SNAPSHOT: Deadly attack on US Capitol building by Trump supporters overshadows Biden victory certification; exemplifies hostile, increasingly violent political environment
Protesters gathered at the Capitol building's rotunda, 6 January 2021.
The US Congress certified Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election in the early hours of Thursday (7 January) in a sitting delayed by a three-hour mob assault on the US Capitol building in Washington, DC hours earlier.
Four people died, including a female protester shot by Capitol security personnel, after scores of President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol building around 1415 local time on Wednesday (6 January). Many protesters had earlier attended a pro-Trump rally addressed by the president himself at the nearby Ellipse park. At the rally, Trump had urged supporters ‘to fight’ and ‘never concede’ over the election outcome.
Capitol authorities evacuated lawmakers as pro-Trump protesters, including some with firearms, invaded the legislature and Senate chamber, ransacked congressional offices, and denounced lawmakers voting to approve Biden’s victory.
Despite releasing a video on social media instructing supporters to ‘go home’, Trump repeated allegations of electoral fraud, which have been overwhelmingly rejected in court, and said he ‘loved’ his supporters who were in the capital.
Thousands more Trump supporters remained outside the Capitol building, while dozens of arrests were made after protesters violated an 1800 curfew imposed by the mayor of Washington, DC.
Following the announcement of Biden’s victory, Trump said that despite ‘totally’ disagreeing with the election outcome, there would be an ‘orderly transition’ of power to President-elect Biden’s administration.
The events have triggered resignations from several senior Trump administration officials, including deputy national security advisor Matt Pottinger.
Smaller, related demonstrations were also reported at state legislatures across the country on Wednesday, including in Arizona, California, Colorado, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
US Capitol Police drew their weapons as protesters attempted to enter the House of Representatives chamber, 6 January 2021.
The assault on the Capitol building is unprecedented in modern US history and has prompted widespread condemnation both domestically and internationally, including from governments viewed as close to the Trump administration, such as those of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
While the immediate impact of the attack on Congress appears to have subsided as of early Thursday, the long-term implications for US democracy and the country’s international standing will emerge in the coming weeks and months.
Most significantly, the events exemplify the highly polarised and violent political climate which has emerged in US politics prior to and during Trump’s administration. This has included the President’s repeated inciting of far-right, white nationalist groups, often followed by late and mixed messages condemning their beliefs or actions. The hostile prevailing political climate is almost certain to long outlast Trump’s administration.
Moreover, the attack dilutes the power of Washington’s statements and actions related to democracy and the rule of law overseas, particularly when criticising perceived anti-democratic practices in other countries. In turn, this may lead to an emboldening of anti-democratic actions and the gradual degradation of democratic norms worldwide. Authoritarians across the world will feel empowered in their curtailment of democratic rights and counter US criticisms by pointing to events at the Capitol building and Washington’s inability to enforce rule of law at the heart of its democracy.
The attack raises the prospect of further potential violent protests and unrest during the remaining weeks of Trump’s presidency and at Biden’s inauguration, particularly as Trump continues to allege fraud despite his effective concession. Authorities in Washington, DC will also be acutely aware of Biden’s inauguration on 20 January as a target for extremist elements and pro-Trump protests, with Wednesday’s events raising serious and unaddressed concern over the competent authorities’ ability to preserve law and order. The insufficient security personnel presence at the Capitol building and slow law enforcement response were prominent features of yesterday’s intrusion.
The attack raises serious questions over security at future high-profile political events, particularly Joe Biden's inauguration on 20 January 2021.
Organisations with interests in the US should closely monitor updates on political protest and unrest-related activity linked to the imminent transition of power, particularly incited by Trump’s supporters. Gatherings advertised as pro-Trump or against alleged electoral fraud have a particularly high likelihood of becoming violent.
Businesses should anticipate potential further politically-linked unrest in the weeks leading up to Biden’s inauguration on 20 January and beyond. Such events are especially likely to target Washington, DC, national and state legislatures, offices of the Democratic and Republican parties, and large public places previously used for political activism, such as Washington, DC’s Lafayette Square.
Companies should ensure security measures are fit for purpose and crisis communications plans are operational.
Organisations are also advised to consider how potential long-term political instability and unrest impact planned investments and strategy. Facilities at higher risk locations include those in Washington, DC, state capitals, and major cities nationwide.