WASHINGTON (AP) – President Joe Biden accused Donald Trump and his supporters of holding a “dagger at the throat of democracy” in a forceful speech Thursday marking the anniversary of the deadly breach of the U.S. Capitol. He warned that though it didn’t succeed, the insurrection remains a serious threat to America’s system of government.
Biden’s criticism was blistering of the defeated president whom he blamed for the attack that has fundamentally changed Congress and the nation, and raised global concerns about the future of American democracy.
“For the first time in our history, a president not just lost an election, he tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power as a violent mob breached the Capitol,” Biden said. “You can’t love your country only when you win.”
His voice booming at times, filling the ornate Statuary Hall where rioters had laid siege, the president called on Americans to remember what they saw Jan. 6 with their own eyes: the mob attacking police, breaking windows, a Confederate flag inside the Capitol, gallows erected outside threatening to hang the vice president – all while Trump sat at the White House watching it on TV.
“The former president’s supporters are trying to rewrite history. They want you to see Election Day as the day of insurrection and the riot that took place here on January 6 as a true expression of the will of the people. Can you think of a more twisted way to look at this country, to look at America? I cannot.”
The president’s remarks launched the start of daylong remembrance, drawing a contrast between the truth of what happened and the false narratives that persist about the Capitol assault, including the continued refusal by many Republicans to affirm that Biden won the 2020 election.
“We must be absolutely clear about what is true and what is a lie,” he said. “The former president of the United States of America has spread a web of lies about the 2020 election.”
He said: “We are in a battle for the soul of America.”
“I did not seek this fight, brought to this Capitol one year from today. But I will not shrink from it either. I will stand in this breach, I will defend this nation. I will allow no one to place a dagger at the throat of this democracy.”
Republican leaders and lawmakers are largely staying away from the day’s remembrance events, viewing them as overly politicized.
From Florida, Trump dashed off a statement claiming Biden was trying to “further divide America. This political theater is all just a distraction.”
Even among congressional Republicans who condemned the attack in the days afterward, most have stayed loyal to the former president.
“What brazen politicization of January 6 by President Biden,” tweeted Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a sometimes Trump confidant. Others, including Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, were absent, with a contingent attending the funeral for a former colleague Sen. Johnny Isakson in Georgia.
The division is a stark reminder of the rupture between the two parties, worsening since hundreds of Trump’s supporters violently pushed past police, used their fists and flagpoles to break through the windows of the Capitol and interrupted the certification of Biden’s victory.
Rep. Liz Cheney, chair of the House committee investigating the attack and one of the few GOP lawmakers attending the Capitol ceremonies, warned that “the threat continues.” Trump, she said, “continues to make the same claims that he knows caused violence on January 6.”
“Unfortunately, too many in my own party are embracing the former president, are looking the other way or minimizing the danger,” she told NBC’s “Today.” “That’s how democracies die. We simply cannot let that happen.”
In a bid to inform the public, Democrats investigating the insurrection plan to spend the coming months telling the American people exactly what happened last Jan. 6. But leaders will spend the anniversary appealing to broader patriotic instincts.
Biden and his administration have come under criticism from some in his party for not forcibly explaining to Americans the ways democracy is at risk, or pushing Congress hard enough to pass election and voting rights legislation that is stalled by a filibuster in the Senate.
Barack Obama, the former president, said “nothing is more important” on the anniversary than ensuring the right to vote.
“While the broken windows have been repaired and many of the rioters have been brought to justice, the truth is that our democracy is at greater risk today than it was back then,” Obama said in a statement.
Biden’s address, and that of Vice President Kamala Harris who is leading the administration’s efforts on the voting and elections legislation, appeared as a direct response to critics.
“We must pass voting rights bills,” said Harris, addressing those gathered. “We cannot sit on the sidelines. We must unite in defense of our democracy.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, too, is marking the anniversary with a high-minded appeal, telling The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday that “democracy won that night,” when Congress returned to the Capitol after the riot and affirmed Biden’s victory.
To honor the anniversary, Pelosi has scheduled a moment of silence in the House, where many members were evacuated and some were trapped as the rioters tried to break in. She will also deliver private remarks to Hill staff who, as she told AP, stayed to “protect our democracy.”
Later the Democratic leaders will hold a moderated discussion with historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham; and a session featuring testimonials from members who were there that day. While many lawmakers will be absent due to concerns about COVID-19, several of the events will be livestreamed so they can participate. The Senate also marked the day with a moment of silence and planned speeches.
Biden’s sharp message and the Republicans’ distance from it come as lawmakers are adjusting to the new normal on Capitol Hill – the growing tensions that many worry will result in more violence or, someday, a legitimate election being overturned. Democrats and a handful of Republicans feel a desperate urgency to connect to a public in which some have come to believe Trump’s lies that the election was stolen from him and that the attack wasn’t violent at all.
A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed that 3 in 10 Republicans say the attack was not violent, and about another 3 in 10 say it was somewhat violent. Around two-thirds of Americans described the day as very or extremely violent, including about 9 in 10 Democrats.
As Biden is prepared to direct blame toward the former president, the percentage of Americans who blame Trump for the Jan. 6 riot has grown slightly over the past year, with 57% saying he bears significant responsibility for what took place, compared to 50% who said the same thing in an AP-NORC poll taken in the days after the attack.
Trump’s claims of widespread election fraud were rejected by the courts and refuted by his own Justice Department.
An investigation by the AP found fewer than 475 cases of voter fraud among 25.5 million ballots cast in the six battleground states disputed by Trump, a minuscule number in percentage terms.