President Biden denounced former President Donald J. Trump and his allies on Thursday for holding “a dagger at the throat of America” by promoting lies and violence as the nation’s capital fractured into sparring camps a year after the 6 January mob assault on Congress.
In his most sustained and scathing repudiation of his predecessor since taking office, Mr. Biden used the anniversary of the Capitol siege to condemn Mr. Trump for waging an “undemocratic” and “un-American” campaign against the legitimacy of the election system, much as autocrats and dictators do, all to avoid admitting defeat.
“The former president of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election,” Mr. Biden said, standing in the National Statuary Hall, which had been invaded by throngs of Trump supporters a year ago. “He’s done so because he values power over principle, because he sees his own interests as more important than his country’s interests and America’s interests, and because his bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution. He can’t accept he lost.”
The president’s address began a commemoration that, instead of showcasing American unity against threats to democracy, only underscored just how riven the country remains a year after rioters armed with hockey sticks, baseball bats, crutches, flagpoles, fire extinguishers, bear spray and stolen police batons broke into the Capitol to disrupt the counting of the Electoral College votes ratifying Mr. Trump’s defeat.
Democrats, warning of the undiminished dangers posed by Mr. Trump and his followers, marked the anniversary with a day of events, including speeches, personal testimony, a panel of historians, videos, moments of silence and a candlelight vigil, while Republicans by and large stayed away and refused to participate.
No Republican senators showed up on the floor for a session of remarks recalling that day. Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, one of Mr. Trump’s most vocal critics, was the only elected member of her party to join a moment of silence in the House chamber, bringing along her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney.
The disparate approaches to the anniversary made clear that Jan. 6 has become just another barometer of America’s partisan divide. Democrats view the storming of the Capitol as an existential attack on the Constitution unlike any in modern times. Most Republicans would rather focus on anything else, with some convinced that Democrats are exploiting it as a weapon against them while others fear crossing Mr. Trump, who continues to dominate the party.
Feelings remained raw on Capitol Hill, a place of post-traumatic stress that has yet to fully recover from the psychological and political scars of an assault that led to at least seven deaths as well as injuries to 150 police officers. More than the usual acrimony over legislative differences, the legacy of Jan. 6 has exacerbated the toxic rift between members and staff aides on opposite sides of the aisle.
While the elaborate fencing around the Capitol has come down and the National Guard has gone home, many were on edge as the anniversary approached and security forces were on guard. Federal officials saw an uptick in online threats, including a video calling for a mass hanging of lawmakers, but cited no new, credible evidence of organized plots, according to a memo obtained by The New York Times.
Understand the Jan. 6 Investigation
Both the Justice Department and a House select committee are investigating the events of the Capitol riot. Here’s where they stand:
- Inside the House Inquiry: From a nondescript office building, the panel has been quietly ramping up its sprawling and elaborate investigation.
- Criminal Referrals, Explained: Can the House inquiry end in criminal charges? These are some of the issues confronting the committee.
- Garland’s Remarks: Facing pressure from Democrats, Attorney General Merrick Garland vowed that the D.O.J. would pursue its inquiry into the riot “at any level.”
- A Big Question Remains: Will the Justice Department move beyond charging the rioters themselves?
Online chatter about celebrations and rallies by right-wing groups protesting what they call the persecution of the hundreds of rioters who have been arrested did not translate into large-scale events, and the day passed peacefully in Washington.
But emotions were high for Democrats who recalled the fear and dread of that day as lawmakers were rushed out of their chambers by overwhelmed police officers who could not contain rioters chanting “Hang Mike Pence” and hunting for Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.
Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont paused to compose himself as he remembered the police officer who took his arm and vowed to protect him. Representative Colin Allred of Texas, a powerfully built former National Football League player, described shedding his coat, expecting to have to physically guard his colleagues.
To emphasize the significance of the event, Ms. Pelosi hosted a discussion led by Carla Hayden, the librarian of Congress, with the historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham, who talked about other moments of peril, like the years leading up to the Civil War. The panel was introduced with a video specially produced by the cast of “Hamilton,” performing a song from the hit musical about the founding of the country.
“In my lifetime, this is the hardest moment for democracy,” said Ms. Goodwin. Mr. Meacham, who helped write Mr. Biden’s speech, called this moment “democracy’s hour of maximum danger” and said “it’s either a step on the way to the abyss or it is a call to arms, figuratively, for citizens to engage and say no, we are more important” than “the whim of a single man or a single party.”
The absence of Republicans indicated that 1/6 will never be remembered like 9/11, as a moment to come together. The surreal scene of Dick Cheney, himself a former member of the House, being welcomed cordially in the chamber by Ms. Pelosi and other Democrats who once deemed him a war criminal illustrated how much Mr. Trump has transformed the political dynamics of the country.
“I’m deeply disappointed we don’t have better leadership in the Republican Party to restore the Constitution,” Mr. Cheney told Jonathan Karl of ABC News.
Earlier in the morning, his daughter, who serves as vice chair of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot, castigated fellow Republicans for “looking the other way” rather than confronting the import of the Capitol attack.
“All of my colleagues, anyone who attempts to minimize what happened, anyone who denies the truth of what happened, they ought to be ashamed of themselves,” Ms. Cheney said on the “Today” show on NBC. “History is watching, and history will judge them.”
In the Senate chamber, Democrats assailed Mr. Trump, “the worst president in modern times,” as Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic majority leader, put it.
“It was Donald Trump’s big lie that soaked our political landscape in kerosene,” Mr. Schumer said. “It was Donald Trump’s rally on the Mall that struck the match. And then came the fire.”
Mr. Biden’s decision to go after Mr. Trump so directly broke a year of mostly silence in which he avoided acknowledging his predecessor while he tried to fulfill his campaign promise of working across party lines.
But with bipartisanship elusive and Washington stalemated, Mr. Biden dispensed with the restraint and gave the sort of full-throated denunciation no sitting president other than the voluble Mr. Trump has issued against a predecessor in modern times.
Without using Mr. Trump’s name, the president goaded him by referring to him as the “defeated former president.” He assailed Mr. Trump for encouraging supporters and then “doing nothing for hours as police were assaulted, lives were at risk, and the nation’s capital under siege.”
Key Figures in the Jan. 6 Inquiry
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Mr. Biden rejected efforts since then to rewrite history and cast the attackers as patriots. “Is that what you thought when you looked at the mob ransacking the Capitol, destroying property, literally defecating in the hallways, rifling through desks of senators and representatives, hunting down members of Congress?” Mr. Biden asked. “Patriots? Not in my view.”
“Those who stormed this Capitol and those who instigated and incited and those who called on them to do so,” he added, “held a dagger at the throat of America, at American democracy.”
He repeated the imagery in vowing to safeguard the system: “I will stand in this breach. I will defend this nation. And I will allow no one to place a dagger at the throat of our democracy.”
Mr. Trump fired back in written statements from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. “This political theater is all just a distraction for the fact Biden has completely and totally failed,” he wrote. “The Democrats want to own this day of Jan. 6 so they can stoke fears and divide America,” he added. “I say, let them have it because America sees through theirs [sic] lies and polarizations.”
Mr. Biden offered his most extended rebuttal of the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen, noting that multiple recounts, court battles and inquiries had turned up no meaningful fraud. He pointed out that Republicans had not challenged Republican victories for Congress and governorships based on the same balloting they claim was illegitimate in the presidential race.
Mr. Biden also touched on voting rights legislation stalled in the Senate, although he has a separate speech on the subject scheduled for next week. Vice President Kamala D. Harris, who spoke before Mr. Biden, said, “We must pass voting rights bills that are now before the Senate.”
Republicans accused the White House and Democrats of politicizing the attack to promote legislation meant to benefit their own party, and rejected Mr. Biden’s indictment of Mr. Trump. “What brazen politicization of Jan. 6 by President Biden,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina wrote on Twitter.
Mr. Graham himself broke with Mr. Trump on that day a year ago, saying, “All I can say is count me out, enough is enough.” But it did not take long for him, like most Republicans, to fall in line behind the former president again.
In a series of tweets on Thursday, Mr. Graham decried the violence on Jan. 6 but not Mr. Trump. “President Biden and Vice President Harris’s speeches today,” he wrote, “were an effort to resurrect a failed presidency more than marking the anniversary of a dark day in American history.”
Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the House Republican whip, said Mr. Biden and Democrats have a “mass obsession” with Mr. Trump and were distracting from their own failures. “They just want to continue talking about Donald Trump and anything else other than the problems they created,” he said on Fox News.
Still, even as Republicans went after Mr. Biden and Democrats, no senior party leaders offered any real defense of Mr. Trump. The former president was left to be defended only by some of his most faithful fringe allies, like Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, who is under federal investigation for sex trafficking, and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a onetime QAnon follower who asserted that a California wildfire was started by a space laser controlled by a Jewish banking family.
The two lawmakers offered conspiracy theories blaming the riot on Democrats and federal authorities at a news conference and on a podcast hosted by Stephen K. Bannon, a former adviser to Mr. Trump who himself is under indictment for contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate with the House investigation.
“We’re ashamed of nothing,” Mr. Gaetz told Mr. Bannon. “We’re proud of the work we did on Jan. 6 to make legitimate arguments about election integrity.”
On the steps of the Capitol, Democrats ended the day with a solemn candlelight vigil, featuring prayer and patriotic song and tributes to the police officers who defended them and in some cases lost their lives. What the nation did not end the day with was a consensus, either about what happened then or what will happen now.
Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Emily Cochrane and Catie Edmondson contributed reporting.