was counting Electoral College votes. Some representatives took cover on the floor in the House as police blocked the door with their guns drawn. Lawmakers were eventually whisked to a secure location in the complex.
Violent protesters pushed their way to the House and Senate chambers where they posed for selfies, including in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. One woman was shot to death in the chaos. Rioters let it be known that they weren’t done, scrawling on a folder: “We will not back down.”
The assault on the hallowed symbol of American democracy was a physical manifestation of an assault on democracy itself.
“We have never seen anything like this in American history, American citizens storming their own Capitol in a misguided attempt to reverse a free and fair election,” said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.
“It is actively participating in undermining the Constitution and democracy in the United States,” he said.
“In my lifetime, I don’t think I’ve ever seen democracy in such a fragile state.”
Congress convened in a joint session Wednesday to tally the states’ electoral votes for president and vice president. A dozen Republican senators and more than 100 House Republicans — including Utah Reps. Chris Stewart and Burgess Owens — announced their intention to challenge President-elect Joe Biden’s victory prior to the session.
The objections began with Arizona, sending House and Senate members to their separate chambers to debate the issue. It was during that time that a mob burst into the Capitol.
Earlier in the day, Trump encouraged thousands of his supporters gathered at a protest on the National Mall to march to the Capitol after again falsely asserting that he had won the election and Democrats had stolen it from him.
Police eventually cleared the building of intruders and Congress reconvened to continue counting electoral votes, confirming Biden’s victory around 3:30 a.m Thursday. Republicans were poised to object to the votes in six swing states that Biden won, but after the day’s events only considered two — Arizona and Pennsylvania.
The Utah delegation
Stewart and Owens voted against the Arizona objection and for the Pennsylvania objection. The other four members of Utah’s all-Republican delegation voted against both objections.
Looking tired and disheartened, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, placed the blame for the mob violence squarely on Trump’s shoulders.
“We gather today due to a selfish man’s injured pride and the outrage of his supporters whom he has deliberately misinformed for the past two months and stirred to action this very morning,” Romney said Wednesday in a Senate floor speech. “What happened here today was an insurrection, incited by the president of the United States.”
Jon Huntsman Jr., former U.S. ambassador to Russia in the Trump administration, also blames Trump for the state of the country.
“Our light has been dimmed by repeated reckless behavior encouraged by our president, who has shown time and again he cares more about is own ego and interests than in building trust in our ever fragile institutions of democracy,” he said.
Huntsman said this “anguishing” period will pass but should motivate people to deepen their resolve to lock arms to make a more perfect union with equal justice and opportunity for all.
Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, called the violence an act of “domestic terrorism” inspired and encouraged by Trump.
“Frustrations with elections I can understand, but the justification for the actions of the president and the mob I cannot. No American, no elected leader, and certainly no president who participates, inspires, or condones actions such as these has my sympathy or support,” he said.
Romney also condemned Senate and House members who raised objections to the electoral vote with the claim that that they were doing it on behalf of voters. He said their calls for an audit to satisfy people who believe the election was stolen would do no good.
“Please! No congressional-led audit will ever convince those voters, particularly when the president will continue to claim that the election was stolen. The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth,” Romney said to lengthy applause in the Senate chamber.
The truth, he said, is that President-elect Joe Biden won, and Trump lost.
In a Senate floor speech, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, explained why he decided to not join in objections to the electoral vote. He said he spent an “enormous amount of time” studying the law, talking with Trump lawyers and in phone conversations with legislators and other leaders from the contested states.
Open and count
The Constitution makes it clear that only states are charged with appointing presidential electors, he said. The 12th Amendment, he said, calls for the vice president to open the ballots and “then the votes shall then be counted.”
“It’s those words that confine, define and constrain every scrap of authority we have in this process,” Lee said. “Our job is to open, then count, open, then count. That’s it. That’s all there is.”
While condemning the violence, Stewart said he still has concerns over the security and integrity of elections and that he’s committed to restoring Americans’ faith in the election process and democracy.
Earlier he said that until issues surrounding voting irregularities, ballot integrity and security, and the implementation of state election laws were resolved, he could not vote to certify the election. He said there is “plenty of evidence” but the question is whether there was enough evidence to overturn the outcome.
Owens said that he would challenge the results, in part because the outcome “doesn’t make sense to me anecdotally or factually.”
“Seventy-four million votes and we’re supposed to believe that, of course, in this case here that Joe Biden is more powerful this time than Barack Obama,” he said.
Biden tallied 81.2 million popular votes in the November election to 74.2 million for Trump. Biden won the electoral vote 306-232.
Curtis said earlier in the week that he would vote to certify the election because the Constitution grants Congress the authority to count electoral votes, not debate the merits of states’ election laws or the validity of the presidential electors they choose.
“Imagine if Congress was making the final decision overriding the will of the states. That’s a place I don’t want to be,” he said.
Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt wonders if the demonstrators really understand how important democracy is and how sacred of a symbol the Capitol is to that democracy.
“And if they did, it makes their offense that much more grave,” he said.
What happened Wednesday was wrong and “violated the threshold of acceptability” for many Republicans. He said it was the embodiment of the extreme on the right.
“I also think that, to keep it in perspective, what we saw was a group of extremists who were regrettably stimulated by the president’s words,” said Leavitt who served as health and human services secretary in the George W. Bush administration.
Police, he said, should find those people and hold them accountable for their actions.
How Wednesday’s violence impacts the country going forward remains to be seen.
“I think there’s a chance that it will be so extreme that many who have supported the president will feel as though it’s gone too far. We don’t know yet,” he said. “I think there’s no question there will be some component of those who were there who will continue this.”
Karpowitz said belligerent, angry and abusive behavior might play well in the echo chamber of Trump’s most ardent supporters but not with the majority of people.
“I don’t think it’s seen by most Americans or most Utahns as patriotic or persuasive. It’s bullying,” he said.
The peaceful transfer of presidential power is a core pillar of a democratic system and violently storming the Capitol is not only shocking and shameful but shows a complete lack of trust in American institutions and the Constitution, Karpowitz said.
Political leadership, he said, is also about finding moments and ways to bring the nation together.
That’s a challenge for citizens and for political leaders who can further their careers by emphasizing the differences and the grievances, Karpowitz said.
“This is what you see when all of your politics is the politics of grievance, and there’s no effort to reach across the aisle to bring the country together in some sort of meaningful way,” he said.
People need to see each other as citizens and understand on both sides what unites Americans and not just what divides them, he said.
“It’s also about recognizing that people who have different political views from us can also be people of goodwill,” Karpowitz said. “Having different political views does not make them evil and does not make them less committed to the nation or its Constitution.”