In the span of hours, the country finally witnessed the price of its five-year experiment turning its election process into a reality show that produced an unhinged megalomanic as commander-in-chief who amassed so much power through his lies and fear-mongering that he was able to engineer an insurrection as a final act that left democracy dangling by a thread.
Wednesday’s siege at the Capitol marked the culmination of Trump’s years-long quest to cultivate a fiercely loyal base that would do anything for him by playing on their fears and resentments as he lured them into believing his incessant lies about the sinister motives of government, election fraud and his own conduct.
But three days later, Trump appears no more aware of the consequences of his actions than on the day of the riot when he delighted in the mayhem. Bunkered at the White House with an ever-shrinking circle of aides, he has offered no remorse for inciting the crowd and offered only a forced denunciation of their actions. Aides, weary and disgusted, refuse to come near him. His central line to the outside world, Twitter, was severed Friday night. People who admired him, worked for him and followed him down dark paths before now say he has crossed into a delusional place, entirely detached from reality.
Wednesday’s shocking events can be traced to the inception of Trump’s candidacy. From the earliest days of the 2016 presidential race, his rallies crackled with tension and anger — a testament to his skill in finding the fault lines on issues of class and race and exploiting them to draw in followers who felt marginalized and wronged by their leaders. His supporters had hungered for a charismatic leader like him who would empower the “silent majority” and serve as a voice for their grievances. He thrilled them as he blasted through societal norms and the guardrails of democracy, while offering safe harbor to White supremacists, conspiracy theorists, anti-government renegades, racists and anti-Semitic activists who fell in line behind a political figure who would channel their rage in exchange for their fealty.
As he lurched from one shocking maneuver to the next, Trump commanded the constant attention of the press, broadening his universe of followers as he used Twitter as his megaphone. By threatening to punish his critics and by firing civil servants who tried to check his thirst for power, he cowed members of the Republican Party and his own aides, who became complicit in his unraveling of democracy. Meanwhile, much of America grew numb to his circus act, shrugging off the magnetic power of Trumpism as though it was a passing fad.
Trump faces fallout
That all changed Wednesday as the country watched the mob encouraged by Trump scale the walls of Capitol, beating back police officers as they smashed through the historic building’s doors and windows, shattering glass to force their way in bearing metal pipes, sticks and other weapons. Lawmakers from both parties were forced to cower below the seats in their respective chambers before being evacuated to secure locations, as the insurrectionists ransacked congressional offices and attempted to occupy the nation’s seat of government on the day Congress was affirming President-elect Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 election. The barbarism of the day was underscored by chilling reports that some of the Trump faithful were on the hunt for Vice President Mike Pence — who had refused to accede to the President’s demand that he overthrow the election results and was presiding over the counting of the Electoral College votes.
As the horrifying riot unfolded in the “people’s house,” it became clear that Trump had finally gone too far. His political capital was already weakened by the Republicans’ defeats in two runoff races in Georgia that were poisoned by the President’s lies about voter fraud — with some in the GOP openly blaming Trump for their resulting loss of the Senate majority.
Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a frequent Trump critic who favored acquitting Trump in the first impeachment trial last year, said Friday during an interview on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show that he was seriously considering whether he would vote to remove the President from office once articles of impeachment are introduced. “There are a lot of questions that we need to get to the bottom of,” he said.
Sasse also voiced concerns about Trump’s response to the riot, noting that senior White House officials had told him that Trump “wanted chaos on television” and was “confused about why other people on his team weren’t as excited as he was” as rioters pummeled Capitol Police trying to get into the building.
“The question of ‘Was the President derelict in his duty?’ That’s not an open question. He was,” the Nebraska Republican said.
Earlier, Republican Utah Sen. Mitt Romney — the lone GOP senator to vote to convict Trump in 2020 — called Wednesday’s invasion of the Capitol “an insurrection incited by the President,” and Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a member of the GOP leadership team, said the combination of the losses in the Georgia Senate races and the storming of the Capitol underscored the GOP’s need to move beyond Trump.
“Our identity for the past several years now has been built around an individual,” Thune told CNN this week. “You got to get back to where its built around a set of ideals and principles and policies.”
Facing staff resignations and a looming impeachment, Trump made a meager attempt to mitigate the damage by finally acknowledging he won’t be serving a second term in a prerecorded video Thursday evening. But the next day, he was tweeting about his supporters having a “giant voice” and said he would not attend President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, a hint that he would continue his efforts to delegitimize the election results.
A day that encapsulated the danger of Trump
For weeks, while advancing the false claims that the presidential election was rigged and mired in fraud, Trump had whipped up excitement about the January 6 certification of results, inviting his supporters to descend on Washington and promising it would be “wild.”
He arrived at the Ellipse to address the “Save America March” shortly after his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani warmed up the crowd by falsely suggesting voting machines were “crooked” and insisting that Pence could change the election outcome, which the vice president did not have the power to do. “Let’s have trial by combat!” the former New York Mayor told the crowd as they awaited the President.
Backstage, Trump’s son and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, recorded themselves dancing to the soundtrack and encouraging Trump supporters to “fight.”
Inciting the crowd with an address threaded with lies — including that “the states got defrauded” in the election and “want to revote” — Trump stirred anger toward his vice president, telling the crowd once again that he hoped Pence would “do the right thing” — pressuring him to toss out the election results, which would have been illegal and beyond the bounds of his constitutional authority.
He already knew that his vice president would not take that step. Pence had informed him in a tense conversation that he could not overturn the election results, leading Trump to curse at him, according to a source familiar with the conversation. But Trump did not let up at the Wednesday rally as he railed against “weak Republicans” and “pathetic Republicans” who refused to bend to his whims, while calling lawmakers who planned to contest the election results “warriors.”
“We’re gonna walk down to the Capitol. And we’re gonna cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women,” the President said as he marshaled the crowd for action. “You’ll never take back our country with weakness, you have to show strength and you have to be strong.”
In fact as the siege unfolded, Trump demonstrated the callous depths of his narcissism by trying to pressure senators to derail the affirmation of the election results, as they feared for their safety in the midst of a riot he had incited.
At the White House, Trump’s daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump and chief of staff Mark Meadows tried to convince Trump to record a message that would direct the rioters to stand down.
But the resulting message satisfied no one as he ad-libbed, telling the insurgents who had stormed the Capitol: “We love you. You’re very special.”
Trump went about his business, including awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to a pair of professional golfers in the East Room. His attempts to proceed as normal angered some aides even further.
But Trump’s thinking hadn’t changed.
“I think that video was done only because almost all his senior staff was about to resign, and impeachment is imminent,” a White House adviser, who spoke with senior officials as the debacle was unfolding, told CNN’s Jim Acosta. “That message and tone should have been relayed election night … not after people died.”
Later, Trump appeared to some aides like he regretted taping the spot, asking those around him whether it was being well received.
Lonnie Leroy Coffman of Alabama, who allegedly parked the pickup truck with the weapons cache near the Capitol Hill Club near the Capitol, told police he also had mason jars filled with “melted Styrofoam and gasoline” — a combination that could have the same effect as napalm if it exploded, court documents said, because “it causes the flammable liquid to stick to objects that it hits upon detonation.”
While the possibility of removal of the President through the 25th Amendment looks increasingly remote, in part because Pence has no interest in participating in that process, more Republicans are turning their attention to helping Biden transition into the job.
McCarthy rejected calls for Trump’s impeachment Friday, but referred to Biden as the President-elect for the first time: “I have reached out to President-elect Biden today and plan to speak to him about how we must work together to lower the temperature and unite the country to solve America’s challenges,” the California Republican said.
After Trump indicated in one of his final tweets that he won’t attend Biden’s inauguration, the President-elect expressed relief at the prospect of his absence Friday, stating it was the one of the few things they had ever agreed on. Pence, however, would be welcome to attend, Biden said.
Wednesday’s events, Biden argued, proved that Trump is “not fit to serve.” If the nation were six months from inauguration, Biden said, he would be all for “moving everything” to get Trump out of office, including invoking the 25th Amendment. But with less than two weeks to go, the President-elect said he was focused “on us taking control” and would leave decisions about impeachment up to the Congress.
The President’s encouragement of a mob Wednesday, Biden said, reminded him of what happens in nations with tin horn dictators. But he said the country’s realization of the danger Trump poses could make his job easier as he attempts to unite a divided country — though that remains an open question.
“I’ve had a number of Republicans who are former colleagues call me. They are as embarrassed and mortified by the President’s conduct as the Democrats are,” Biden said Friday. “What this President has done is ripped the band-aid all the way off to let the country know who he is, and what he’s about, and how thoroughly unfit for office he is.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated where a man in a viral photo was seated in Pelosi’s office. It was a staffer’s desk.
CNN’s Jim Acosta, Zachary Cohen, Devan Cole, Jeremy Diamond, Kaitlin Collins, Betsy Klein, Sarah Mucha, Paul LeBlanc, Katelyn Polantz, Phil Mattingly, Alex Rogers, Manu Raju, Kara Scannell, Sunlen Serfaty contributed to this report.