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Chaos at The Capitol
Over the past two days, images of tear gas and glowing flames at the base of the Capitol were emblazoned on TV sets and newspaper fronts around the country. Whether engaged in melee with Capitol police or mugging with goofy grins in mid-insurrection selfies, pictures of rioters appeared unceasingly in coverage.
Before Wednesday, Republicans challenging Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in several key battleground states frequently implied that electors’ objections were commonplace. Democrats in the House challenged Florida’s votes in 2000, and a Senator joined a challenge of Ohio results in 2005.
No Senator participated in 2017, but Democrats challenged several states’ electors at that time, starting with those in deep-red Alabama. Even some members not participating in objections Wednesday defended colleagues doing so as taking action no different from that seen in most elections of the 21st century.
But all norms broke when riots besieged the Capitol during a pro forma session to certify election results.
The bulk of Republicans of the House, including most Republican Party members of the Florida delegation, committed ahead of time to challenge slates of electors in several jurisdictions. Rep. Kat Cammack told Fox News Friday there was a feeling of momentum in the chamber as the certification process began. Sen. Ted Cruz earned a standing ovation as he rose to challenge Arizona’s slate.
But the tone shifted from defiance to distress after rioters breached the Capitol complex, disrupting proceedings for five hours as members remained in lockdown.
Members universally condemned the violence, which resulted in five deaths so far, including Capitol police officer Brian Sicknick. Some members shared firsthand accounts of the violence seen up close in the people’s house.
“I witnessed our law enforcement officers being injured, gassed from their own tear gas, and afraid for their lives as they attempted to hold the line,” said Rep. Greg Steube. “I and three other members were barricaded in a room surrounded by demonstrators until the hallway was clear for us to get out.” Steube, the son of a former Manatee County Sheriff, personally praised four officers who barricaded a room where he was trapped through the riots.
Rep. Val Demings shared a picture from inside House chambers during the lockdown. “Shortly after this, rioters were pounding on the doors,” she tweeted in the afternoon. ”Tonight, we’ll be back in the same room fulfilling our duty under the Constitution.”
Days after being sworn into office, Cammack found herself trapped amid a violent environment.
“As attempts to gain entry into the chamber grew in intensity, I witnessed fellow Members joining with Capitol Police to further barricade doors by piling furniture,” she described. “They also began breaking furniture to provide themselves with any means of defense they could find. Within minutes, the sounds of shots began coming through the door. We then began evacuating quickly out of the chamber to a safe location.”
Ultimately, the chaos stalled proceedings but didn’t stop them. Donald Trump supporters hoping objections would stop Biden’s election had hopes quashed as objectors in the Senate pulled back from plans to challenge six states and only stood with the House to challenge two, Arizona and Pennsylvania. Even if both states’ electors had been successfully challenged, it would have left the President-elect with 275 electoral votes, enough to win. Neither challenge came close to passing, though, and Biden was certified the winner with a 306-232 vote tally.
On Thursday morning, news crews showed the aftermath of the Capitol’s chaos, including shattered windows and wooden doors marred by bullet holes. It also means the end to an American claim of always performing a peaceful transfer of power that dates back to the Civil War.
Sen. Marco Rubio spent Wednesday morning calling for an end to political violence in central Africa. Earlier, he praised Senate passage of a bipartisan resolution calling on Cameroon’s government and armed separatists in the nation to lay down arms and engage in international mediation talks. Rubio joined a joint statement with 19 other Senators on the matter. “We look forward to the United States taking new, concrete steps to encourage real participation in conflict resolution processes so that the people of the Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon can begin to recover from this dark period,” he wrote.
But after rioters stormed the Capitol over U.S. presidential election results, the Miami Republican took to the Senate floor with alarm at how despots around the world would mock America after the Capitol siege. The words of that Cameroon resolution felt tinged in irony as the U.S. struggled with its own attempted insurrection.
Since the election, Rubio avoided any indication (one way or the other) of how he would vote on the objections to Biden’s election. But violent demonstrations intent on overturning the democratic results exploded in Washington, and the Republicans took to the Senate floor to emphatically support certification of the Democrat’s victory.
“Even the people objecting in the Senate recognize that it’s not going to pass. It’s not going to change the outcome, but it’s going to send a message, and it’s going to make a point,” Rubio said. “The problem is, I think it’s a terrible idea at this moment.”
His most significant concern stemmed from knowledge world leaders hostile to Western democracy spent Wednesday cackling.
“China’s laughing. They’re loving this tonight,” he said. “In Beijing, they’re high-fiving because they point to this and say, ‘This is proof that the future belongs to China; America’s in decline.’ Vladimir Putin? There’s nothing that Vladimir Putin could come up with better than what happened here. Makes us look like we’re in total chaos and collapse. Not to mention the Ayatollah, who’s probably bragging to his buddies — if he has buddies — ‘Look what’s happening to the Great Satan.’”
Rubio went so far as to characterize Trump’s resistance to defeat to the tumult that last century besieged his ancestral Cuba. Rubio shared the story of his grandfather.
“He was born in 1899 in rural Cuba,” he said. “It was still governed by the United States, it was a protectorate. Three years later, it gained its independence and it became a republic.
“During my grandfather’s first 60 years of life, he saw his country have an armed insurrection after a contested election, multiple presidents go into exile, two military coups, and the rise of a Marxist dictator — a tyranny that stands to this day.”
That’s a path he doesn’t want the U.S. to explore.
Challenging Keystone electors
While Rubio voted against objections to any states’ slates of electors, Sen. Rick Scott did join with six other Senators in challenging Pennsylvania’s election outcome. Florida’s junior Senator was one of two members of his chamber to vote against objections to the Arizona electors but for the challenge to another state, along with Wyoming Sen. Cynthia Lummis. He’d signaled ahead of the day’s events he would likely protest Keystone State electors.
“The situation in Pennsylvania is of particular concern to me, and I will likely vote to sustain the objection to their slate of electors,” Scott said. “The actions of the Governor’s administration and the courts in Pennsylvania pose a serious threat to the integrity of future elections. The Democrat Governor of Pennsylvania, along with state courts, decided to allow votes to be counted that came in after Election Day, even if they did not have a postmark, in defiance of state law. This is absurd and cannot be tolerated.”
That references changes to mail-in voting procedures made administratively because of the pandemic.
While the riots discouraged more than a half a dozen Senators who planned objections from actually following through, Scott cast a vote against Pennsylvania, the only state where a challenge was raised after the riots occurred. But no Senator spoke to that challenge on the floor, opening proceedings to cast a vote and then breaking instead.
Scott this week also kept an eye on vaccine distribution, expressing particular alarm at reports a West Palm Beach nursing home CEO might be giving vaccines to friends and financial supporters. The Washington Post published an expose Wednesday, including allegations that Keith Myers, MorseLife Health System’s chief executive, was personally inviting donors to the long-term care facilities members of the Palm Beach Country Club access to the scarce number of vaccines.
“I applaud the administration’s tireless efforts to develop the vaccines and quickly distribute millions of doses to our states. Right now, the priority is getting these vaccines out to those that need it most,” Scott said.
“The first priority is our seniors and vulnerable population, and our health care and front-line workers. It is absolutely disgusting and immoral that anyone would take vaccines intended for nursing home residents to distribute them to their friends. This type of gross mismanagement will not be tolerated, and those responsible must be held accountable.
Myers did not return messages to the newspaper. Now Scott wants the federal government to look into the matter to ensure shots reach arms indiscriminately.
“We have to do everything possible to get this vaccine out in an efficient and fair manner, and I am calling for a full Congressional investigation into reports of improper vaccine distribution,” he said.
Post-riot roll call
The riots caused a delay in proceedings, but ultimately electoral votes from every state were delivered and certified by the Congress. While House members brought forward challenges to six states, only two saw Senate members join with objections. Cruz joined with questioning the Arizona slate, while Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley stood with the Pennsylvania challenge. That forced debate and roll call votes from each chamber on objections to both those states.
Every Democrat from Florida who was present voted against objections to both state slates. In the House, 12 Florida Republicans objected to counting votes from either state. That included Reps. Cammack, Mario Diaz-Balart, Byron Donalds, Neal Dunn, Scott Franklin, Matt Gaetz, Carlos Giménez, Brian Mast, Bill Posey, John Rutherford, Greg Steube and Dan Webster.
“The people who invaded Capitol Hill today do not embody my constituents’ values and heart, and they will not alter my decision to object to the Electoral College certification,” Donalds tweeted before the vote.
Three members of Florida’s delegation could not attend the certification of the Electoral College. COVID-19 sidelined Republican Reps. Gus Bilirakis and Maria Salazar. Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings, who is receiving treatment for pancreatic cancer, also missed the vote.
Just two Sunshine State Republicans ultimately sided against the election challenges, Vern Buchanan and Michael Waltz. After the riots, Buchanan put out a statement saying he had grown alarmed about a “powder keg” brewing among the public and said it’s time to move past the election. He followed up with another statement Thursday, expressing further concern.
“Yesterday’s assault against the U.S. Capitol should serve as a wake-up call to end the violence and toxic rhetoric that has inflamed our country for months,” he said. “Protests are a part of our democracy, and we will always have political differences, but violence can never be normalized or tolerated, especially when it’s aimed at police and law enforcement. It’s not who we are as a nation. We have a lot of challenges ahead, not the least of which is reopening an economy battered by the pandemic. It is my hope that yesterday’s appalling display at the Capitol will be followed by the realization that we need to work together to move our country forward.”
Fort Walton Beach Republican Gaetz took to the House floor hours after rioters attacked and challenged the widely accepted reality that Trump supporters were the ones crashing the gates. Instead, he suspected a different culprit.
“The Washington Times has just reported some pretty compelling evidence from a facial-recognition company showing that some of the people who breached the Capitol today were not Trump supporters,” he said. “They were masquerading as Trump supporters. And in fact, they were members of the violent terrorist group, antifa.”
But outside the Trump devoted, few bought into this theory. It didn’t even convince every member of Gaetz’s own family. Veteran news producer Erin Gaetz, sister to the prominent Congressman, took to Twitter debunking the notion. As news stories began to identify individuals involved in the riot, she noted many were tied to right-wing extremist movements.
She pointed to a story about a man who invaded Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and took a picture in her chair. An Arkansas CBS affiliate confirmed he was Richard Barnett, a self-described patriot and Trump fan. According to The Arizona Republic, Jake Angel, whose fur outfit and horned hat appear in many pictures of rioters inside the Capitol, has been associated with QAnon conspiracy-mongering. And then there’s Ashli Babbitt, the first known casualty of the riots. The California woman shot and killed by police in the Speaker’s lobby, an event captured in a graphic video shared online, was an outspoken Trump supporter who shared conspiracy theories about election theft on her social media, according to the Daily News.
Erin Gaetz declined when asked to say if she had spoken with her brother about his misinformed message from the floor, saying family conversations should stay private.
In a tweet, she did suggest most Republicans understood reality better than the extremists who breached the Capitol Wednesday.
“A lot of Republicans — and a lot of Trump supporters, specifically — don’t support this garbage,” Erin Gaetz wrote. “Moreover, they live in reality and know Trump lost. If you are one of those people, now is the time to speak up. Denounce this in the strongest, most unequivocal terms. Don’t wait.”
While the riots appeared to sway several U.S. Senators away from objecting to Biden electors, most House members ultimately held on to plans to challenge votes even if the day’s events softened their tone. But St. Augustine Republican Waltz, in hours, moved from one of the most high-profile advocates for overturning state elections to a sudden champion for a Biden certification.
“Earlier today, I planned to object to some of the electors of states because I truly believed there were constitutional issues regarding states and courts changing election laws shortly before Election Day,” he said. “Objecting was supposed to serve as a forum to peacefully debate among my colleagues and raise these serious issues that deserve scrutiny. However, with today’s despicable display of violence and intimidation on Capitol Hill, we must move on to ensure a peaceful transfer of power and certify the presidential election.”
Notably, Waltz has ardently defended legal challenges for weeks because they showed Americans settle election disputes with lawsuits, not uprisings.
But as violence spilled from the streets to his place of work, he reassessed the state of affairs.
“We settle our political disputes through debate and the law, not violent chaos,” he said. “I’ve dedicated my life to serving our country in uniform. I’ve fought to help others achieve the much-desired peace and democracy we have long been accustomed to in America. The world is watching, and we cannot allow our institutions to tear apart over procedural debates.”
Demings wants answers
Demings, a retired cop who rose to serve as Orlando Police Chief before moving into politics, was among many wondering Wednesday night why Capitol Police were not better prepared.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions, and I’m damn determined to get answers to those questions about what went wrong today and how this occurred in the first place,” Demings said In a late-Wednesday night interview on MSNBC.
Why were rioters able to break in? Where were the law enforcement reinforcements? Who was making the decisions? What was the plan, Stan?
“It was painfully obvious to me — but very clearly obvious — that they were not prepared for today,” Demings said on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. “I certainly thought that we would have had a stronger, if you will, show of force; that there would have been steps taken in the very beginning to make sure there was a designated area for the protesters at a safe distance from the Capitol, where they could still exercise their First Amendment right but certainly do so in a safe manner. I certainly would have expected mutual aid to have been initiated where there would have been Metro Police there and other local law enforcement agencies there to supplement the staffing. That was not the case today.”
Demings was standing near the House gallery’s back door when rioters breached the Capitol. People were told to get down and get their gas masks from under their seats.
“Unfortunately, the Capitol Police certainly were not prepared for this with staffing, or it did not seem that they had a clear operational plan to really deal with a smooth and efficient evacuation of the House floor and House gallery. I’m not really sure whose fault that is,” she continued. “I certainly think those line officers out who were out there today doing the best job they could under the circumstances did not make the decisions.”
For Pinellas Democrat Charlie Crist, Trump’s defense of rioters showed more than poor judgment. He became the first member of the delegation Wednesday night to call for the President to be taken out of office early. Minutes after Trump released a video alleging the presidential election was stolen while asking protesters to go home, Crist tweeted a call for drastic action.
“The 25th Amendment allows for the removal of a President. It’s time to remove the President,” he posted.
Members of the delegation and beyond quickly followed. More than 200 lawmakers joined the same call as of Friday morning, including Speaker Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, and Democrats Hastings, Demings Lois Frankel, Stephanie Murphy Frederica Wilson, Ted Deutch, Kathy Castor and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Meanwhile, Crist followed up with a letter Thursday directly to Vice President Mike Pence suggesting Trump’s running mate consider invoking the never-used process for an administration to sideline a President. Without the support of Pence, any such endeavor cannot move forward.
“In the final days of his term, President Donald Trump still retains the awesome powers of the presidency, has the nuclear football, and is Commander in Chief of our military. After all, he is still the President,” Crist said.
“But he should not be. You know this. His closest advisers know this. He has surrounded himself with conspiracy theorists and has convinced himself of their lies. The President is unfit and unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. If allowed to remain in power, President Donald Trump represents an unprecedented danger to the American people and our constitutional republic.”
The call notably comes at the most significant moment of division between Trump and Pence. Shortly before the certification process began, Pence issued a statement making clear he could not, as Trump wished, simply refuse slates of electors for states that backed Biden. Trump immediately criticized that decision, suggesting Pence “didn’t have the courage” to act. Shortly after, the riots began and Secret Service whisked Pence away.
The race card
Donalds launched his campaign for Congress last year by introducing himself as a “strong, Trump-supporting, gun-owning, liberty-loving, pro-life, politically incorrect Black man.” In his first high-profile vote as a House member, the Naples Republican-backed up the President’s efforts to throw out electors for two swing states Biden won.
Now, lifted voices from the left are attacking Donalds for that vote and bringing race into the conversation. “Byron Donalds, of Fort Myers, Florida, was the only Black person to join in Trump’s congressional insurrection yesterday. He voted to disenfranchise Black voters and to block a Black woman from becoming vice president,” tweeted CNN commentator and former BET host Keith Boykin. “Byron Donalds should resign in disgrace.”
That’s unlikely, of course, and Donalds hasn’t taken well in the past to suggestions Black voters should, by default, support Democrats. During the campaign, he heavily criticized a high-profile interview when Biden asserted, “if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”
Unsurprisingly, Donalds didn’t accept the premise of Boykin’s tweet either.
“I don’t vote based on my skin; I do so in allegiance to our Constitution and to always follow the Rule of Law,” he responded on Twitter. “Blue checkmarks live to delegitimize my right as a free Black man to act, think and vote based on my convictions rather than skin color. Also, it’s Congressman to you.”
Of note, Boykin’s original comment also got one critical fact wrong. Donald wasn’t the only Black member of Congress to challenge electors during the certification process. Utah Republican Burgess Owens voted in favor of challenging Pennsylvania’s slate of electors, though he did not join with the Arizona challenge.
Florida calls to impeach
Assuming calls to invoke the 25th Amendment continue to go unanswered, several delegation members are already looking toward another potential step. Democrats Demings, Deutch and Wilson have urged fellow House members to impeach Trump, a move that would remove him from office with fewer than two weeks remaining in his term.
The lawmakers are pushing for the move after Wednesday’s Capitol turmoil when Trump supporters stormed the halls of Congress. Both Demings and Wilson offered to co-sponsor articles of impeachment against Trump.
“Trump must be removed from office,” Wilson wrote Wednesday night.
“For his role in inciting today’s insurrection, I am calling on VP Pence and the President’s cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment. Because I fear that Pence lacks the courage for such bold action, I am also co-sponsoring articles of impeachment.”
Added Demings Thursday, “I will be a co-sponsor of the articles of impeachment being introduced in the House.”
Deutch is backing the push as well, per a Thursday statement. “If VP Pence refuses to take President Donald Trump’s incitement of violent mobs storming the Capitol seriously, Congress must pursue its own efforts to prevent further damage,” Deutch wrote.
“Impeachment is our way forward. I am signing on in support of articles of impeachment to remove President Donald Trump based on his incitement of violence at the Capitol yesterday.”
Pelosi has made similar remarks. She said if Pence and the Cabinet do not push to remove Trump, then “Congress may be prepared to move forward with impeachment. That is the overwhelming sentiment of my caucus.”
The lawmakers voted in favor of impeaching the President in 2019, but the GOP-controlled Senate did not remove him from power.
Of course, Trump has acknowledged that regardless of any other actions, he will leave office soon. On Thursday, more than 24 hours after the riots, a video was released on Twitter of Trump finally conceding his time in office was coming to a close.
“A new administration will be inaugurated on Jan. 20,” Trump said. “My focus now turns to ensuring a smooth, orderly, and seamless transition of power. This moment calls for healing and reconciliation.”
But Friday morning, Trump also tweeted out that he won’t attend Biden’s inauguration. He’s also canceled a weekend trip to Campa David. The next question may be where Trump spends his remaining days in office, working in Washington, D.C. or running down the clock in his Mar-a-Lago home.
Meanwhile, Biden’s team continues to prepare for the start of his term. On Friday morning, the Office of the President-elect announced a former aide to longtime North Florida Democrat Al Lawson will ascend to a position in the incoming administration. Vince Evans will serve in a new role as a member of Vice President Kamala Harris‘ staff as deputy director of the Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs.
This comes after Evans proved instrumental in two discrete roles during the campaign season. He served as Harris’ political director during the general election. As southern political director for the Biden primary campaign, he played a pivotal role in a turnaround for the Biden campaign few on the outside saw coming until it happened.
Evans is best known in North Florida for his work as a special assistant to Lawson. Before that, he had stints in local Tallahassee government and the Florida Senate Democratic Caucus in aide roles. He also held the job of political director for gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum during his 2018 run. From here on in, Evans is a national figure, and one whose proximity to Harris offers North Florida a line into the administration that may prove pivotal in the coming years.
On This Day
Jan. 8, 1790 — “George Washington’s first annual address to Congress” via the National Library at Mount Vernon — President Washington delivered the very first Annual Message to a Joint Session of Congress (now known as the State of the Union address), in the Senate chamber of Federal Hall in New York City. Though a routine political tradition today, Washington’s address represented a milestone in the long and difficult process of implementing and interpreting the Constitution, defining the respective roles of the three branches of government, and forging the political basis of a unified national identity.
Jan. 9, 2002 — “George W. Bush signs education reform law” via CNN — President Bush signed a landmark education bill into law, following through on a campaign pledge to reform the nation’s public education system and establishing a system of new accountability measures for low-performing schools. The law, known as the “No Child Left Behind Act of 2001,” provides greater spending flexibility for school districts and requires states to establish a system of tests to gauge student progress. Drafted as a broad rewrite of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, it authorizes $26.5 billion in federal spending on education, a $4 billion increase from the last fiscal year.