Congress is slated to return to Washington on Thursday to mark one year since rioters descended on the Capitol in a deadly attack that occurred as lawmakers certificated President Joe Biden’s victory. But what would have once been considered a natural unifying moment for Washington has only grown more divisive and contentious over the past year.
Democratic and Republican voters still sharply disagree on the characterization of Jan. 6, who holds responsibility for the attack, the legitimacy of Biden’s win and the need for an investigation into the day and what led up to it. And the culture and relationships between members on Capitol Hill have reached new levels of combativeness as trust and respect further deteriorate.
A series of events on Capitol Hill – coordinated by Democrats – will dominate Thursday and feature remarks from Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Republicans’ involvement in the day appears scant, and former President Donald Trump backed off his original plans to hold a press conference.
Lawmakers have been grappling with how exactly to commemorate Jan. 6 at such a politically fraught time. But the parties laid down their markers this week and gave a window into how they plan to do so on Thursday.
Democrats are still forcefully blaming Trump, whose rhetoric, they argue, fanned the flames of election conspiracy, culminating in the Capitol attack. Republicans, meanwhile, are shying away or not commenting at all beyond condemning the violence. They are instead pointing fingers at Democrats for politicizing Jan. 6 for their gain.
But Biden, who has sought to be more even-keeled and a healing force during contentious times, looks like he’ll take a similar tack as his party.
“President Biden has been clear-eyed about the threat the former president represents to our democracy and how the former president constantly works to undermine basic American values and rule of law,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at Wednesday’s briefing. “He will, of course, speak to the moment, to the importance in history of the peaceful transfer of power … and be forward-looking, but he will also reflect on the role his predecessor had.”
A post-Jan. 6 world has been consumed by claims mischaracterizing the election and the day, which began with a speech from Trump urging then-Vice President Mike Pence to overturn his defeat at the polls. Rioters marched to the Capitol, breached the building, injured law enforcement and chanted threats aimed at lawmakers and Pence as they eventually forced their way into the Senate chamber and prompted a deadly confrontation outside the House chamber.
The aftermath prompted a ripple effect of unprecedented political moments in Washington: the second impeachment of Trump just one week later, Rep. Liz Cheney’s removal from House GOP leadership because of her Jan. 6 criticisms and impeachment vote, and Democratic-led efforts to strip two far-right members of their committee assignments over controversial rhetoric.
Meanwhile, Trump and his staunchest allies on and off the Hill continued to peddle unsubstantiated claims about a stolen election and sought to discredit the existence of a House select committee created to investigate Jan. 6 and any involvement or coordination from those in power.
Mark Alexander, professor of constitutional law and election law at Villanova University and co-author of the book “Beyond Imagination? The January 6 Insurrection,” says the Capitol riots were a culmination of tension and disinformation building for years, going back to the 2016 presidential primaries when Trump claimed the election was rigged.
“The challenge going forward is: How do we get out of it? The hard thing is we have to commit ourselves as a country to an open and honest dialogue,” wherein people don’t write off as “evil” those who disagree politically, Alexander says. “It can be done.”
Thursday’s lineup of events on Capitol Hill will honor law enforcement, spotlight first-person accounts of the day and discuss the fragility of democracy and the historical significance of Jan. 6.
Biden and Harris will start the day with remarks delivered from National Statuary Hall at 9 a.m. The House’s pro forma session will then gavel in at noon with a moment of silence followed by a historian-led discussion and testimonials from members about their experiences. At 5:30 p.m., House and Senate members will convene on the Capitol steps for a prayer vigil.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York gave a preview this week of how Democrats are expected to discuss the fallout from Jan. 6 and the damage done by Trump perpetuating debunked election claims. They’re also hoping to use the anniversary as another driving force to move forward their stalled push on two pieces of voting rights legislation. But Psaki said Biden will only “touch on” voting rights in his speech and focus more on the actual day.
Aside from formal events in Congress, dozens of groups led by Democrats, progressives and voting advocates will participate in candlelight vigils near the Capitol grounds.
To act as counterprogramming, Trump initially scheduled a press conference from Mar-a-Lago but canceled it on Tuesday night, blaming media bias and seeking to discredit the Jan. 6 select committee. Some allies still plan to address the day but won’t have the same media footprint as Trump.
Trump’s decision to cancel his Jan. 6 speech gives Republicans a reprieve from him amplifying his grievances about the 2020 election, which some believe are a harmful distraction for a party in a good position to take back majorities in Congress later this year. But whether or not he ultimately runs in 2024, Trump remains the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination.
As of now, Republican participation in Thursday’s events looks limited. A number of lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, won’t be in Washington since they’re attending former GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson’s funeral in Georgia on the same day.
Two Trump allies – Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida – are planning their own response on the Hill, which will overlap with Democrats’ programming.
Overall, the GOP is focusing more on the lack of preparedness at the Capitol and training their ire on what they see as Democrats’ politicization of Jan. 6 – rather than the substance of the day. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California characterized it earlier this week as Democrats “using it as a partisan political weapon to further divide our country.”
While most condemned the violence, 147 Republicans ultimately voted early the next morning objecting to the certification of Biden’s win in a few states. And many have since downplayed Jan. 6 or have refrained from publicly discussing it.
McConnell was the most prominent Republican to directly assign some blame to Trump, calling him “morally responsible” for the day’s events and accusing him of “a disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty,” though he opposed efforts to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the attack. During his floor remarks on Wednesday, McConnell focused his Jan. 6 remarks only on Democrats tying the anniversary to their voting rights push.
“It is surreal to hear sitting senators invoke Jan. 6 to justify breaking the rules to grab outcomes they have not earned,” McConnell said, referring to a potential Democratic effort to change filibuster rules from 60 to 51 votes and allow their legislation to pass with one-party support.
“A year ago, the Senate didn’t bend, and it didn’t break. We held strong. It is jaw-dropping for colleagues to propose to commemorate that by breaking the Senate themselves in a different way,” he added.
The divergence in rhetoric among Democrats and Republicans reflects the split in the nation.
A year later, Americans remain deeply at odds over the motivation of the insurrectionists, the validity of the 2020 election and the future of American democracy, polling shows. And while the nation can indeed heal from the event, it’s going to take time and honest dialogue, experts say.
Polling shows the parties divided over the severity of the Jan. 6 attacks, with GOP voters being far more sympathetic. According to a CBS poll released Sunday, 85% of Democrats believe it was an “insurrection,” while 56% of Republicans characterize Jan. 6 as “defending freedom.”
Americans are also split over whether another Jan. 6-type attack could happen. Democrats fear a repeat of the day the most, with 65% believing it’s somewhat or likely to occur. Republicans, while displaying more sympathy for the rioters, are nonetheless not expecting a sequel event: 24% think another such attack is somewhat or very likely, while a combined 67% do not expect it to happen again.
In an effort to prevent another attack, the House select committee is significantly ramping up and expanding its reach about six months after its rocky inception – even as it’s tied up in a legal battle with Trump over his White House records from that time.
Beyond Trump and former White House officials, investigators are also turning their attention to gathering information from sitting members of Congress, which is likely to spark a new fight.
While much of the work is behind closed doors or stalled by court proceedings, the committee has been releasing notable text messages from Fox News host Sean Hannity and former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows that provide a small window into Jan. 6 from Trump world’s vantage point.
But obtaining documents, transcripts and other records from the Trump White House remains a tougher feat. Trump has sued the committee and asserted executive privilege, though Biden has denied his request. The former president has lost twice in federal court in his effort to block access to the records and last month appealed the case to the Supreme Court.
As elected officials prepare to mark the first anniversary, many fear future threats especially with a heated midterm election season approaching in November.
David Becker, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research, says he’s extremely worried about another Jan. 6 happening – and also notes the need to first pay attention to this fall and possible attacks at the state level during the midterms.
Becker’s group is pairing elections officials with lawyers to deal with death threats, harassment and efforts to stop them from just doing their jobs. He didn’t specify the exact number but says there were “several” in just the last week and that they’re not all from one state.
“Normally, the year after a presidential election is the quietest time for elections officials,” Becker told reporters on a Tuesday call.
“I’m very concerned about 2022. The focus on 2024 and 2025 is a little too forward-looking,” he adds. “I’m very concerned about what might happen over the next year as we see the erosion of our democratic principles.”