Recalling Capitol Riots: A look back at what happened on the 'darkest day' in US history

From television footage to cell phone videos to body cameras worn by the officers under siege, there is comprehensive record of one of the worst attacks on democracy in US history

FP Staff January 06, 2022 07:37:06 IST
Recalling Capitol Riots: A look back at what happened on the 'darkest day' in US history

File image of supporters of President Donald Trump climbing the west wall of the the US Capitol. AP

The 6 January riot was an insurrection with a 360-degree view.

Ample evidence has emerged over the last year of what happened at the US Capitol. From television footage to cell phone videos to body cameras worn by the officers under siege, there is comprehensive record of one of the worst attacks on democracy in US history.

The riot was preceded by the “Stop the Steal” rally near the White House featuring President Donald Trump. Before Trump’s remarks, a flag was seen flying in the crowd with the message, “When Tyranny Becomes Law Rebellion Becomes DUTY!”

“And we fight,” Trump told the crowd. “We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

That rhetoric presaged an unthinkable episode of political violence that briefly disrupted America’s peaceful transfer of power.

Crowds marched to the Capitol and fought through undermanned lines of police who lacked guidance from their superiors or help from the National Guard. The rioters broke into the building and began searching for lawmakers, forcing evacuations of the House and Senate.

Recalling Capitol Riots A look back at what happened on the darkest day in US history

Then president Donald Trump gestures as he arrives to speak at a rally in Washington, on 6 January. AP

In the crowd were members of the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys and other extremist groups. Some of the rioters had served in the military or law enforcement. A handful were active police officers.

From a secure room in the Capitol, as rioters pummeled police and vandalized the building, Vice-President Mike Pence tried to assert control. In an urgent phone call to the acting defence secretary, he issued a startling demand.

“Clear the Capitol,” Pence said.

Elsewhere in the building, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were making a similarly dire appeal to military leaders, asking the Army to deploy the National Guard.

We need help,” Schumer said in desperation, more than an hour after the Senate chamber had been breached.

At the Pentagon, officials were discussing media reports that the mayhem was not confined to Washington and that other state capitals were facing similar violence in what had the makings of a national insurrection.

“We must establish order,” said General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a call with Pentagon leaders.

But order would not be restored for hours.

The timeline adds another layer of understanding about the state of fear and panic while the insurrection played out, and lays bare the inaction by then-president Donald Trump and how that void contributed to a slowed response by the military and law enforcement.

It shows that the intelligence missteps, tactical errors and bureaucratic delays were eclipsed by the government’s failure to comprehend the scale and intensity of a violent uprising by its own citizens.

With Trump not engaged, it fell to Pentagon officials, a handful of senior White House aides, the leaders of Congress and the vice president holed up in a secure bunker to manage the chaos.

While the timeline helps to crystalise the frantic character of the crisis, the document, along with hours of sworn testimony, provides only an incomplete picture about how the insurrection could have advanced with such swift and lethal force, interrupting the congressional certification of Joe Biden as president and delaying the peaceful transfer of power, the hallmark of American democracy.

At 4:08 pm, as the rioters roamed the Capitol and after they had menacingly called out for Pelosi and yelled for Pence to be hanged, the vice-president was in a secure location, phoning Christopher Miller, the acting defence secretary, and demanding answers.

There had been a highly public rift between Trump and Pence, with Trump furious that his vice president refused to halt the Electoral College certification. Interfering with that process was an act that Pence considered unconstitutional. The Constitution makes clear that the vice president’s role in this joint session of Congress is largely ceremonial.

Pence’s call to Miller lasted only a minute. Pence said the Capitol was not secure and he asked military leaders for a deadline for securing the building, according to the document.

By this point it had already been two hours since the mob overwhelmed Capitol Police unprepared for an insurrection. Rioters broke into the building, seized the Senate and paraded to the House. In their path, they left destruction and debris. Dozens of officers were wounded, some gravely.

Just three days earlier, government leaders had talked about the use of the National Guard. On the afternoon of 3 January, as lawmakers were sworn in for the new session of Congress, Miller and Milley gathered with Cabinet members to discuss 6 January. They also met with Trump.

In that meeting at the White House, Trump approved the activation of the DC National Guard and also told the acting defence secretary to take whatever action needed as events unfolded, according to the information obtained by the AP.

Recalling Capitol Riots A look back at what happened on the darkest day in US history

A supporter of then-President Donald Trump is injured during clashes with police at the US Capitol on 6 January. AP

The next day, the defence officials spoke by phone with Cabinet members, including the acting attorney general, and finalized details of the Guard deployment.

The Guard’s role was limited to traffic intersections and checkpoints around the city, based in part on strict restrictions mandated by district officials. Miller also authorized Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy to deploy, if needed, the DC Guard’s emergency reaction force stationed at Joint Base Andrews.

The Trump administration and the Pentagon were wary of a heavy military presence, in part because of criticism officials faced for the seemingly heavy-handed National Guard and law enforcement efforts to counter civil unrest in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

In particular, the DC Guard’s use of helicopters to hover over crowds in downtown Washington during those demonstrations drew widespread criticism. That unauthorized move prompted the Pentagon to more closely control the DC Guard.

“There was a lot of things that happened in the spring that the department was criticized for,” Robert Salesses, who is serving as the assistant defence secretary for homeland defence and global security, said at a congressional hearing last month.

On the eve of Trump’s rally near the White House, the first 255 National Guard troops arrived in the district, and Mayor Muriel Bowser confirmed in a letter to the administration that no other military support was needed.

By the morning of 6 January, crowds started gathering at the Ellipse before Trump’s speech. According to the Pentagon’s plans, the acting defence secretary would only be notified if the crowd swelled beyond 20,000.

Before long it was clear that the crowd was far more in control of events than the troops and law enforcement there to maintain order.

Trump, just before noon, was giving his speech and he told supporters to march to the Capitol. The crowd at the rally was at least 10,000. By 1:15 pm, the procession was well on its way there.

As protesters reached the Capitol grounds, some immediately became violent, busting through weak police barriers in front of the building and beating up officers who stood in their way.

At 1:49 pm, as the violence escalated, then- Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund called Maj. Gen. William Walker, commanding general of the DC National Guard, to request assistance.

Sund’s voice was “cracking with emotion,” Walker later told a Senate committee. Walker immediately called Army leaders to inform them of the request.

Twenty minutes later, around 2:10 pm, the first rioters were beginning to break through the doors and windows of the Senate. They then started a march through the marbled halls in search of the lawmakers who were counting the electoral votes. Alarms inside the building announced a lockdown.

Sund frantically called Walker again and asked for at least 200 guard members “and to send more if they are available.”

But even with the advance Cabinet-level preparation, no help was immediately on the way.

Over the next 20 minutes, as senators ran to safety and the rioters broke into the chamber and rifled through their desks, Army Secretary McCarthy spoke with the mayor and Pentagon leaders about Sund’s request.

On the Pentagon’s third floor E Ring, senior Army leaders were huddled around the phone for what they described as a “panicked” call from the DC Guard. As the gravity of the situation became clear, McCarthy bolted from the meeting, sprinting down the hall to Miller’s office and breaking into a meeting.

As minutes ticked by, rioters breached additional entrances in the Capitol and made their way to the House. They broke glass in doors that led to the chamber and tried to gain entry as a group of lawmakers was still trapped inside.

At 2:25 pm, McCarthy told his staff to prepare to move the emergency reaction force to the Capitol. The force could be ready to move in 20 minutes.

At 2:44 pm, Trump supporter Ashli Babbitt was fatally shot by a Capitol Police officer as she tried to climb through a window that led to the House floor.

Shortly after 3 pm, McCarthy provided “verbal approval” of the activation of 1,100 National Guard troops to support the DC police and the development of a plan for the troops’ deployment duties, locations and unit sizes.

Minutes later the Guard’s emergency reaction force left Joint Base Andrews for the DC Armory. There, they would prepare to head to the Capitol once Miller, the acting defence secretary, gave final approval.

Recalling Capitol Riots A look back at what happened on the darkest day in US history

Members of Congress shelter in the House gallery as rioters try to break into the House Chamber at the US Capitol. AP

Meanwhile, the Joint Staff set up a video teleconference call that stayed open until about 10 pm that night, allowing staff to communicate any updates quickly to military leaders.

At 3:19 pm, Pelosi and Schumer were calling the Pentagon for help and were told the National Guard had been approved.

But military and law enforcement leaders struggled over the next 90 minutes to execute the plan as the Army and Guard called all troops in from their checkpoints, issued them new gear, laid out a new plan for their mission and briefed them on their duties.

The Guard troops had been prepared only for traffic duties. Army leaders argued that sending them into a volatile combat situation required additional instruction to keep both them and the public safe.

By 3:37 pm, the Pentagon sent its own security forces to guard the homes of defence leaders. No troops had yet reached the Capitol.

By 3:44 pm, the congressional leaders escalated their pleas.

“Tell POTUS to tweet everyone should leave,” Schumer implored the officials, using the acronym for the president of the United States. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., asked about calling up active duty military.

At 3:48 pm, frustrated that the DC Guard hadn’t fully developed a plan to link up with police, the Army secretary dashed from the Pentagon to DC police headquarters to help coordinate with law enforcement.

Trump broke his silence at 4:17 pm, tweeting to his followers to “go home and go in peace.”

By about 4:30 pm, the military plan was finalised and Walker had approval to send the Guard to the Capitol. The reports of state capitals breached in other places turned out to be bogus.

About 4:40 pm, Pelosi and Schumer were again on the phone with Milley and the Pentagon leadership, asking Miller to secure the perimeter.

But the acrimony was becoming obvious.

The congressional leadership on the call “accuses the National Security apparatus of knowing that protestors planned to conduct an assault on the Capitol,” the timeline said.

The call lasts 30 minutes. Pelosi’s spokesman acknowledges there was a brief discussion of the obvious intelligence failures that led to the insurrection.

It would be another hour before the first contingent of 155 Guard members were at the Capitol. Dressed in riot gear, they began arriving at 5:20 pm

They started moving out the rioters, but there were few, if any, arrests by police.

The Capitol was declared secure at 8 pm. Lawmakers convened again and certified that Trump had lost to Joe Biden.

Hundreds were injured and five people died during and after the insurrection.

Recalling Capitol Riots A look back at what happened on the darkest day in US history

Members of the DC National Guard surround the US Capitol. AP

Trump faces flurry of investigations in exile

Since that fateful day, Trump has retired to his Mar-A-Lago resort in Florida. He remains the most powerful man in the Republican party.

However, the former president faces a flurry of other investigations that could come to a head in the coming weeks and the new year.

That includes two major state criminal investigations — one in New York and one in Georgia — and lawsuits concerning sexual assault allegations, a fight over an inheritance and questions of whether he should be held personally liable for inciting the insurrection.

Trump has long dismissed the investigations as nothing more than a politically motivated “witch hunt” that began with the probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. But while Trump has spent most of his life dodging legal consequences, he is no longer shielded by the protections against indictment enjoyed by sitting presidents.

And any charges — which would be the first against a former president in the nation’s history — could affect both his businesses and his future political prospects as he mulls running for a second term.

In December, Trump turned to the Supreme Court a last-ditch effort to keep documents away from the House committee investigating the 6 January insurrection at the Capitol led by his supporters.

Trump’s attorneys asked the Supreme Court to reverse lower court rulings against the former president, who has fought to block the records even after President Joe Biden waived executive privilege over them. The federal appeals court in Washington previously ruled the committee had a “uniquely vital interest” in the documents and Trump had “provided no basis” for it to override Biden and Congress.

The records include presidential diaries, visitor logs, speech drafts, handwritten notes “concerning the events of January 6” from the files of former chief of staff Mark Meadows, and “a draft Executive Order on the topic of election integrity,” according to a previous court filing from the National Archives.

GOP lawmakers, aware that Trump can make or break them politically, have almost uniformly fallen in line. Even Pence won't speak against him. Instead, the party is seeking to regain power in the 2022 congressional elections and in 2024, when Trump could run again for president.

Capitol rioters’ tears, remorse don’t spare them from jail

Florida business owner Robert Palmer cheered on the violence at the US Capitol on 6 January before he joined the fray. Screaming obscenities, he hurled a wooden plank and a fire extinguisher at police officers trying to ward off the mob.

Nearly a year later, Palmer fought back tears when he faced the federal judge who sentenced him to more than five years in prison. He said he was “horrified, absolutely devastated” by what he had done.

“I’m just so ashamed that I was a part of that,” Palmer told US District Judge Tanya Chutkan on Dec. 17 before she gave him the longest prison term for any rioter so far.

Judges are hearing tearful expressions of remorse — and a litany of excuses — from rioters paying a price for joining the 6 January insurrection, even as others try to play down the deadly attack on a seat of American democracy.

Recalling Capitol Riots A look back at what happened on the darkest day in US history

Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, read the final certification of Electoral College votes cast in November's presidential election during a joint session of Congress after working through the night, at the Capitol in Washington. AP

The Justice Department’s investigation of the riot has now entered the punishment phase. So far, 71 people have been sentenced for riot-related crimes. They include a company CEO, an architect, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, a gym owner, a former Houston police officer and a University of Kentucky student. Many rioters have said they lost jobs and friends after their mob of Donald Trump loyalists disrupted the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory.

Fifty-six of the 71 pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of parading, demonstrating or picketing in a Capitol building. Most of them were sentenced to home confinement or jail terms measured in weeks or months, according to an Associated Press tally of every sentencing. But rioters who assaulted police officers have gotten years behind bars.

With hundreds of people charged, the Justice Department has taken Heat for not coming down harder on some rioters, and it has failed to charge anyone with sedition or treason despite hints early on in the investigation. But lower-level cases tend to be easier to prosecute and typically get resolved before more complex ones.

At least 165 people have pleaded guilty so far, mostly to crimes punishable by a maximum sentence of six months. There are dozens of cases involving more serious offenses still moving through the system. More than 220 people have been charged with assaulting or impeding law enforcement officers at the Capitol, according to the Justice Department. Since November, three of them have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from more than three years to just over five years

The District of Columbia federal court is overloaded with 6 January cases. More than 700 people have been charged so far and the FBI is still looking for more. Among the most serious charges are against far-right extremist group members accused of plotting attacks to obstruct Congress from certifying the 2020 presidential election. Their cases haven’t yet gone to trial.

The rioters’ refrains before the judges are often the same: They were caught up in the moment or just following the crowd into the Capitol. They didn’t see any violence or vandalism. They thought police were letting them enter the building. They insist they went there to peacefully protest.

Their excuses often implode in the face of overwhelming evidence. Thousands of hours of videos from surveillance cameras, mobile phones and police body cameras captured them reveling in the mayhem. Many boasted about their crimes on social media in the days after the deadly attack.

Judge Amy Berman Jackson said then-President Trump’s incendiary speech on 6 January “stoked the flames of fear and discontent.” But she told Russell James Peterson, a rioter from Pennsylvania, that he “walked there on his own two feet” and must bear responsibility for his own actions.

“No one was swept away to the Capitol. No one was carried. The rioters were adults,” Jackson said before sentencing Peterson to 30 days’ imprisonment.

Eighteen judges, including four nominated by Trump, have sentenced the 71 defendants. Thirty-one defendants have been sentenced to terms of imprisonment or to jail time already served, including 22 who received sentences of three months or less, according to the AP tally. An additional 18 defendants have been sentenced to home confinement. The remaining 22 have gotten probation without house arrest.

A seemingly genuine display of contrition before or during a sentencing hearing can help a rioter avoid a jail cell. The judges often cite remorse as a key factor in deciding sentences.

But Chutkan told Palmer that she couldn’t tell if his remorse was genuine.

“I can’t look into your heart or your mind,” the judge said. “The way you conduct your life after this case is going to speak volumes about whether you are truly remorseful.”

Anna Morgan-Lloyd, the first rioter to be sentenced, told Senior Judge Royce Lamberth in June that she was ashamed of the “savage display of violence” at the Capitol. A day later, however, the Indiana woman told Fox News host Laura Ingraham that people were “very polite” during the riot, that she saw “relaxed” police officers chatting with rioters and that she didn’t believe the 6 January attack was an insurrection.

Her inconsistency didn’t escape Lamberth’s notice. In a footnote to an order in another case, the judge said his “hopes have been recently dashed” when Morgan-Lloyd’s Fox interview “directly conflicted with the contrite statements that she made” to him.

Dona Sue Bissey ’s case is one of only six in which prosecutors agreed to recommend probation without home detention. But instead, Chutkan sentenced her to 14 days in jail. The judge questioned whether Bissey, 53, of Indiana, truly was remorseful because she bragged about her participation in the riot.

“There must be consequences for taking part, even a small part, in a mass attempt to stop the certification of the presidential election and prevent the transfer of power,” said Chutkan, who was nominated by President Barack Obama.

All eight of the 6 January defendants sentenced by Chutkan have received jail or prison terms. In all but one of those cases, the sentence that she handed down was stricter than prosecutors’ recommendation.

In contrast, all four rioters sentenced by Chief Judge Beryl Howell received three months of home detention after prosecutors recommended jail terms. Howell, also an Obama nominee, questioned the Justice Department’s “muddled approach” in resolving cases with misdemeanor pleas despite using “scorching strong language” to describe rioters’ actions.

She said it was “almost schizophrenic in some ways” for prosecutors to recommend a three-month jail sentence for a Tennessee man, Jack Jesse Griffith, in a court filing that referred to rioters as “those who trespassed.”

“No wonder parts of the public in the United States are confused about whether what happened on January 6th at the Capitol was simply a petty offense of trespassing with some disorderliness or shocking criminal conduct that represented a grave threat to our democratic norms,” Howell said during Griffith’s Oct. 28 sentencing, according to a transcript.

The judge who sentenced Boyd Camper to 60 days’ imprisonment for a misdemeanor offense said the Montana man’s presence in the mob “helped create the momentum for violence” and provided safety for violent rioters even though he personally didn’t attack law enforcement officers.

“Violence is an unacceptable way to resolve political differences,” Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly told Camper.

Some judges have rejected prosecutors’ recommendations for prison sentences. Judge Trevor McFadden, a Trump nominee, said it is “almost unheard of” for first-time offenders to get jail time for nonviolent misdemeanors. Howell questioned why a short jail term for riot defendant Glen Wes Lee Croy, without a longer term of court supervision, would be the best way to ensure that the Colorado man “stays on a law-abiding path.”

Many other prominent cases remain unresolved. Dozens of people linked to extremist groups have been charged with conspiring to carry out coordinated attacks on the Capitol, including more than 20 defendants tied to the anti-government Oath Keepers and at least 16 connected to the far-right Proud Boys.

At least five people associated with the Oath Keepers have pleaded guilty. At least one Proud Boys member has pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. None of them has been sentenced yet.

Approximately 20 trials are scheduled in 2022. Meanwhile, judges are plowing through daily dockets of guilty pleas and sentencings.

Anthony Mariotto, a Florida man who was sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine, said he “got caught up in the moment” but knows he broke the law by entering the Capitol.

“I was hoping that they would just pause the election,” Mariotto said during his December sentencing. “I wish Joe Biden, President Biden, would have won by billions of votes. None of this would have happened.”

Judge Reggie Walton dryly replied, “He won by 7 million.”

GOP voters in denial

Videos from 6 January helped quickly disprove claims that left-wing anarchists staged the riot. The rioters were there to support Trump, as many have subsequently said in court.

Long before the riot Trump baselessly questioned the integrity of the 2020 US election, which was certified as fair by the courts and by officials he appointed. It was Trump’s lies about a stolen election that motivated the rioters and fueled the insurrection.

Yet nearly a year after the 6 January siege only about 4 in 10 Republicans recall the attack by supporters of then-President Donald Trump as very violent or extremely violent, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. About 3 in 10 Republicans say the attack was not violent, and about another 3 in 10 say it was somewhat violent.

Their views were a distinct minority as overall about two-thirds of Americans described the day as very or extremely violent, including about 9 in 10 Democrats.

The findings reflect the country’s political polarization, with a false portrayal of the siege taking hold despite extensive footage that shows the ransacking of the building in harrowing detail. Trump and some allies in Congress and conservative media have played it down, falsely characterizing the attack as a minor civil disturbance.

It’s a view that is shared by many Republicans, though few go so far as to defend the rioters themselves.

“My understanding was that a lot of it was pretty peaceful,” Paul Bender, a self-described conservative from Cleveland, told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “I’ve seen some video of the people just like marching in through a velvet rope.”

Bender, who said he didn’t keep up with the news coverage, added, “There were certainly outlier people who were not peaceful and were breaking through the windows and stuff like that, but I wasn’t aware of overt violence.”

Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans who blame Trump for the 6 January riot has grown slightly over the past year, with 57 percent saying he bears significant responsibility for what took place. In an AP-NORC poll taken in the days after the attack, 50 percent said that.

The uptick is seen among Republicans as well, even as relatively few think Trump bears significant responsibility. Twenty-two percent say that now, up from 11% last year. Sixty percent say he had little to no responsibility.

“I don’t believe that he actively was like promoting people to do anything other than a peaceful protest,” Bender, 53, said. “However, once things got out of hand, I think that it would have been appropriate for him to have reacted sooner, whether that was a statement or going on the radio or TV or whatever.”

Still, while few Republicans blame Trump, Republicans and Democrats alike overwhelmingly say that the individual rioters had a great deal or quite a bit of responsibility for their actions during the riot.

“I think there were strong supporters of President Trump that were there, but I think the people that caused the attacks might not have been true Trump supporters,” said Mary Beth Bell of Jacksonville, Florida. “Because I know a lot of Trump supporters, and they see what happened on 6 January as disgusting as I do.”

With inputs from AP

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