Encouraged by US President Donald Trump's inflammatory rhetoric regarding the validity of the 2020 US election results, armed mobs broke into the United States Capitol — the equivalent of Parliament House, the building where the US House of Representatives and Senate (Congress) meet — vandalising the most central symbol of American democracy.
The attack forced Congress to postpone a session that would have certified President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
Democracy is fragile: Joe Biden
US President-elect Joe Biden reacted to the development, stating that the incident was a grim reminder of how "democracy is fragile". He took a subliminal shot at Trump, saying that to preserve the system, "leaders with courage" were required to stand up.
"To preserve it requires people of good will, leaders with the courage to stand up, who are devoted not to pursuit of power and personal interest at any cost, but to the common good," he tweeted.
Washington police responded with drawn guns and tear gas as hundreds of protesters stormed in and sought to force Congress to undo Trump’s election loss.
One protester occupied the Senate dais and yelled: “Trump won that election.” Protesters overturned barricades and clashed with police as thousands descended on the Capitol grounds.
Police declared the Capitol building secure shortly after 5:30 p.m. (2230 GMT), more than three hours after it was breached.
Videos showed Trump supporters breaking windows and police firing tear gas shells inside the building.
Washington Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee said members of the crowd used chemical irritants to attack police and several had been injured.
One civilian died after being shot during the mayhem, local media said.
The FBI said it had disarmed two suspected explosive devices.
The chaotic scenes unfolded after Trump, who before the election refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he lost, addressed thousands of protesters, repeating unfounded claims that the election was stolen from him due to widespread fraud and irregularities.
Biden, a Democrat who defeated the Republican president in the Nov 3 election and is due to take office on Jan. 20, said the activity of the protesters “borders on sedition.”
The former vice president said that for demonstrators to storm the Capitol, smash windows, occupy offices, invade Congress and threaten the safety of duly elected officials: “It’s not a protest, it’s insurrection.”
He urged Trump to demand “an end to this siege” on national television.
In a video posted to Twitter, Trump repeated his false claims about election fraud but urged the protesters to leave.
“You have to go home now, we have to have peace,” he said, adding: “We love you. You’re very special.”
Social media clamps down
Twitter later restricted users from retweeting Trump’s video, and Facebook Inc took it down entirely, citing the risk of violence.
When the attack took place, lawmakers had been debating a last-ditch effort by pro-Trump lawmakers to challenge the results, which was unlikely to succeed.
The top two Democrats in Congress, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer called on Trump to demand that all the protesters leave the Capitol and its grounds immediately.
Capitol Police meanwhile told the lawmakers who were in the House chamber to take gas masks from beneath their seats and ordered them to drop to the floor for their safety. Officers drew their guns as someone tried to enter the House chamber.
Police piled furniture against the doors of the House chamber as protesters tried to break them down, Democratic Representative Jason Crow said on MSNBC.
Several hundred House members, staff and press were later evacuated to an undisclosed location.
National Guard troops, FBI agents and U.S. Secret Service were deployed to help overwhelmed Capitol police.
The violence unfolded on the same day that Trump’s Republicans lost their majority in the Senate as they lost two runoff elections in Georgia.
Not backing down
“We will never give up,” Trump earlier told thousands of cheering supporters on a grassy expanse near the White House called the Ellipse. “We will never concede. It doesn’t happen.”
Trump called on Pence to overturn the election results as he presided over the debate in Congress. “If you’re not, I’m going to be very disappointed in you,” Trump said.
The US Constitution does not give Pence the power to unilaterally overturn the results of the election, and the vice president said in a statement he could not accept or reject electoral votes unilaterally.
The violence stunned world leaders.
“Trump and his supporters must accept the decision of American voters at last and stop trampling on democracy,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said.
Business groups, normally staunch allies of Republicans in Washington, also reacted strongly. The National Association of Manufacturers said Pence should consider invoking a clause in the Constitution that allows a president to be removed from office when he is unable to do his job.
“This is sedition and should be treated as such,” said the group’s president, Jay Timmons.
Here are some reactions from around the world:
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven in a tweet described the incidents as “an attack on democracy”.
“President Trump and many members of Congress bear significant responsibility for what’s now taking place. The democratic process of electing a president must be respected.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a tweet described the scenes in the US Congress as a “disgrace”, saying the United States stood for democracy around the world and that was it was “vital” now that there should be a peaceful and orderly transfer of power.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said democracy’s enemies would be cheered by scenes of violence at the United States Capitol, and he called on Trump to accept voters’ decision.
In a Tweet posted after protesters stormed the seat of the U.S. legislature, Maas said the violence had been caused by inflammatory rhetoric.
“Trump and his supporters must accept the decision of American voters at last and stop trampling on democracy.”
“Quite Maidan-style pictures are coming from DC,” Russia’s deputy U.N. Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy posted on Twitter, referring to protests in Ukraine that toppled Russian-backed President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovich in 2014.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called the violent protests in Washington “shocking scenes” and said the outcome of the democratic US election must be respected.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said in a tweet: “I am following with concern the news that are coming from Capitol Hill in Washington. I trust in the strength of America’s democracy.
“The new Presidency of @JoeBiden will overcome this time of tension, uniting the American people.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed concern about the violent scenes in Washington. “Obviously we’re concerned and we’re following the situation minute by minute,” Trudeau told the News 1130 Vancouver radio station. “I think the American democratic institutions are strong, and hopefully everything will return to normal shortly.”
Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne on Twitter: “Canada is deeply shocked by the situation in Washington DC. The peaceful transition of power is fundamental to democracy – it must continue and it will. We are following developments closely and our thoughts are with the American people.”
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said in a statement: “The attack on Capitol Hill in Washington DC is a very serious and worrying matter. It shows how important it is to firmly and strongly defend democracy at all times.”
Turkey’s foreign ministry issued a statement expressing concern about the violence and called for calm and common sense while urging its citizens to avoid crowds and the protest area.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Twitter: “The violence against the American institutions is a grave attack on democracy. I condemn it. The will and the vote of the American people must be respected.”
Charles Michel, chairman of EU leaders, on Twitter expressed his shock at the scenes in Washington. “The US Congress is a temple of democracy…We trust the US to ensure a peaceful transfer of power to @JoeBiden”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: “I believe in the strength of US institutions and democracy. Peaceful transition of power is at the core. @JoeBiden won the election. I look forward to working with him as the next President of the USA.”
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza tweeted: “Venezuela expresses its concern for the violent events that are taking place in the city of Washington, USA; condemns the political polarization and hopes that the American people will open a new path toward stability and social justice.”