America faces 13 days of danger before the departure of an unhinged commander-in-chief who set his mob on the US Capitol in an act of insurrection that shattered a more than 220-year tradition of peaceful transfers of power.
President Donald Trump’s seditious behavior has provoked a full crisis inside his White House bunker in his final days, following a fracture with his ultra-loyal Vice President Mike Pence, who refused to join the futile but destructive effort to overturn the result of the election.
After orchestrating one of the most notorious days in US political history and trashing democracy by refusing for weeks to accept his defeat, Trump suddenly issued a dead-of-night statement belatedly pledging an orderly transition of power to President-elect Joe Biden on January 20.
But as usual, the move appeared motivated by self-interest rather than a sense of duty as it appeared to be an attempt to stem a wave of West Wing resignations amid talk of a snap impeachment or effort by the Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment to force him from office.
In unspeakable scenes on Wednesday, marauding thugs marched from an incendiary Trump rally to storm the Capitol. Their aim was to stop lawmakers finalizing President-elect Joe Biden’s victory ahead of his January 20 inauguration. But the bedlam, which saw rioters smash windows, lay siege to lawmakers and reach the House and Senate chambers, had the opposite effect, hastening the moment of final repudiation for the President and his baseless claims of a stolen election.
A number of Senate Republicans who had been minded to drag out the President’s stunt flipped in revulsion at the storming of their citadel of democracy in an ugly culmination of a lawless presidency. But despite the outrage perpetrated by Trump supporters, more than 100 of his allies in the House – a majority of Republicans – still voted to uphold totally fraudulent claims of election fraud.
But shortly before 4 a.m. ET on Thursday morning, Pence read out the final tally of electoral votes — 306 to 232 in the President-elect’s favor — as the Constitution and the will of the people triumphed over Trump’s stunning attempt at a coup.
Shortly afterward, the President issued a written statement pledging an orderly transition on January 20 even though he said he disagreed with the outcome of the election, once again repeating false claims about how the facts were on his side.
“While this represents the end of the greatest first term in presidential history, it’s only the beginning of our fight to Make America Great Again!” Trump wrote.
The breaching of the Capitol for the first time since 1814 overshadowed hugely significant results of twin runoff elections in Georgia that handed Democrats control of the Senate. The victories of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff will transform prospects for Biden’s presidency, which will begin in a nation ripped in two by Trump’s seditious behavior and consumed by a murderous and worsening pandemic that produced a new daily record of more than 3,800 Covid-19 deaths.
But before then, there is growing concern about the stability of a President who has had his Twitter and Facebook accounts suspended because of incitement but retains the full power of the presidency and the nuclear codes.
Inside his White House bunker on Wednesday night, Trump was fulminating about his defeat and what he sees as the treachery of Pence.
Some officials were considering resigning, including national security adviser Robert O’Brien. His deputy, Matt Pottinger had already gone Wednesday afternoon, sources told CNN. A GOP source said that some Cabinet members held preliminary discussions about invoking the 25th Amendment to force Trump’s removal from office on the grounds he is not fit to serve. There were demands from some House Democrats to trigger immediate impeachment proceedings. However the tumult is resolved, there is the alarming prospect of an uncontrollable President running rampant and a splintered chain of command at the White House that will have grave national security implications and could create a vacuum conducive to further unrest.
It is not clear how much momentum efforts to expel the President will gather with Trump so close to leaving office. But they reflect extreme concern of even those officials and Republicans who have appeased his wild impulses and abuses of power for four turbulent years.
After all, a President who has already been impeached once, who was caught on tape trying to steal the election in Georgia last weekend and who has never recognized the guardrails of his office, is acting in a way that suggests he thinks he has nothing to lose.
“He’s out of his mind,” one source who is in frequent contact with Trump told CNN’s Jim Acosta.
Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley expressed concern about the damage that an unchained and angry president could wreak in the next two weeks.
“Anybody in any federal bureau has to be keeping a close eye on Donald Trump because he is acting and thinking in an irrational way,” Brinkley said.
A surreal moment
The most terrifying truth revealed by the assault on the Capitol was not the act itself. It was the mania of a President who turned his insurgents on the nation’s legislature and who has immeasurably deepened political estrangements that will fester long after he has left office.
The spectacle of rioters, waving Trump flags and wearing “Make America Great Again” hats piling up the steps below the glorious dome that shines as a beacon of self-government was too surreal to believe at first. But while shocking, the unprecedented scenes of an American horde rampaging through the halls of Congress, of police guns drawn in the House chamber and of rioters smashing windows cannot be said to be a surprise.
They were, in fact, a logical climax to a presidency steeped in demagoguery, conspiracy theories, incitements to violence and a strongman’s contempt for the Constitution. They were the inevitable result of years of misinformation and instigation by Trump, his aides and his lie-pumping media propagandists that have left millions of Americans believing his false claims of a rigged election. The shame of a dark day in American history is shared by all those who mocked warnings that Trump’s political treachery was brewing an explosion – including Republican lawmakers, who have abetted his ludicrous claims of voter fraud after enabling his malignant presidency.
“We are going to walk down … to the Capitol,” Trump said in a rally near the White House that lit the touch paper for a day of mayhem as Congress met to finalize Biden’s election victory.
“You’ll never take back our country with weakness, you have to show strength, you have to be strong.”
The appalling scenes horrified an incredulous watching world and recalled the revolts and palace rebellions of unstable banana republics rather than the stately rituals of the supposed last best hope for democracy on Earth.
“This is not America,” Josep Borrell, a top European Union official, said on Twitter.
Sadly, and to the contrary, this is the America wrought by the country’s most vengeful President whose abominable four years in power have stoked an “American carnage” more dangerous than the economic blight he decried in an inaugural address delivered nearly four years ago from the same steps overrun by his thugs.
A day of infamy actually began with the FBI opening an investigation into an apparently fake threat broadcast on air traffic control frequencies to fly a plane into the Capitol to avenge the US killing of a top Iranian general last year. The day’s peril came not from outside but from within, as the Trump mob pulled off an incursion previously only managed by British armies 200 years ago.
There has been a recent debate among journalists on how to refer to Trump’s bid to steal a free and fair election he lost, his refusal to honor a peaceful transfer of power, and his incitement of angry supporters to disrupt the constitutional process.
Trump White House
“This is as close to a coup attempt as this country has ever seen,” former Washington Police Chief Charles Ramsey told CNN.
Timothy Naftali, a CNN presidential historian from New York University, said that Trump had broken a golden thread of democracy that has sustained American freedom.
“Today was the first time in our history that a President has opposed a peaceful transfer of power,” Naftali said.
A ‘shameful’ episode
The question now is whether Wednesday’s outrage will be a one-off eruption, that once quelled, will become an awful memory of a presidency that tore the country apart.
But the bitter feelings unleashed by Trump are not confined to the tens of thousands of supporters who flocked to Washington, DC. The President and his media shills have seeded a pernicious mistrust of democracy across vast swathes of the country. The majority of Trump voters are not violent. But millions of them believe his poison about the election being stolen — and think their country is being taken away from them. This raises the possibility that Wednesday’s unrest is more than the violent death throes of a failed presidency, but a venomous force that will not only thwart Biden’s hopes of healing corrosive divides but will fester once Trump leaves office and offer him a platform for continued extremism.
Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney said that the best way to show respect for voters who are upset at the election result is not to perpetuate Trump’s lies but to tell them the truth.
“Those who choose to continue to support his dangerous gambit by objecting to the results of a legitimate, democratic election will forever be seen as being complicit in an unprecedented attack against our democracy.”
Several Republican senators were angered by Wednesday’s events – despite sending a signal of impunity for Trump’s previous abuses of power by voting to acquit him in his impeachment trial and forging a marriage of convenience with Trump to pursue shared goals like confirming conservative judges.
“Trump and I have, we’ve had a hell of a journey. I hate it to end this way. Oh my God, I hate it,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said. “All I can say is count me out. Enough is enough,” Graham said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell condemned the violence and reinforced his opposition to efforts to block Biden’s victory.
“We will not be kept out of this chamber by thugs, mobs or threats,” McConnell said. “We will certify the winner of the 2020 presidential election.”
Eleventh hour resignations and acknowledgments of Biden’s victory, however, are hardly profiles in courage following the indulgence granted by Republicans to Trump’s anti-democratic conduct and weeks of appeasing his denial of Biden’s victory.
Trump silent amid the mayhem
While members of Congress took cover beneath their seats, and his supporters roamed though leadership offices, Trump did nothing — but watch the mayhem that he had triggered unfold on TV.
One source told CNN’s Kaitlin Collins that Trump was more preoccupied with what he sees as Pence’s political apostasy after the vice president announced he would not seek to disrupt the certification of Biden’s victory — a step he had no power to take in any case. Eventually, Trump issued a video telling protesters to go home but exacerbated the situation by making more disgraceful and false allegations about a stolen election.
The President’s silence when real violence was raging contrasted with his incessant and false pre-election claims that leftist mobs were running rampant through US cities and his calls for the restoration of “Law and Order.”
And the apparently meager US Capitol Police forces that were overwhelmed in Congress contrasted sharply with the heavily armed phalanxes of security forces Trump poured onto streets filled by Black Lives Matters protests over the summer. On that notorious occasion, the Justice Department sent federal troops into Lafayette Square with tear gas to clear protesters ahead of an absurd presidential photo-op.
It was left to Biden, who will take office in a country brought to its knees by Trump’s divisiveness and a pandemic that is now claiming more than 3,000 American lives per day, to offer the steady hand of leadership.
“This is not dissent. It is disorder. It is chaos. It borders on sedition,” Biden said in a speech in Delaware.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.