WASHINGTON, D.C. — An uneasy peace settled over a fortified Capitol Hill on Thursday as National Guard soldiers stood sentry, workers erected steel barriers and supporters of Donald Trump — along with the rest of the country — waited for what comes next.
Wednesday’s grey skies and bitter wind gave way to brilliant sunshine that glinted off the iconic Capitol dome, birdsong mingling with the clang of construction hammers as crews ringed the entire complex with an ominous, unscalable fence.
In the shadow of the building, where the day before a relatively small number of the legions of Trump loyalists gathered outside in blind partisan anger managed to topple police lines and lay siege to the chambers of political power, there was only confusion — and apprehension.
“When we found out that they breached the Capitol — it just ruined the day for me and my wife,” said William Wroe, 60, a Trump supporter who travelled from Tennessee with wife Annette to see the rally for themselves.
Their hearts sank when they returned to their hotel room to see that news coverage was focused entirely on the “handful of people” who had run amok through the Capitol.
Wroe said he continues to support the president, but fears that the political divisions over the November presidential election are threatening to tear the country apart.
“We all got to just turn to God, and just pray and pray and pray that we’re going to be safe,” he said. “I don’t like what this country’s turning into.”
Inside the building, the movement to expedite Trump’s departure from Washington gained momentum as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged Vice-President Mike Pence to get serious about invoking the 25th amendment.
“In calling for this seditious act, the president has committed an unspeakable assault on our nation and our people,” Pelosi told a news conference.
The rarely used constitutional amendment gives the vice-president, together with members of the federal cabinet, the power to remove a president from office who is deemed to be unfit to serve.
“If the vice-president and cabinet do not act,” Pelosi said, “the Congress may be prepared to move forward with impeachment.”
Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, best known as a member of the progressive wing of the Democrats, has already promised to draw up articles of impeachment against the president, an indignity he has already experienced once in his four years in office.
“Donald J. Trump should be impeached by the House of Representatives and removed from office by the United States Senate,” Omar tweeted Wednesday.
“We can’t allow him to remain in office, it’s a matter of preserving our republic and we need to fulfil our oath.”
Overnight, just hours after Trump supporters forced their way into the building and terrorized lawmakers, Congress ultimately certified Joe Biden as U.S. president-elect, who emerged Thursday to unveil his new attorney general, Merrick Garland.
“They weren’t protesters — don’t dare call them protesters,” Biden fumed.
“They were a riotous mob, insurrectionists, domestic terrorists. It’s that basic, it’s that simple. And I wish we could say we couldn’t see it coming.”
Trump, meanwhile, his Twitter account frozen, staffers resigning their posts and critics accusing him of inciting a riot, finally promised early Thursday an orderly transfer of power on Jan. 20.
But he continued to defiantly claim that he was the rightful winner in November, citing unfounded conspiracy theories of a stolen presidential election, even as the exodus from his administration continued apace.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao was reportedly down, citing her dismay at Wednesday’s events. And Mick Mulvaney, a former Trump chief of staff who had been serving as a U.S. special envoy to Northern Ireland, also quit.
The chaos erupted Wednesday within an hour of Trump’s fiery speech to thousands of supporters outside the White House, which featured the usual array of conspiracy theories and phoney grievances about the outcome of the election.
When he was done, the crowd poured down the National Mall to the foot of Capitol Hill, where a number of them swarmed the outside of the building, mobbed Capitol police and began flooding inside.
Members of Congress were promptly evacuated from the area as officers, some with weapons drawn, confronted the mob. Protesters looted and vandalized offices, and even gained access to the Senate and House chambers.
The images that ensued were jaw-dropping: a man in a Make America Great Again hat, his feet up on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk. Another striding through the rotunda with a Confederate flag over his shoulder. The speaker’s dais occupied by a man with a Trump flag as a cape. Protesters brandishing trophies swiped from offices.
Outside, as police sirens echoed and helicopters pulsed overhead, thousands upon thousands of others who were massed on the Capitol steps cheered and celebrated news of the breach, waving flags, firing flares and popping smoke grenades from atop the balcony.
Less than eight hours later, however, with the Capitol fully secured, lawmakers reconvened their joint session, determined to send the message that they wouldn’t be cowed.
Four people died in or near the tumult, including a woman who was shot by police as she tried to climb through a broken glass door near one of the chambers. Three others died following “medical emergencies” on or near the Capitol grounds.