US president Joe Biden blamed his predecessor Donald Trump directly for the insurrection at the US Capitol a year ago, saying the former president turned to violence to try to overturn the election he lost.
“For the first time in our history, a president not just lost an election, he tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power as a violent mob breached the Capitol,” Mr Biden said in a speech on Thursday in the building’s Statuary Hall, commemorating the first anniversary of the January 6th insurrection.
Mr Biden warned that Mr Trump’s false claims that the November 2020 presidential election was stolen from him through widespread voting fraud could unravel the rule of law and undermine future elections.
“We must be absolutely clear about what is true and what is a lie. Here’s the truth: a former president of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election. He’s done so because he values power over principle,” Mr Biden said. “He can’t accept he lost,” Mr Biden added, during a speech that did not include a mention of Mr Trump by name.
The Democratic president also called on politicians to pass voting rights legislation intended to rebut changes sought by Trump loyalists in state governments across the nation that would limit access to absentee voting and strengthen identification requirements for voting.
A mob allegedly incited by former president Donald Trump storms the Senate side of the US Capitol in Washington DC last January. Photograph: Jason Andrew/The New York Times
Mr Biden said that after Mr Trump “rallied the mob to attack” the Capitol, he sat “in the private diningroom off the Oval Office in the White House, watching it all on television and doing nothing for hours as police were assaulted, lives at risk, the nation’s capitol under siege”.
The speech was part of a day of commemoration, featuring remarks by House speaker Nancy Pelosi, along with other Democrats, and discussions about democracy.
Mr Trump cancelled a press conference originally scheduled for Thursday at his Palm Beach estate at the urging of allies. However, in a written statement following the speech by Mr Biden, Mr Trump said the president “used my name today to try to further divide America”.
US vice-president Kamala Harris said at the Capitol on Thursday, ahead of Mr Biden’s remarks, that American democracy remains at risk. “On January 6th, we all saw what our nation would look like if the forces who seek to dismantle our democracy are successful. The lawlessness, the violence, the chaos,” she said.
“What was at stake then, and now, is the right to have our future decided the way the constitution describes it.”
She applauded politicians for returning to the Capitol after the riot to finish counting electoral college votes, certifying Mr Biden’s victory in the November 2020 presidential election.
“Their resolve – not to yield, but to certify the election – their loyalty, not to party or person, but to the constitution of the United States; that reflects its strength,” she said.
Before the speech the White House had said that it expected Mr Biden would “lay out the significance of what happened at the Capitol and the singular responsibility president Trump has for the chaos and carnage that we saw”.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Mr Biden would “forcibly push back on the lie spread by the former president in an attempt to mislead the American people and his own supporters, as well as distract from his role in what happened”.
“The president is going to speak to the truth of what happened, not the lies that some have spread since, and the peril it posed to the rule of law and our system of democratic governance,” she said.
“I’d also note that president Biden has been clear-eyed about the threat the former president represents to our democracy and how the former president constantly works to undermine basic American values and rule of law,”she said.
Mr Trump had urged his supporters to attend a rally in Washington, DC, on January 6th last year and to march to the Capitol, where members of Congress were meeting to certify Mr Biden’s victory in the presidential election.
A large group of rallying Trump supporters subsequently fought with police and broke into the Capitol building, leading politicians to flee to safety and delaying the formal certification process for several hours.
Mr Trump’s allies have maintained that he urged his supporters to “peacefully” demonstrate. His critics contend that he urged them to fight amid false claims that the presidential election had been rigged and stolen.
On Wednesday, US attorney general Merrick Garland said so far more than 725 people had been charged with crimes arising from the rioting. He said five police officers who were on duty on January 6th last year at the Capitol had died in the intervening period.
One Trump supporter was shot dead during the attack on the Capitol.
Mr Garland said the justice department in the US remained committed to holding all the perpetrators of the January 6th attack, “at any level”, accountable under law.
He said his department would pursue those responsible “whether they were present that day or were otherwise criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy. We will follow the facts wherever they lead.” Additional reporting: Bloomberg/Reuters