Only weeks before he would take the oath of office, President Joe Biden watched from his home in Delaware as thousands of rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6 in hopes of preventing him from doing so.
One year after the siege, which left five people dead and injured hundreds more, Biden laid the blame for the attack on Congress and attempted insurrection squarely at the feet of his predecessor, former President Donald Trump.
“For the first time in our history, a president had not just lost an election—he tried to prevent a peaceful transfer of power as a violent mob breached the Capitol,” Biden said, speaking from the Capitol’s Statuary Hall where protesters once stood. “But they failed. They failed.”
“On this day of remembrance, let us make sure that such attack, never, never happens again.”
Biden, without mentioning his predecessor by name once in his 25-minute remarks, condemned Trump’s role in fomenting the failed putsch with discredited claims of election fraud, as well as his silence during the worst of the rioting, which threatened the life of his own vice president.
“We must be absolutely clear about what is true and what is a lie, and here’s the truth: the former president of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election,” Biden said, sounding angrier than he had since the day of the attempted insurrection itself. “He’s done so because he values power over principle, because he sees his own interest is more important than his country’s interests, than America’s interest, and because his bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution.”
“He can’t accept he lost,” Biden said angrily, referring to Trump as a “defeated,” “failed” and “lost” president who broke his most solemn oath to the American people.
Vice President Kamala Harris, who spoke before Biden, invoked the memory of the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington as dates—now joined by January 6—as dates “that instantly remind all who have lived through them where they were and what they were doing.”
Biden had spent weeks working on the address, according to White House officials, mindful of both the solemnity of the anniversary and of the fragile state of American democracy, as Trump has continued to lie about the 2020 presidential election from his exile in Palm Beach, and as Republicans have largely united behind him and his claims.
But for most of his presidency, Biden has taken extensive pains to avoid letting Trump take center stage—and to himself avoid being a central figure in the investigations into the origins of the riots and their aftermath.
In the first weeks of his administration, following his inauguration on the very spot where rioters battled with U.S. Capitol Police for hours, Biden pointedly avoided playing a role in Trump’s ensuing impeachment for his actions on January 6, declining even to weigh in on whether the Senate he served in for nearly four decades should convict his predecessor. Trump was ultimately impeached by the House of Representatives after the attempted coup for “incitement of insurrection” by urging his supporters to march on the Capitol as Congress convened to certify the electoral college results, but he was acquitted by the Senate 57-43.
As Congress debated an ultimately failed attempt to form a bicameral committee to investigate the origins and aftermath of the attack, the Biden White House voiced support for an investigation but left questions of the potential committee’s composition to Congress itself. Once a committee was finally formed—now a House select committee made up of seven Democrats and two Republicans—the White House has almost entirely deflected questions about its actions.
Biden has, however, occasionally waded into the fray in unguarded moments, telling reporters in October that the committee should prosecute witnesses who refuse to comply with a congressional subpoena to testify about the attack. Biden would later say that “it was not appropriate” to weigh in on any actions by the Department of Justice, which he said had been “corrupted” by the previous administration, but did tell reporters last month that an attempt by former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to avoid testifying seemed “worthy of being held in contempt.”
But the Biden administration has also quietly made the committee’s investigation easier, declining to shield Trump-era White House documents from view despite his claims of executive privilege. In an October letter, White House counsel Dana Remus told National Archivist David Ferriero that Biden would not block the committee from viewing White House documents, saying that after consulting with the Department of Justice, “President Biden has determined that an assertion of executive privilege is not in the best interests of the United States, and therefore is not justified.”
The criminal investigation of the attack, too, has been largely left to the Department of Justice, which has moved at a deliberative pace to investigate, charge, and prosecute the estimated 2,000 people who entered the Capitol Building during the attack. On Wednesday, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said that the speed of those prosecutions—and what have been perceived as relatively light charges for people who are alleged to have executed a terrorist plot to overthrow the government—followed “well-worn prosecutorial practices” during an unprecedentedly complicated investigation.
“In complex cases, initial charges are often less severe than later charged offenses. This is purposeful, as investigators methodically collect and sift through more evidence,” Garland said. “A necessary consequence of the prosecutorial approach of charging less serious offenses first is that courts impose shorter sentences before they impose longer ones.”
Garland vowed, however, that “the actions we have taken thus far will not be our last.”
On a more practical level, Biden has taken pains to prevent Trump from hijacking his presidency from his oceanside Elba. Biden has nearly entirely avoided even using Trump’s name in public, referring to him only as “my predecessor” or “the former guy,” or as he did on Thursday sixteen times, as “the former president. “Last month, Biden even claimed that “I don’t think about the former president.”
But whether Biden indeed doesn’t think much about the man who attempted to overthrow the election, Trump has continued to rally Republicans around the idea that Biden is a false president.
Rather than fade into Nixonian disgrace and infamy in the year since he left office, Trump has largely succeeded in radicalizing the Republican Party that had temporarily appeared to forsake him. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who called Trump responsible for the attack on Congress, would later visit him at Mar-a-Lago and has defended him against investigation. The majority of Republicans now overwhelmingly believe—or, in the case of many elected Republicans, pretend to believe—in his bogus charges of wide-scale election fraud. Republicans nationwide have laid the groundwork for future attempts to circumvent election results, passing restrictive voting measures in numerous states and pushing out non-loyalists on local election boards.
The few Republicans who have publicly pushed back against the tide of Trump’s “Big Lie,” as Biden called it on Thursday, have been forsaken by the party, with well-funded primary challenges from Trump-backed candidates and, in the case of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), the stripping of her place in the party’s congressional leadership.
Trump’s continued power over his party—and the increasing likelihood that he will pursue the presidency once again in 2024—went unmentioned in Biden’s remarks on Thursday. But the “unprecedented assault” on American democracy and its aftermath, as Biden called it in the hours following the attack last year, was central to the twin addresses.
“January 6th reflects the dual nature of democracy: its fragility and its strength,” Harris said. “The fragility of democracy is this: if we are not vigilant, if we do not defend it, democracy simply will not stand. It will falter and fail.”
This future of this potential “unraveling” of American democracy, Harris said, lies in the hands of Congress.