President Joe Biden on Friday commemorated two years since the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol – a day he’s called “one of the darkest periods of our nation’s history” – seeking to elevate the law enforcement and election officials who held firm against the most serious effort to prevent the peaceful transfer of power in American history.
In a week defined by dramatic contrasts between a White House at work and a House Republican majority in chaos, Friday’s event at the White House served as an almost visceral coda. It gave Biden the opportunity to highlight the extremist risk to the nation and its politics that he sees as still very real – even as signs that the fever driven by his predecessor has started to break in concrete ways. That risk, in the view of some White House officials, will serve as a literal, if unintentional, split screen to Biden’s remarks.
At Friday’s White House event acknowledging the solemn anniversary, Biden said “our democracy was attacked” and and that the insurrection was all “fueled by lies about the 2020 election.”
The president awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal to more than a dozen individuals – including law enforcement officers who were injured defending the Capitol, a Capitol Police officer who died the day after rioters stormed the building, officers who died by suicide after defending the Capitol, as well as elected officials and election workers who rejected efforts by former President Donald Trump to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
Those in the room being honored, Biden said, “embody the best before, during and after January the 6, 2021.”
He also acknowledged that for many the ceremony “is bittersweet,” noting that “more than 140 law enforcement officials suffered physical injuries and untold numbers are suffering from psychological toll of that day as well.”
“History will remember your names. They’ll remember your courage. They’ll remember your bravery. They’ll remember your extraordinary commitment to your fellow Americans,” the president added.
During Friday’s ceremony, Biden did not directly acknowledge the history-making chaos on the House floor that has blocked Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy from the speakership the last four days. But as McCarthy has inched closer to garnering enough holdouts to secure his position as House Speaker following more than a dozen floor votes, the connection is unmistakable – and it’s something that Biden, himself, has previously acknowledged.
“How do you think this looks to the rest of the world? Coming out of, you know – the first time we’re really getting through the whole history related to January 6, things are settling out, and now, for the first time in 100 years?… It’s not a good look, it’s not a good thing. This is the United States of America and I hope they get their act together,” Biden told reporters on the South Lawn earlier this week as he departed the White House for a trip to Kentucky.
Some of the players in the chaos on Capitol Hill played roles in the election denial that led to the January 6 riot. Of the 20 House Republican insurgents who have frozen the new majority and its path to a speaker in its tracks, 15 served in Congress on January 6, 2021. Fourteen of those objected to electoral count. Five members of the group are freshmen. All ran as 2020 election deniers, all endorsed by Trump.
And then there’s McCarthy, the California Republican desperately seeking to broker a deal to lead the majority, who is arguably more responsible than any other person in America for giving Trump a lifeline to maintain his position in the party.
For Biden – who was described as “horrified, stunned, outraged,” as he watched the events unfold two years ago, according to one aide who was with him – it’s a complicated yet critical moment.
The list of honorees bestowed the medal included individuals who testified before Congress about their actions surrounding the 2020 vote certification and insurrection – to a House panel rejected by McCarthy and other Republicans as illegitimate. And despite his steadfast insistence on staying far from the Justice Department’s January 6 investigations and his general reluctance to weigh in on the work of the House committee that investigated the riot, Biden has privately paid very close attention to how things have played out.
The completion of the committee’s work was viewed privately by Biden as a critical step for a country that has appeared to edge away from the precipice in recent months, people familiar with the matter say. The midterm elections were a “direct, complete and total rebuke” of a virulent strain of election denialism that overtook large swaths of the GOP, a White House official told CNN.
In fact, one official noted, as Biden watched the Senate and House results closely on election night last year, he also made clear to aides he wanted updates on another set of races: secretary of state contests that pitted Democrats against Trump-backed supporters of the lie the 2020 election was fraudulent.
Democrats won each of those races – including in Michigan, where Jocelyn Benson secured reelection. Benson was one of the officials honored for her efforts to maintain a fair election in 2020.
The contrast is particularly acute given the moment the events of the last several months have created for Biden.
The election results defied history and expectations. The launch of Trump’s third run for the presidency was met with a collective shrug, even among most Republicans, and has staggered out of the gate. The cornerstones of Biden’s legislative agenda are already law – and most of the key provisions White House officials view as widely popular across the country, will start to take effect in the months ahead.
Biden is privately convinced the fever has broken and the country has turned a corner. He’s hinted at the idea in asides during public remarks several times in since November. He acknowledges he’ll never get the most die-hard MAGA believers, but his view is that group is a clear minority inside the Republican Party.
Even before Trump’s lackluster campaign launch, Biden had made clear to close advisers that he viewed the former president’s grip on his party as easing – along with his relevance. It’s an idea that several doubt, and Democrats more broadly remain skeptical after years of near-death moments.
But Biden gave a window into his view when he was asked about Trump at a news conference after the midterm elections, with the contention that the former president’s political movement remained very strong.
“Oh, yeah?” Biden interrupted with wide grin.
Yet this week has underscored that despite a view inside the Oval Office of clear progress in lowering the temperature inside the country, the same forces – and the same people – that drove the violence inside the Capitol on two years ago are still players, including the man Biden holds personally responsible for the insurrection.
Trump has been a constant presence on the periphery of the chaos on the House floor – he’s even received votes for speaker.
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