SCOTT DETROW, HOST:
It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the Biden transition.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I cover the White House.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Stop the steal. Stop the steal.
DETROW: It's 6:21 p.m. on Wednesday, January 6. And there's a curfew in effect here in Washington, D.C. And that's because of this. As Congress was counting the Electoral College's votes today, pro-Trump extremists stormed the building.
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DETROW: They smashed windows. They forced their way into the hallways, into lawmakers' offices, onto the Senate and House floor. There was gunfire inside. At this point, we do not know the extent of violence.
There is a lot to talk about. But, Sue, as the day unfolded, one thing I was thinking about was the first time I was in the Capitol. You were giving me a tour, and you pointed to the stairwell where there are burn marks from British soldiers during the War of 1812. And it is not an exaggeration that what happened today is comparable to that.
DAVIS: No, and I believe a Capitol historian told CNN today that that was the last time the Capitol was breached - the War of 1812. I mean, it was just breathtaking to me to watch what happened today. Not just the scaling up of the Capitol, but seeing these extremists on the floor of the Senate, sitting where the president pro tempore or the presiding officer sits, in the galleries causing destruction, sitting in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office.
I mean - one - just the stunning security breach and the failure there to secure the building, but the disruption to this sort of sacred constitutional process of asserting and affirming the election results - I mean, personally, I can say it was just heartbreaking. It was really heartbreaking to watch all of this unfold today.
DETROW: And seeing those gas masks that are kept in boxes in the Senate and House chamber that have been there since after 9/11, seeing them used was another moment that just really knocked me off my feet. Franco, let's remind everyone that before this all began, President Trump gave a speech to a group of protesters gathered on the National Mall and he said this.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're going to walk down to the Capitol...
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TRUMP: ...And we're going to 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.
ORDOÑEZ: When he was talking to his supporters, he actually said he was going to go to the Capitol with them, but he did not do that. He just sent his supporters there. And throughout the day, we heard very little. Eventually, as, you know, things kind of escalated, the president tweeted out to be peaceful. A couple hours later after that, he said, you know, we don't want violence.
But things were really getting out of hand. And a lot of people were calling for him - including his supporters - to say something a lot more with more clarity to condemn this. And it wasn't until, you know, Joe Biden - after Joe Biden, you know, called on the president to say something, that he actually put out a video saying that people should go home and that this needs to end.
DETROW: But he also said - he also gave love to them.
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, even then, he was at the same time stoking those same unfounded claims that set this group off in the first place. And Facebook even went so far to take the video down because they felt it caused more harm than good. Just a little bit ago, President Trump tweeted again, you know, seeming to justify the insurgency and saying people will remember this day forever. And, you know, that part - I think he's right.
DETROW: Yeah. He's seeming to continue to celebrate this. Let's contrast that with Vice President Mike Pence, who, you know, 800 years ago and/or midmorning, defied President Trump, said he didn't have the power to reject the Electoral College count when he presided over this session. President Trump attacked him right when this violence was really escalating. How has the vice president responded to this violence, this chaos?
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. It was really profound because President Trump was continuing to kind of escalate the emotions as Pence was fulfilling, you know, his oath of office and what he said he was going to do earlier in the day. Now, Vice President Pence did come out more directly after he was evacuated. He called the protests an attack on our Capitol and tweeted that people must immediately leave the building - you know, things that people were hoping that the president would call for.
And Pence also said that the people who did attack the Capitol would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law - and again, much different than the type of things that President Trump is saying regarding love for those people.
DETROW: Sue, a lot of people have been making the argument - people from both parties have been making the argument that something like this is the logical conclusion of Trump insisting the election was stolen, of encouraging extremist groups over and over again or not denouncing them, of the type of language that was coming from him earlier today. Can you walk us through some of the most notable responses and direct ties to that?
DAVIS: Sure. I think a lot of the voices are ones we've heard in the past that have been critics of the president and his rhetoric. Utah Senator Mitt Romney put out a statement calling it an insurrection that was fueled by the president. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse also in a statement called it the, quote, "inevitable and ugly outcome" of President Trump's ongoing sort of stoking of divisions in the country. Liz Cheney, who's the number three House Republican on television on NBC, sort of echoed that remark, saying that there was a direct line between the violence today and the president's words and actions.
The question I have going forward is, will there be a break here from some of the Republican voices who have been hesitant to criticize the president? I mean, you even heard Vice President Mike Pence today breaking with the president in a way we had not heard before. I do think that this has been a breaking point for a lot of lawmakers privately. Many of them have privately had concerns about the president's actions for years, but have always been scared politically to say anything. I'm waiting to see what they do now.
I mean, let's not forget, we were in the middle of a debate in which more than 100 House Republicans and at least a dozen senators were at the ready to object to Electoral College outcomes in at least three states to sort of try and legitimize these claims that the president was making. And one Democratic Congressman, Jimmy Gomez of California, today sort of made the point, like, we can't just put this all in the president, there was other actors here.
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JIMMY GOMEZ: But it's completely unacceptable what the Republicans are doing; undermining people's faith in our democracy like it's actually being stolen. That's just not - I think Donald Trump probably should be brought up on treason for something like this. This is how coups start, and this is how democracy dies.
DAVIS: There's also a lot of frustration at Republicans like Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri because a lot of Republicans, especially in the Senate, think they know better. They know that this wasn't an unfair election. They know that Joe Biden won the election. And using their power to legitimize those fears, as we saw today, has proven to be quite dangerous.
DETROW: Yeah. One of the moments that jumped out to me before this all escalated was Senator Cruz saying - justifying his protest, saying there's so much public opinion that thinks that this election was stolen and because people think that, we need to act. And it's like, well, people think that because the president amplified that misinformation.
ORDOÑEZ: And not only the president, but many Republicans, you know, several Republican leaders did as well.
DETROW: All right. We're going to take a quick break. When we get back, we will hear from the president-elect, Joe Biden, who spoke today amid all of this. And we will talk about what happens next.
We are back. And this afternoon, Joe Biden spoke from Wilmington. He had actually been about to speak on a different topic - the economy - when this all started to happen. He waited an hour or more for things to clarify and then addressed the nation. He urged President Trump to step up and to speak to the country and call for de-escalation. We talked about the fact that the president didn't. Another moment really jumped out to me.
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JOE BIDEN: The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are. What we're seeing are a small number of extremists dedicated to lawlessness. This is not dissent, it's disorder.
DETROW: That jumped out to me because you had to know that, around the world, people were watching TV, were seeing this on the Internet, seeing a mob storm the U.S. Capitol and wonder what has happened to America. And he seemed to be saying - he seemed to be speaking to people in other countries saying, this is not our country. But I wonder how hard of an argument that's going to be for him to make going forward as he tries to meet with world leaders from the position that the U.S. normally finds itself from as the country that's pushing for democracy and liberal government and things like that.
ORDOÑEZ: I think that's right. I mean, we have heard from many world leaders who have been putting out statements today expressing their own shock and surprise about what they're seeing - about the same thing that we're seeing - and saying how can this be happening in the United States? And I think it's - you know, I think over the last four years, for many world leaders who had challenging times and challenging relationships with the president, this is kind of reinforcing those and I think raising those kind of concerns that you're talking about.
DAVIS: There's an argument to me that if Biden has any mandate, it was that pledge that he ran on to sort of get back to normal, right?
DAVIS: Get back to what we were used to and the behaviors of a president. And him coming out early today to sort of give a very presidential response to this - if Joe Biden has a mandate, it is to get people to feel like they have faith in the system again.
And that, to me, is the hardest thing to do because it's not necessarily just a piece of legislation you can pass, right? It's not this, like, one - it's not a legislative act, it's more of a question of leadership, of rhetoric, of sort of leading the country. And I think that he has a really, really hard job ahead of them. And I thought that before, but after today, it just seems that much harder.
DETROW: Yeah. We had, of course, been talking the last few days about this challenge to the Electoral College that was going to happen on the House floor today. It had just gotten underway. The Senate and House were separately debating the Arizona electoral votes. And really lost in all of this, you heard a really strong speech from Mitch McConnell denouncing this attack.
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MITCH MCCONNELL: This election actually was not unusually close. If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral.
DETROW: Do we - again, we don't have a clear sense of how the next few hours or days are going to play out, but do we have any idea about whether those challenges go forward when the Electoral College counting resumes?
DAVIS: We do know that several of those senators, including Cruz and Mike Braun of Indiana, were meeting separately. Senators were taken to an undisclosed location, and they were also meeting amongst themselves to figure out next steps. We have been asking their offices all day long, what are you going to do next? And they have not responded. And they have not put out any public statements.
There is some quiet pressure on these senators and these House members to back down, to not continue their objections because of what it would look like to continue to sort of validate this question that the election should be in doubt. We don't know what they're going to do. But I think that, you know, clearly, people like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley of Missouri were making a bet that they want to be loyal to the president, that they want to acknowledge the Trump base, that they want to be seen as sort of capturing that sentiment.
But the question now is, what are you fueling, right? And, like, what is the end of this? And I think that there is much more - there was a lot of internal strife among Republicans going into today. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in a floor speech today, was really forceful condemning any action that would undermine the Electoral College certification. And I think there's a lot of pressure on them to back down because there's a lot of concern right now of the damage that President Trump not only has done to the Republican Party, but could be doing to the party going forward if they keep this up.
ORDOÑEZ: Can you say - I mean, what is next? I mean, the Congress needs to get back together, and they need to finish what they started in, you know, certifying the Electoral College results. I mean, when is that going to happen? What's next?
DAVIS: Well, we know that they're going to go back into session likely tonight. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told lawmakers that's the plan, but they're consulting, obviously, with Capitol police, with the Defense Department, with security forces. But she essentially said once the Capitol's secure, they'll get back to work.
I've been hearing overwhelmingly from lawmakers - Republicans and Democrats alike - that there is broad support for that. They want to go back into session. They want the country to see the visual of them back at work. It's important. This is constitutional work they need to get done. It has to be done by statute on this date.
And I think, you know, we do often see, on Capitol Hill after sort of moments like this, that there is rare unity on the Hill. And I think that lawmakers just right now are feeling sort of their patriotism and want to get this done and send a message to the country and affirm the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
DETROW: And on that note, we'll end pointing this out. As all of this was happening, the AP called that second Georgia Senate race for Jon Ossoff. That means that by picking up both Georgia Senate seats, Democrats are going to control the chamber once they're sworn in and once Biden takes office and Vice President Harris can cast that tie-breaking vote. So amid all of this, we saw a moment of the democratic process as it is supposed to work, changing power in Washington, D.C., even as people tried to stop it.
Again, in another era this morning, we did a whole different episode on what happened in Georgia and what it means. So check that out. And of course, over the coming days, we will keep following this story in your podcast feeds. We're again on this today (ph). I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the Biden transition.
ORDOÑEZ: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I cover the White House.
DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
DETROW: I'm glad both of you are safe. And I will talk to you soon. And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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