Breaking Down 16 Hours of Total Chaos in Washington, D.C.

The day started with a rally. It ended with death, destruction, and the agonizing certification of the 2020 election.

The longest, ugliest presidential election in modern American history reached its formal conclusion with a joint session to formally certify the presidential election on January 6. It didn’t end until 3:39 a.m. on January 7, after a mob invaded the Capitol building and delayed proceedings for hours. Here is how one of the strangest and most chaotic days in Washington, D.C. history played out.

10 a.m.: Pro-Trump rally begins on White House lawn

The day begins with a “Save America March” and rally held on the Ellipse in front of the White House, featuring President Donald Trump and die-hard supporters once again embracing false claims about the 2020 election was fraudulent. The event culminates in an hour-long airing of grievances by the outgoing incumbent — including threats of political retribution against fellow Republicans who didn’t support his efforts to steal the election, including Brian Kemp, the governor of Georgia; Liz Cheney, the number three Republican in the House of Representatives; and even his own vice president, Mike Pence.

Trump also returns to the debunked claims he won reelection. “Take a look at third world countries, their elections are more honest than what we have in this country,” says the president. He ends by telling the crowd of die-hard supporters that “we’re going to walk down” to the Capitol to protest the joint session. Many of them begin to do just that, while the president motorcades back to the White House.

1 p.m.: Joint session of Congress begins

As Trump’s speech ends, the joint session of Congress starts on Capitol Hill. It is presided over by Pence, who faced pressure from Trump to throw out electoral votes in violation of the Constitution. Pence makes clear in a statement released while Trump was speaking during the rally, that he would not do this and would instead fulfill his largely ceremonial constitutional duties to preside over the joint session as the votes from each state were counted.

The roll call of states begins with Alabama. “This certificate from Alabama, the parliamentarian advised me, it’s the only certificate of vote from the state that purports to be a return from the state,” Pence proclaims, “and that has annexed to it a certificate of authority from the state purporting to appoint and ascertain electors.” This language is a rote formula that will be repeated 49 more times as part of a call and response with alternating legislators assenting the returns were “regular in form and authentic.” It would not go smoothly.

1:12 p.m.: Arizona raises an objection against the certified results of the Electoral College ballots. Debate begins.

Outside, Trump supporters follow the president’s instructions and mass outside the Capitol. Inside, Paul Gosar of Arizona raises an objection to the returns from his home state, as permitted by the provisions of the Electoral Count Act. Under that bill, if both a senator and a congressman sign an objection, the joint session is broken up and the Senate and House separately to hear arguments on the objection for up to two hours. If both chambers uphold the objection by majority vote, the electoral slate gets tossed out. This is not at risk of happening, but the existence of the measure creates an opening for one last banzai charge by Trump’s supporters to secure, if not his victory, then his support in their future political endeavors.

Debate begins in the Senate with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell denouncing the last-ditch pro-Trump efforts. “If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral,” the Kentucky senator warns. Other senators began to debate the issue and for a brief moment, the political theater of the day appears to be going about as expected. Then everything takes a darker turn.

2:15 p.m.: Protestors breach the Capitol building

A mob, whipped up into a frenzy by Trump’s repeated insistence the election was stolen from him, breaks into the Capitol. In a spectacle without any precedent in American history, hordes of Trump supporters bust through windows, climb walls, and set off at least one chemical device in the building.

2:19 p.m.: Both sessions of Congress declare a recess

Debates on the Arizona objection pause. The vice president is swiftly escorted out of the Senate chamber, and the building is locked down. Lawmakers are escorted out while staff shelters in place.

2:30 p.m.: A mob takes over the Capitol building

The seat of the American government becomes a playground for right-wing extremists, some wearing T-shirts proclaiming MAGA Civil War, others fur pelts and Norse symbols popular with the Odinist right. A man in Viking costume posed for a picture on the Senate dais while offices were looted and vandalized. In the Rotunda, a space where Abraham Lincoln once lay in state, tear gas is set off and, at the entrance to the House chamber, a female combat veteran who had joined in the attack on the Capitol was fatally shot. George W. Bush, the only living former Republican president, compares the events to something out of a “banana republic.”

It was only the second invasion of the Capitol in its history, the first having been led by Major General Robert Ross of the British Army in the summer of 1814. This time, though, the building wasn’t burned, though it was vandalized and a number of office suites were ransacked for prizes the insurgents carried out proudly with them.

4:20 p.m.: Trump releases a video statement on Twitter

In the hours after lawmakers were evacuated, Trump does little to call off the mob, posting mixed messages on social media. In his first statement since after the breach of the Capitol, he posts a video: “I know your pain, I know your hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us,” In a tweet just after 6 p.m. he writes “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”

Within an hour the message and the video had been removed by Twitter, which for the first time locked his account for 12 hours. Although Trump was still commander in chief of the most powerful military on the planet, including a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the planet, he was no longer in control of his Twitter account.

5 p.m.: The House sergeant at arms informs lawmakers and staff the Capitol has been cleared

8 p.m.: Lawmakers return to the Capitol. Debate on the Arizona objection continues.

A shaken Senate returned to session, followed shortly thereafter by the House. Senators who had planned to object to the electoral count of more states seem cowed. Roughly half the senators who had planned to support objections back off. “I cannot now in good conscience object to the certification of the electors,” says Sen. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, who had just lost her runoff the night before.

In the end, only six senators voted to uphold the objection: Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, John Kennedy of Louisiana, Roger Marshall of Kansas, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama. On the other side of the Capitol, 121 Republicans would continue to support tossing out Arizona’s votes.

11:41 p.m.: Joint session resumes for Electoral College certification

Then it was back to the tedious formulaic language of the democratic ritual. House Republicans interrupted sporadically to object to counting the votes from swing states, but with no senators willing to second their objections, the objections were not heard.

12:14 a.m.: Pennsylvania objection and debate

Then Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley joined Republicans to object to Pennsylvania and the joint session dissolved yet again for debate. The Senate immediately voted — and seven Republican U.S. senators voted to throw out the Keystone State’s vote. In the House, the full two hours for debate unfurled, interrupted only by a near-scuffle on the floor in the wake of Pennsylvania Democrat Conor Lamb denouncing his Republican colleagues’ lies about the election. 138 Republicans eventually voted to throw out Pennsylvania votes. Jake LaTurner of Kansas, who had voted to sustain the Arizona objection, missed the Pennsylvania vote because he had tested positive for Covid-19 in the course of the evening.

3:39 a.m.: The joint session certifies the Electoral College votes

Eventually, after one final objection to Wisconsin’s votes in the House, but not the Senate, it all ended. Joe Biden was finally, officially, going to be president. The long, slow electoral process had come to an end. There could be no more Rube Goldberg legal theories for Trump die-hards to pursue. At 3:49 a.m., Trump aide Dan Scavino tweeted out a statement on the president’s behalf acknowledging he would no longer be president come January 20. He still falsely claimed that he had won the election — the precise false claim that helped set the day’s unprecedented chain of events into motion.

Trump had managed to stave off publicly acknowledging his defeat for precisely two months after Joe Biden was called the winner on November 7. The delay cost him nothing — in fact, he raked in hundreds of millions in fundraising for his new political action committee while making it. Now, the price of Trump’s self-aggrandizement is likely to be paid by the United States for generations to come.

Ben Jacobs is a politics reporter based in Washington. Follow him on Twitter at @bencjacobs.

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