As darkness fell on a shell-shocked Washington DC and law enforcement belatedly rid the Capitol Hill area of the last rioters, business resumed at the US Capitol on Wednesday night.
The shocking scenes that saw pro-Trump supporters, incited by the president, storm the US Capitol, has dramatically upended the political world in the dying days of the Trump presidency.
Once again calls are being made for the 25th amendment to be invoked – a provision that allows the removal of a president.
Wednesday’s events were already controversial, even before an angry mob breached the building in surreal scenes that ricocheted across the world. The joint session of Congress to announce the election results, which happens every four years, is usually a sedate affair, a formality that passes without much attention.
But in a highly unusual move, more than 100 Republican members of the House of Representatives and Senate had indicated they would contest the electoral college vote in certain states.
While the mathematics of the chambers meant that the challenges would not ultimately change the outcome – Joe Biden had the support necessary to be declared the next president of the United States – the decision by so many Republicans to openly challenge the result of a freely held election was a mark of how far American democracy had fallen under Trump.
The decision by senators like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley to perpetuate the unsubstantiated claims peddled by the president appears now to have been a grave political misjudgment.
Although they could not have foreseen the events that unfolded on Wednesday afternoon, the abiding memory of the moments before the violence unfolded will be of Ted Cruz arguing on the Senate floor that almost half of Americans believe the election was rigged – without addressing the fact that this was because Trump had lied to them.
In contrast, Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell - two of Washington’s most senior Republicans – had both broken with the president – Pence, by refusing to block the declaration of the results (though in this regard he was simply sticking to the constitution’s rules), Mc Connell by declaring that over-riding voters would “damage our Republic forever”.
It may have taken them four years, when Trump was already on his way out the White House door, to speak out against the president, but it put down a marker of where they stood in what increasingly looks like a civil war within the Republican party over Trump.
Wednesday’s shocking events accelerated the process leading to Joe Biden’s certification as president of the United States. After being moved to a secure location, the Republican Senate leadership pushed some of the pro-Trump rebels to drop their objections. Only six senators objected to Arizona’s certification, compared to 14-plus, while the debate on other states were either scrapped or curtailed.
The decision by Senator Tom Cotton, an ultra-conservative who had already decided not to challenge the election, now looks prescient, and he may well emerge as the least damaged of the 2024 presidential hopefuls, which include Cruz and Hawley. He cleverly made the reliably conservative argument that elections should be the business of states, not Congress, allowing him to justify his politically risky choice of disagreeing with Trump.
Worryingly, however, 121 Republican members of the House of Representatives objected to Arizona’s votes last night as promised, despite the events of the day.
The extraordinary events of the last 24 hours has also prompted hopes by some that vice president Mike Pence could be newly emboldened to go one step further, and invoke the 25th amendment. The clause, inserted after the assassination of John F Kennedy, allows the president to be removed from office. The vice president and a majority of the cabinet could declare the president unable to “discharge the powers and duties of his office.” If the president dispute this, two-thirds of both the House and the Senate would vote to put the vice president in charge.
Donald Trump’s reckless behaviour has to many crossed a line, culminating in an attack on the heart of American democracy. His recorded video yesterday in which he encouraged his supporters to go home, while telling them he loved them, and continued to spout misinformation about election fraud, underlined the impression that this is an autocratic president out of touch with reality.
Last night, Stephanie Grisham, a former press secretary and chief of staff to Melania Trump resigned over the events, despite her long-time links with the Trump family. Whether others will follow remains to be seen. Former Trump cabinet members including former defense secretary James Mattis and former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Joseph Dunford blamed Trump for the violence, though Mattis was more direct in his comments.
Several Democrats urged Pence to invoke the 25th amendment. Three former presidents – Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and George W Bush – denounced the scenes in the Capitol. “The match was lit by Donald Trump and his most ardent enablers, including many in Congress, to overturn the results of an election he lost,” said Mr Clinton.
With less than two weeks remaining in Donald Trump’s presidency, it remains to be seen if Trump’s closest allies will finally turn on him. But the scenes of anarchy that unfolded in Washington has damaged the credibility of the Republican party for some time to come.
Mitt Romney, one of the few Republican senators to call out Donald Trump, put it succinctly in his speech to the senate last night.
“What happened today was an insurrection, incited by the president of the United States,” he said, noting that those who believed that Trump really won the election would never accept the alternative. “The best way we can respect the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth . . . Joe Biden won.”