[Editor’s note: This story has been updated.]
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday warned of the dangers of a collapse of American democracy, standing in a historic chamber in the U.S. Capitol that was besieged by an angry mob of pro-Trump supporters who attempted to halt the certification of the 2020 presidential election.
“We are in the battle for the soul of America,” Biden said during a somber and strongly worded speech in Statuary Hall to mark the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
“This was an armed insurrection,” he said. “They weren’t looking to uphold the will of the people.”
Biden stressed that the way forward for the nation to recover from the attack is to “recognize the truth and to live by it.”
“We must be absolutely clear what is true and what is a lie,” he said. “And here’s the truth: The 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.”
Without citing former President Donald Trump by name, Biden noted that rioters threatened the life of the speaker of the House, and were “literally erecting gallows” to hang the vice president as they rampaged through the Capitol and battled police.
Trump, Biden said, sat in the dining room just off the Oval Office at the White House, “watching it all on television and doing nothing for hours.”
Biden said that Americans should not let Jan. 6 mark the end of democracy, and it instead should spur a renaissance period of protecting the ballot through congressional action.
“Deep in the heart of America burns a flame lit almost 200 years ago,” he said. “Here in America, the people rule through the ballot, and their will prevails.”
Vice President Kamala Harris acknowledged that Congress’ role in protecting democracy would not be easy
“Here in this very building,” she said, “a decision will be made on whether we uphold the right to vote and ensure (a) free and fair election.”
Throughout the day, Democrats reflected on the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, and multiple speeches on the House and Senate floor were delivered.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shortly after the president’s speech held a private moment of reflection on the House floor with staff who were present on Jan. 6.
Pelosi also held a moment of silence on the House floor at noon, and honored the lives of the law enforcement officers who died as a result of the attack on the Capitol.
“As we acknowledge the horror of that day in the face of extreme danger, they all risked their safety for our democracy by protecting the Capitol complex, members, staff, press, safeguarding the ballot — in those mahogany boxes — to validate the election and ensuring that Congress could accomplish our purpose,” she said.
The only House Republican who attended was Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming. She was accompanied by her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, who is also the former House Republican whip.
Dick Cheney said he was disappointed in how Republican leadership was reacting to the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack.
“It’s not a leadership that resembles any of the folks I knew when I was here for 10 years,” he said, according to Capitol Hill pool reports.
Last year, Liz Cheney was removed of her GOP leadership position in the House after her continued pushback against Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud in the presidential election.
Leaving the House’s moment of silence, Cheney said that she’s concerned about the future of the country.
“There are moments when we all have to come together in order to defend the Constitution,” she said, according to pool reports.
More than a dozen Senate Democrats were scheduled to speak on the Senate floor. “There were many breakdowns that day, but the biggest breakdown was the breakdown of our democracy,” said Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Pelosi, along with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and several historians, hosted a discussion in the Cannon Caucus Room about how to preserve the narrative of events that occurred on Jan. 6. The event opened with a virtual appearance by composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, who introduced a group screen performance of “Dear Theodosia” from his musical “Hamilton.”
A pair of prominent historians, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham, in the discussion compared the attack to major events in U.S. history.
Meacham called the event “an inflection point,” that reflected the divisions that pose the greatest threat to the republic since the 1861 attack on Fort Sumter that opened the Civil War.
“This is a chapter, not the end of the story,” he said. “If it is the end of the story, then we have failed…. I don’t believe that’s going to happen. But I believe we are as close to that we have been since Sumter.”
“What you saw a year ago today was the worst instinct of both human nature and American politics, which is the will of power over the idea of equality and the rule of law,” he said.
Goodwin called the divisions in the country today “the hardest moment for democracy in my lifetime.”
Still, she said, other examples — George Washington’s decision to rein in the powers of the presidency, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s leadership during the Great Depression, the civil rights, gay rights, women’s and environmental movements — showed the country could overcome difficult times.
“Even though there’s these bad angels, there are extraordinarily good angels, even on Jan. 6,” she said.
“We’ve had lots of people who were willing to step up and put their public lives against their private lives. And that’s what we’ve got to depend on today. That’s what we need in these years and months ahead.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, said in a statement that Trump’s repeated false claims about voter fraud are a threat to the nation. Trump was impeached for a second time on the grounds of inciting the insurrection.
“The January 6th insurrectionists were emboldened by President Trump to act upon the ‘Big Lie,’ the unfounded conspiracy that voter fraud caused his defeat in the 2020 election, and to use violence as a means to keep a losing president in office,” Merkley said. “This was an attempted coup to disrupt our institutions, sustain power, and overrule the will of the American people.”
That “Big Lie” rhetoric has spurred Republicans at the state level to introduce and pass hundreds of laws that impose strict voting requirements.
Congressional Democrats have struggled to pass federal voting rights legislation, due to the Senate’s filibuster rules that require a 60-vote threshold rather than a simple majority for bills to advance. Senate Democrats have also struggled to get all their members on board with changing current rules to allow for the passage of voting rights.
Republican leadership on Thursday morning largely stayed quiet — except for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. In a statement, McConnell, who was in Georgia attending the funeral of former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, praised the law enforcement officers who protected lawmakers and defended the Capitol on Jan. 6. But he criticized Democrats for politicizing the day to call for voting rights legislation.
“It is especially jaw dropping to hear some Senate Democrats invoke the mob’s attempt to disrupt our country’s norms, rules, and institutions as a justification to discard our norms, rules and institutions themselves,” he said.
Two House GOP members, Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, held the only Republican response about the insurrection, on Thursday afternoon.
The press conference was an attempt for Greene and Gaetz to spread a conspiracy theory, which has circled around conservative outlets and right-wing groups without evidence, that the federal government played a role in the insurrection. Both lawmakers objected to the certification of the electoral college votes on the grounds of voter fraud, which was the underlying reason the mob attacked the Capitol.
Greene, a freshman, was stripped of her committee seats after social media posts surfaced where she encouraged violence against Democratic leaders.
Gaetz is currently under investigation by the Justice Department looking into sex trafficking allegations to conclude if he violated federal law by providing payments to a 17-year-old girl in exchange for sex.
In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot, five people died, hundreds of law enforcement officers were injured — four later died by suicide — and congressional staff, lawmakers, police and journalists were traumatized. One woman was shot and killed by a Capitol Hill police officer after she tried to breach the House Speaker’s Lobby.
The architect of the Capitol estimated that the attack caused about $1.5 million worth of damage to the Capitol building.
More than 725 defendants who participated in the riot have been arrested in nearly all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
The Justice Department has charged more than 225 defendants “with assaulting, resisting, or impeding officers or employees, including over 75 individuals who have been charged with using a deadly or dangerous weapon or causing serious bodily injury to an officer,” according to the agency.
Click here to read Biden’s full remarks.
Jacob Fischler contributed to this report.