President Joe Biden on Thursday led Democrats in a vocal rejection of Donald Trump’s effort to subvert the 2020 election, imploring Americans to defend their institutions and reject the political violence that engulfed Congress exactly one year ago.
Standing in a hall overrun by pro-Trump rioters during the Capitol riot, Biden declared that the former president bore “singular responsibility” for the insurrection attempt that sent then-Vice President Mike Pence and lawmakers fleeing for safety — and left more than 140 police officers injured.
“His bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy, our Constitution,” Biden said of Trump, without naming him. Trump, he added, is “not just a former president. He’s a defeated former president, defeated by a margin of over seven million of your votes in a full and free and fair election.”
Biden’s remarks set the tone for a day of solemn reflection in the House, where lawmakers lined up in a House office building to recall their own experiences fleeing the pro-Trump mob. The family of Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, who died of a stroke the day after the attack, was among the attendees.
The event was a remembrance of the threat to the peaceful transfer of power and a tribute to the law enforcement officers who prevented it — but also, pointedly, a reminder of Republicans now seeking to distance themselves from it. Only Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the vice chair of the select committee investigating the attack, walked the halls throughout the day, accompanied by her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney.
In his remarks, Biden defended the integrity of the 2020 election and directly refuted the long-running effort by Trump and his allies to sow doubt about the vote. The president also countered Republicans who have urged Democrats to move past the insurrection and focus on the future.
“This isn’t about being bogged down in the past,” Biden said. “This is about making sure the past isn’t buried. That is what great nations do. They don’t bury the truth.”
Calling out Trump and his GOP allies marks a notable tonal shift for Biden. Since taking office, he’s largely avoiding directly confronting a foe he could face again in 2024. But Biden hewed to one of his post-election conventions on Thursday: He did not use Trump’s name while criticizing the former president.
“I did not want it to turn into a contemporary political battle between me and the [former] president,” Biden explained to reporters after the speech.
Trump responded with a meandering statement that blasted Biden for having “used my name today to try to further divide America” and went after the president’s approach to inflation, Afghanistan and immigration.
But one of the former president’s fiercest foes took a notably different tack. After attending a moment of silence in the House, the Cheneys offered sharp words for their party.
“It’s not a leadership that resembles any of the folks I knew when I was here for 10 years,” the former vice president told reporters, when asked about how Republican leaders were handling the Capitol attack.
The two, who had been the only Republicans on the floor for Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s remarks on the floor, were later greeted with handshakes by nearly every Democrat in the chamber. Even the senior Cheney appeared to receive a warm welcome from Democrats — a scene few senior Democrats would have predicted 15 years ago, when their party claimed the House majority after years bludgeoning him as the face of then-President George W. Bush’s foreign policy.
Aside from Cheney, the only GOP presence at the Capitol on Thursday was Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who assembled a press conference to push unsupported conspiracy theories about the cause of the attack.
The House was not in session, but nearly 30 Democrats trekked to Washington to the events marking one year since the attack. Most were members who were trapped in the House gallery as rioters broke into the building on Jan. 6, 2021. Lawmakers gave their own emotional testimonials Thursday afternoon, addressing a small group of lawmakers, staff and other attendees, including the parents of Sicknick, the Capitol Police officer who died a day after the attack.
The string of events on Thursday, planned by Pelosi, were intended to focus on those who endured the attack in the Capitol, rather than those responsible for the violence. In addition to the moment of silence and member testimonials, Democrats also held an evening prayer vigil on the Capitol steps, where members huddled in near-freezing temperatures for a final reflection of the day.
Pelosi, reflecting on what Jan. 6 means for the state of democracy, said Thursday that the Capitol attack was a reminder to always be vigilant — and that democracy is a work in progress.
“[Democracy] isn’t dying,” Pelosi said in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Thursday night in the Capitol. “But it needs attention.”
Earlier, Pelosi also held a private event where she personally thanked building staff for their role in protecting the Capitol and their members. Afterwards, staff, including Capitol Police officers, were treated to a lunch donated by celebrity chef and philanthropist José Andrés. The meal was served by several Democrats who had been in the chamber during the riot.
Senate Democrats also spent part of Thursday commemorating the Jan. 6 attack, holding a series of speeches and a moment of silence, though a vote was not scheduled and many members were in Atlanta for the funeral of former Sen. Johnny Isakson.
In his floor speech, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer recalled the moment when a police officer grabbed his collar and informed him he was in danger: “I was within 30 feet of these nasty, racist, bigoted insurrectionists.”
“I was told later one of them reportedly said, ‘There’s the big Jew, let’s get him,’” Schumer said.
But while the emotional aftershocks in the Capitol remained a key focus, Biden and many Democrats also sought to demonstrate the stark contrast between their party and the GOP, most of whose members remain deeply loyal to Trump. GOP leaders have urged their colleagues to spend the day focused on the security flaws at the Capitol rather than engage in any direct validation of the traumatic effects of the riot.
A smaller number of House Republicans, particularly some of the 10 who joined Democrats to impeach Trump for inciting the riot last year, continued to condemn the former president.
“Any reasonable person could have seen the potential for violence that day. Yet, our President did nothing to protect our country and stop the violence. The actions of the President on January 6th were nothing short of reprehensible,” Rep. Tom Rice (R-S.C.), one of the 10 who voted to impeach Trump, said in a statement.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said the mob was “provoked by” Trump in the immediate aftermath of the riot, released a Thursday statement that did not mention Trump by name. McConnell called the Capitol assault a “disgraceful scene” and “antithetical to the rule of law,” though he also blasted Democrats’ attempt to use the anniversary to advance election reforms as exploitative.
Vice President Kamala Harris alluded to that messaging in her remarks Thursday, calling on the Senate to advance voting rights legislation.
“Here, in this very building, a decision will be made about whether we uphold the right to vote and ensure free and fair election,” Harris said. “We cannot sit on the sidelines.”
Marianne LeVine and Olivia Beavers contributed to this report.
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