Three years, 11 months and 17 days after President Donald Trump warned from the West Front of the US Capitol that “American carnage stops right here,” the very spot he stood was engulfed by his own protesters bringing carnage of their own.
It was a stunning scene Trump encouraged hours beforehand and refused to condemn afterward. It left one woman dead, sent members of Congress ducking for cover and forced evacuations after pipe bombs were discovered in nearby office buildings.
Coming 14 days before the end of his presidency, the unprecedented episode prompted renewed calls for Trump’s impeachment and fresh talk of the 25th Amendment that would remove him from office. Several senior White House staffers resigned and many more – including the President’s national security adviser – were also considering leaving in protest.
In many ways the spectacle was the natural culmination of a presidency built on disregard for democratic norms, antagonizing government institutions and willful ignorance of the far-right’s violent tendencies. The mob interrupted the very act that will certify President-elect Joe Biden’s victory and formalize Trump’s loss.
But as predictable as the scene may have been, it nonetheless amounted to a low point for American democracy. The sitting President, in tweets and a video, offered only mild rebukes while seeking to justify the crimes committed in his name.
The messages and video were deleted by Twitter and Facebook in what the companies said was an attempt to prevent more violence. Trump’s Twitter account was temporarily suspended.
Only after pleading from aides and congressional allies inside the besieged Capitol building did Trump release a taped video urging the mass of his supporters – many carrying Trump flags or wearing Trump paraphernalia – to “go home,” while still fanning their misplaced grievances about a stolen election.
Apart from inciting it, Trump appeared otherwise disengaged from the melee. Instead it appeared the vice president, who was evacuated from the Senate floor where he was presiding over the Electoral College count, was responsible for coordinating the government’s response.
In his video, Trump praised the mob, who broke into the Capitol using force, stole items from its rooms and posed for photographs in the legislative chambers.
“We love you,” Trump said. “You’re very special.” Later, he seemed to justify the actions in a tweet, writing, “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away.”
That was a distant cry from how Pence addressed the rioters during remarks from the Senate floor after the chamber reconvened at 8 p.m. ET.
“To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today: You did not win,” he said.
Meanwhile, Giuliani and Trump were calling senators Wednesday evening, urging them to press ahead with objections, according to a source familiar with the discussions, who said it appears Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri will continue his push for an objection.
Trump’s minute-long spot, taped from the White House Rose Garden, was hardly the forceful denunciation of the violence that nearly every one of the President’s allies and advisers were encouraging him to deliver over the course of the afternoon.
Aides who had served with him for years began submitting their resignations, including the first lady’s chief of staff Stephanie Grisham, the White House social secretary and a deputy press secretary.
National security adviser Robert O’Brien, deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger and deputy chief of staff Chris Liddell were all considering resigning as soon as Wednesday night, according to multiple people familiar with the matter. Pottinger’s resignation appeared to be imminent while the others may sleep on the decision.
By evening, as sirens wailed on Capitol Hill and Washington entered a 6 p.m. ET curfew, even some of his top allies were critical – though, after four years of equivocation and appeasement of his violent base, unsurprised – by the President’s response.
One top Republican ally called the President’s video a “piece of sh*t.”
In it, Trump sought to empathize with the rioters based on the lies he’s spread about a fraudulent election.
“I know your pain. I know you’re hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us,” Trump said in the video, his words offering little to placate a crowd he has lied to about the results of November’s presidential contest.
“You have to go home now. We have to have peace,” Trump said, several hours after the doors of the Capitol building were breached, his own vice president was evacuated and multiple police offers were injured in the mob violence. “We have to have law and order.”
It was a minimal attempt to rein in the rioting that he spurred himself. Trump, who proved over the past year to be eager to deploy the National Guard when violence broke out in other US cities, initially resisted doing so on Capitol Hill as the mob descended, a person familiar with the matter said.
Pence played a role in coordinating with the Pentagon about deploying them, and urged them to move faster than they were, the person said. Ultimately the entire DC National Guard was activated by the Department of Defense.
Some of Trump’s close aides made their own entreaties to end the riot, including his daughter Ivanka Trump, who addressed the crowd as “American Patriots” in a tweet she later deleted.
But instead of tamping down the violence himself, the President seemed more interested in conveying shared injustice about an election he claims, wrongly, was stolen.
“It’s a very tough period of time. There’s never been a time like this where such a thing happened where they could take it away from all of us, from me, from you, from our country,” he said.
The video came hours after Trump told a crowd of supporters gathered on the Ellipse near the White House that he planned to march with them to the Capitol building.
“We’re going to walk down to the Capitol. And we’re gonna cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women. And we’re probably not going to be cheering, so much for some of them, because you’ll never take back our country with weakness, you have to show strength and you have to be strong,” he said at his rally on the Ellipse.
Ultimately Trump skipped the march, returned to the White House in an armored SUV and hunkered indoors.
Speaking ahead of Trump, allies such as Rudy Giuliani and Trump’s adult sons fanned the false allegations of voter fraud. Giuliani urged the President’s supporters wage “trial by combat,” while Donald Trump Jr. railed against congressional Republicans who declined to support Trump’s attempts to overthrow the election results.
“The people who did nothing to stop the steal – this gathering should send a message to them,” said the President’s eldest son.
In the middle of Trump’s rally, Vice President Mike Pence declared in a statement he could not unilaterally reject the results of the election, despite pressure from Trump to do just that.
The move, which was expected but still a notable break for a loyal lieutenant of the President’s, enraged Trump, who spent the afternoon between the Oval Office and the adjoining dining room, watching scenes of anarchy and violence play out at the Capitol building across town.
Encouraged by many of his advisers to speak out, Trump was initially resistant. He was focused instead on Pence’s refusal to carry out his futile demand to overturn the election, fuming over the perceived disloyalty.
Speaking by telephone with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who was sheltering inside the locked-down Capitol, Trump didn’t offer any commitment to speaking publicly. Asked on Fox News whether he expected the President to make an on-camera statement, McCarthy could say only: “I don’t know. I would think so.”
Eventually, aides cajoled the President into recording the address. But it was not his idea, according to officials, and came about only reluctantly.
Pence, who was presiding over the tally of the Electoral College votes as the Capitol was breached, was evacuated from the floor. From an undisclosed location, Pence tweeted a forceful denunciation of the riots.
“This attack on our Capitol will not be tolerated and those involved will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” he wrote.
Later, his spokesman said Pence never left the Capitol building. While the Secret Service wanted him to leave, Pence wanted to remain on site, a person familiar with the matter said.
Hours after the breach, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said “we have decided we should proceed tonight” and lawmakers were expected to resume their effort.
As the chaotic scenes played out on television, current and former aides to Trump called on him to act and expressed dismay at his refusal, leading to increased discussion about resigning.
While there are only 14 days left in Trump’s administration – and many aides’ final days will come before January 20 – many said they were disgusted by the President’s behavior and no longer believe they can serve him.
“I’m very sad I worked for the guy,” a former administration official said. “People were already up on their way out but this may have sped it up.”
Whether a wave of officials actually do resign remains to be seen, but the level of frustration inside the White House is leading to a growing sense that Trump will be more isolated than ever in his final days in office.
His first homeland security adviser Tom Bossert condemned his response to the mob chaos on Capitol Hill.
“This is beyond wrong and illegal. It’s un-American,” Bossert tweeted. “The President undermined American democracy baselessly for months. As a result, he’s culpable for this siege, and an utter disgrace.”
Trump’s recently departed communications director, Alyssa Farah, called on her former boss to condemn the protests.
“You are the only one they will listen to. For our country!” she wrote.
Democrats were prepared to go further. Reps. Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley, frequent subjects of Trump’s attempts to rile up animosity among his crowds, said he should be impeached (again).
“We can’t allow him to remain in office, it’s a matter of preserving our Republic and we need to fulfill our oath,” Omar tweeted.
Others again raised the prospect of using the Constitution’s 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office, even in the final weeks of his presidency, including Vermont’s Republican governor.
“President Trump should resign or be removed from office by his Cabinet, or by the Congress,” wrote Gov. Phil Scott, who previously said he voted for Biden.
The National Association of Manufacturers, the nation’s largest manufacturing association, also called on Pence Wednesday to consider taking the step.
Pence “should seriously consider working with the Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment to preserve democracy,” NAM CEO Jay Timmons said in a statement.
For Trump, the one act that might ease tensions and calm the simmering anger among his supporters still appears out of reach.
“We will never concede,” he told the crowd on the Ellipse.
Kaitlan Collins contributed to this report.