“Shocked, stunned and terrified”: how Joe Biden perceived January 6

When rioters stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, threatening the life of Vice President Mike Pence, lawmakers and police, most of the senior advisers to then-President-elect Joe Biden were isolated from their boss.

Covid precautions have forced them to scatter across Washington and other locations across the country. And so they mostly watched individually on TV as Donald Trump supporters rage in the Capitol on a mission to reverse the legally cast votes that led to their boss’ victory.

Biden’s White House officials, lawmakers and close allies of the president in interviews describe a chaotic day filled with phone calls and the last sounds as they set up a speech he will deliver 100 miles away. They quickly learned that the day would have an indelible mark on their work, from Biden’s remarks that day to the agenda he would continue to pursue once he took office.

“What came from him on the 6th was what he talked about for a very, very long time. It was not difficult to collect, ”senior adviser to the president Mike Donilon recalled in an interview with POLITICO. “I believe – I think he believes – that there was a through-line and that the threat he saw when he announced at the time – that everything that made America America was at stake.”

“What was at stake was what we believe in, what we stood for, our democracy,” he added.

While the main focus has been on how the Trump White House and members of Congress spent the day, little is known about how Biden and his team dealt with the unrest in real time. The day, like many others in the transition, should have been pretty quiet for Biden, as the event was scheduled in front of a Covid-protected audience at Queen Music Hall, a short drive from his home in Wilmington, Delaware.

Biden spent the morning at home preparing for a talk about economics – a speech that was eventually canceled and replaced with a speech about the Capitol crisis. He was with his wife, future First Lady Jill Biden. They turned on the television in the background to monitor the congressional approval process.

When the activity began, which began with a rally attended by Trump, who soon moved to the capital, Biden’s top advisers could not believe what they saw: barriers breached and rioters pushing through crowds of police. But in those moments, one said, they were also determined to contact the president-elect by telephone with senior officials to make sure he was monitoring every aspect of the unfolding disorder. All were aligned for the magnitude of the day.

On a quiet road outside the home of the President-elect, a small group of reporters tasked with covering the Biden broadcast event in downtown Wilmington waited on an idling bus. One after another, footage of clashes between rioters and the police was drawn. “Was it blood?one remembered asking others.

Biden’s own entourage decided to simply take the cars and go to the Queen, knowing that he would need to give a speech about the events. After the press bus pulled up to the meeting point, they saw the iconic video and images of Officer Eugene Goodman leading an angry crowd away from the Senate Hall entrance. But it was still difficult to comprehend the full scale of what was happening in Washington.

After spending most of the morning isolated at her home in Washington, DC, Kate Bedingfield, then Biden’s director of public affairs and deputy campaign manager, called other senior officials and the president-elect. On the phone, Biden told them he thought it important for people to hear from the new president. He wanted to show that “we are not like that, and that the defense of democracy is indeed woven into the fabric of our country,” said Bedingfield, now the White House’s director of public affairs.

“I remember the president was simultaneously shocked, stunned and terrified by the images we saw in the Capitol, but at the same time he had a very clear vision and determination to speak out about this,” Bedingfield said. Biden and his staff discussed structuring the topics of his speech that day around the main message of his presidential campaign – “the battle for the soul of the nation.”

“That day we kind of saw it play out on screen in front of us in an almost unimaginable way,” Bedingfield added. “He really wanted to call him and talk to him directly. And he felt that in the absence of the presidential leadership we saw that day from his predecessor, it was incredibly important for him to talk to the country about what was going on. ”

Biden was initially briefed by telephone by Ron Klein, a longtime adviser who would later become his chief of staff at the White House. He left the house at about 2:20 pm and arrived at The Queen a few minutes later. By that time, the situation had deteriorated significantly, and he went straight to the hold to continue observing. Then it darkened.

He clashed with advisers as his US Secret Service agents surrounded the small stage. With him was Annie Tomasini, then the traveling chief of staff and now the director of the Oval Office; Bruce Reid, longtime adviser and chief political guru at the White House; personal assistant Stephen Goepfert; and Ashley Williams, now the Oval Office’s deputy director of operations. They were later personally joined by Klein, and Biden was on the phone with others, including Donilon, Bedingfield, and Cedric Richmond, another senior adviser who was still a member of Congress at the time and later moved to the White House.

It wasn’t until 4:00 pm that he finally addressed the public, and aides told the press at the last minute that the president was pondering his words.

“There has always been a dispute [that the 2020 election] there was so much more about the economic case, or about health care, or about the fact that rich people talk too much; there was a whole discussion in the party and in the country, ”Donilon said. “And a lot of people didn’t think that the American soul argument was really at the center of the debate."

When Biden showed up, he was wearing a blue suit and tie. He walked slowly to the podium alone, taking off his black mask and apologizing not only for the delay, but also for being so late. In total, he spoke for about eight minutes, saying that American democracy was undergoing an unprecedented attack – “unlike anything we have seen in our time.”

As he watched the scenes at the Capitol, which he called “the citadel of freedom,” Biden said he recalled a line from former President Abraham Lincoln’s annual Civil War address to Congress in 1862: “We will nobly save or despisely lose the earth’s last best hope.” …

“The job of the moment and the job of the next four years should be to restore democracy, decency, honor, respect and the rule of law,” he added. – Simple, simple decency.

Biden returned home before 5:00 pm as the Capitol complex was still being cleared. He continued to watch events with the visiting first lady. The sergeant declared the building safe just after 5:30 pm, and Biden continued to speak on the phone with a wide range of people, including advisers and elected officials.

Aides said they were never worried about the vote not being confirmed, citing lawmakers, staff and Congressional police who were quick to get it done. Congress finally approved the election in the early morning of January 7th.

Two weeks after the riots, Biden expanded on the topics of his January 6 speech, stating in his inaugural speech that the crowd had come to overthrow democracy, but that it failed that day and will fail every time it happens again.

Late in the process of drafting his inaugural address, advisers said he added a line stating that the country is in a moment where citizens have a duty to defend the truth, ensuring that the false and dangerous revisionist story does not obscure real events.

“As a country, we have a responsibility to uphold the truth,” Donilon says.

White House officials say Biden’s work to date has been based on the events of January 6, designed to demonstrate to Americans and the world that democracy can still be successful and function effectively. But Democratic lawmakers say the ultimate test will be whether Biden and Congress can protect the vote and electoral system threatened that day.

As the anniversary of the unrest approached, Biden took more concrete steps to achieve this goal. In December, after nearly a year of pressure from civil rights defenders and some senior House leaders, he backed a filibuster expulsion to provide a pathway for electoral restoration and elections law that would protect officials and increase access to ballots.

Activists still want more. The Reverend Al Sharpton, President of the National Action Network, said that in the President’s speech on the January 6th anniversary, Biden “must say that the same spirit that led the people to physically rebellion on the Capitol is now being actualized in 19 states who changed the election laws on the basis of a big lie, because in this state there was no need to change the election laws. “

“He has to connect the spirit of the people who stormed the Capitol with the people who will return to state rights to break the union,” Sharpton added.

White House aides said Biden understands that protecting voting rights and the electoral process is fundamental to maintaining this democracy. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will deliver speeches in Atlanta on Tuesday to highlight the urgent need for a voting rights bill and to prevent party-minded government officials from undermining the vote counting process, officials said. And in an interview, Donilon promised that the president would “do it.”

Senator Tim Kane, Virginia, who had a lengthy conversation with Biden ahead of the holiday break, said he expects the president’s January 6 speech to become the public face of what will then become tete-a-tete. one campaign he and others in the White House will be waging “to contact Democratic senators ahead of the mid-January vote.

“He has to pierce the big lie, but also offer an antidote to the big lie,” Kane said, referring to Trump’s lie about stealing the 2020 election results. “And I think the antidote [to] ensure that more people participate comfortably, protect the systems that run elections, and then count the votes to make sure people can trust them. “

“This will be as big a vote as the 1965 Voting Rights Act,” Kane said. “And I think Joe Biden knows that.”

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