'Violence and anarchy.' Chaos erupts following Trump's unprecedented effort to overturn Biden's election win

WASHINGTON – Chaos erupted in the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday as President Donald Trump's supporters stormed the halls of Congress to disrupt a largely symbolic proceeding to formalize President-elect Joe Biden's victory, bringing unprecedented uncertainty to the nation's bedrock commitment to a peaceful transfer of power.

"Violence and anarchy are unacceptable. We are a nation of laws. This needs to end now," tweeted Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., one of many lawmakers to call for calm.

The constitutionally required count of Electoral College votes, typically a brief ceremonial event, came to an abrupt halt as lawmakers were swiftly escorted away and people waving Trump flags were seen knocking down police barriers around the Capitol and walking through halls normally reserved for lawmakers and tourists.

A woman was shot and taken to a hospital, where she was later pronounced dead.

"This is by all appearances a riot. This is literally an assault on the United States Capitol," said Michel Paradis, a historian, legal expert and an adjunct professor at Columbia University Law School. "This is beyond a protest."

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Violence flared as Republican leaders engaged in a stunning and historic series of political maneuvers, with Trump demanding Vice President Mike Pence use his perch in the Senate to overturn the election – an outcome Pence had no authority to pursue. Pence responded with a public letter defying Trump, noting that his role in the process was limited under the Constitution to overseeing the counting of ballots. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., meanwhile, took to the floor shortly before the debate over the votes was suspended to warn of a "death spiral" for democracy.

The political drama itself was historic, even before the storming of the Capitol. Urged on by Trump, more than a dozen Republican senators and perhaps more than 100 House members had said they would seek to challenge the results based on the president’s evidence-free allegations of voter fraud.

Despite the chaos, the outcome of the vote count in Congress was never in doubt. Biden's Electoral College win has been certified by all 50 states and the District of Columbia. There are more than enough votes in both the House and Senate to formally accept that outcome.

After the riots broke out, Trump's critics slammed his handling of the situation. 

"We’ve had presidents dealing with violence and insurrection. We’ve never had a president inciting violence and insurrection," said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "To see something like this, it’s worse than I imagined."

Members of congress run for cover as protesters try to enter the House Chamber during a joint session of Congress on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Biden: 'It borders on sedition'

President-elect Joe Biden, speaking in Delaware on Wednesday, urged Trump to address the nation and demand that his supporters end the violence. 

"What we’re seeing is a small number of extremists dedicated to lawlessness. This is not dissent, it’s disorder, it’s chaos. It borders on sedition. And it must end, now,” Biden said. “I call on this mob to pull back now and allow the work of democracy to go forward.”

While objections to the electoral vote process have occurred in the past, the rioting and scenes of confrontation with police inside the Capitol were a striking display of the rage that has been building among Trump supporters after weeks in which he has repeated bitter and baseless claims of voter fraud.

The turmoil began shortly after Trump held a rally on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue in which he continued to assert that the Nov. 3 election had been stolen from him and his supporters. The president said that he would "never concede," cited conspiracy theories about the election and then encouraged supporters to march on the Capitol, roughly 2 miles away. 

Soon after, protesters were seen knocking down barriers, clashing with police and roaming the halls. In a remarkable display, some entered the Senate chamber and one climbed up the dais where the chamber's business usually takes place and shouted that Trump had won the election. Dozens of others wandered through the halls, demanding to speak with lawmakers. "Where are they!" they shouted.

Reporters, staff, and lawmakers were evacuated from the Capitol and their nearby office buildings at various points throughout the day. The National Guard in Washington was mobilized to support local law enforcement, a Pentagon spokesman said.

Trump repeats false claims 

The nation’s capital has seen plenty of protests, but historians struggled to find close historical precedents. Some mentioned the anti-Vietnam protests in the 1960s or the 1932 "Bonus Army" demonstrations by World War I veterans who demanded benefits.

Waiting until the unrest was well underway, Trump later used a post on Twitter to urge people to "remain peaceful" and avoid violence. Pence urged supporters to leave and said that the "violence and destruction" in the Capitol "Must Stop Now.”

Trump later posted a video calling for his supporters to "go home."

"I know your hurt," Trump said in the taped message.

Supporters of US President Donald Trump enter the US Capitol as tear gas fills the corridor on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC.

Trump has for weeks argued that the counting of the state-certified electoral votes, required by the Constitution, was something more than it was, claiming it offered an avenue for him to overturn the outcome of the election. In fact, the job before lawmakers is far more mundane: Count the votes submitted by the states. No other roles are outlined. There can be no witnesses or sworn testimony to present evidence.

Pence defies Trump 

Pence, who was taken to an undisclosed, secure location during the outbreak of violence, released a letter Wednesday pushing back on the argument that the vice president should do something to allow Trump to remain in power. In his letter, Pence said he didn't believe the framers intended for the vice president to have "unilateral authority to decide which electoral votes should be counted." 

Republicans were set challenge the outcome in at least three states – Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania. While those challenges were expected to prompt debate, they would have required majority votes in both chambers to be sustained. The Democratic majority in the House – and widespread, bipartisan skepticism of Trump's claims in the Senate –meant that the procedural effort amounted to little more than political theater.

Contributing: Joey Garrison, Nicholas Wu, Kevin Johnson, David Jackson, Courtney Subramanian, Christal Hayes, Bart Jansen