The heart of US democracy was plunged into chaos on Wednesday, as protesters supporting US President Donald Trump marched on Congress and forced lawmakers to be evacuated.
Vice-President Mike Pence left the floor of Congress as the US House of Representatives and Senate were forced into emergency recess and placed under lockdown. Outside, hundreds of protesters swarmed past barricades surrounding the building where lawmakers were debating Joe Biden’s victory in the Electoral College, eventually breaching security cordons and entered the Capitol building after clashing with police.
"Without objection the chair declares the House in recess," congressman Jim McGovern said, banging down the gavel as loud shouts and disturbances could be heard in the public galleries in the chamber.
Officials at the US Capitol declared a lockdown, and lawmakers said on Twitter that they were sheltering in place in their offices, as protesters – some of them holding Trump flags – were seen walking through the building.
Earlier in the day at a rally, Trump said he’d “never concede” his election loss.
Loud booms were heard around the legislative building as police in riot gear undertook crowd control measures, including the use of pepper spray. Unconfirmed reports said tear gas had been deployed.
At the same time, a notice sent to staffers Wednesday at the Cannon House Office Building, across the street from the Capitol, told employees to “move in a safe manner to the exits” and “proceed immediately to your designated assembly area” following the bomb threats. The notice was later retracted.
As chaos unfolded, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered a citywide curfew. She set a 6pm (2300 GMT) curfew, set to to remain in place until 6am Thursday.
The developments come on a day of already high tension in Washington. Thousands of people have gathered in the city, including at a park south of the White House, in support of Trump as Congress prepared to seal Biden’s victory in the November election. In addition, the results from two runoff elections in Georgia suggest Democrats may retake the Senate, adding to frustrations felt by the president’s backers.
'We will never concede'
Leaning on debunked theories of a rigged vote, Trump addressed his supporters near the White House for over an hour, exhorting them to “stop the steal” and make a stand for his presidency.
“All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened, radical-left Democrats,” Trump said at the rally. “We will never give up; we will never concede.”
After his speech, a crowd began marching up Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol. Among the leaders of the march was Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist who has long promoted Trump on his InfoWars show and podcast.
At least three separate pro-Trump rallies are taking place in Washington, and many local businesses boarded up their doors and windows in anticipation of possible violence. Mayor Muriel Bowser called out unarmed National Guard troops to bolster a heavy police presence.
Trump supporters waving flags and wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats at a morning rally in the Ellipse adjacent to the White House said they were there because they believe Trump was being illegally denied a second term.
“The election was stolen and we have to do something to save the country,” said Colleen Murphy, 53, who travelled from Wisconsin for the rally. “I think Trump has a trump card up his sleeve.”
Sporadic violence between pro- and anti-Trump protesters occurred in Washington just after the November election, before all the states had certified their votes. Officials worry something similar could happen this week, especially if protesters from both sides confront one another on the streets.
While the counting of the Electoral College votes in Congress is largely symbolic, a group of Republican lawmakers vowed to contest the results, delaying completion of the count into late Wednesday or even Thursday morning.
Outside the Capitol, a crowd waving “Trump 2020” flags gathered in front of barricades early in the morning, chanting their support for the president. Inside the building, lawmakers were considering the Electoral College decision and digesting the possible shift in power in the Senate exactly two weeks before Biden’s inauguration.
A 37-year-old woman from New Jersey named Lauren – she declined to give her last name – said she believes the November election was rigged by China’s Communist Party.
“I’m here to fight for the president,” she said. “The election was fraudulent.”