U.S. President Joe Biden, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, made an impassioned appeal to Americans and defended the values of democracy on the first anniversary of the stunning insurrection attempt that Biden said tested the nation's identity.
“Are we going to be a nation that accepts political violence as a norm?” Biden asked. “Are we going to be a nation where we allow partisan election officials to overturn the legally expressed will of the people?”
During the violent Capitol riot of Jan 6, 2021, a mob overpowered police, breached the Capitol and attempted to stop lawmakers from formalizing Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. Biden urged Americans to choose how they define themselves.
“Are we going to be a nation that lives not by the light of the truth but in the shadow of lies? We cannot allow ourselves to be that kind of nation. The way forward is to recognize the truth and to live by it,” he said.
And, he said, the events of that day reverberate well beyond the shores of the United States.
“From China, to Russia and beyond, they’re betting that democracy's days are numbered,” he said. “They actually told me, democracy’s too slow, too bogged down by division, to succeed in today's rapidly changing, complicated world. And they’re betting, they’re betting America will become more like them and less like us. They’re betting that America is a place for the autocrat, the dictator, the strongman. I do not believe that. That is not who we are. That is not who we have ever been. And that is not who we should ever, ever be.”
President Biden never mentioned former President Donald Trump by name, although he repeatedly said Trump’s failed quest to overturn his election loss is damaging American democracy. “You can’t love your country only when you win,” he said.
Shortly after Biden spoke, Trump released a statement accusing Biden of trying to divide the country with his remarks.
"Biden, who is destroying our Nation with insane policies of open borders, corrupt elections, disastrous energy policies, unconstitutional mandates, and devastating school closures, used my name today to try to further divide America,” Trump wrote. “This political theater is all just a distraction for the fact Biden has completely and totally failed."
Vice President Harris, speaking ahead of Biden, used her platform to push for voting rights legislation. In the past year, Trump has leaned on sympathetic lawmakers to pass legislation that some critics say restricts voting rights.
“The American spirit is being tested,” she said. “Here in this very building, a decision will be made about whether we uphold the right to vote and ensure free and fair elections. Let's be clear: We must pass the voting rights bills that are now before the Senate and the American people must also do something more.”
The attack on the Capitol led to at least five deaths and more than 130 injuries and saw more than 725 participants charged with crimes. Protesters loyal to Trump agreed with the former president’s claim that the November 2020 presidential poll was marred by fraud, though there is no evidence to support that. A year later, public opinion polls have shown about 70% of Republicans do not consider Biden’s election win legitimate.
Some rioters on the scene said they were seeking out specific individuals — in particular, then-Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who both played a pivotal role in leading legislators through the election certification process. Members of the mob erected a gallows on site.
Four Trump supporters died on the day of the assault, and a Capitol Police officer died the next day. The mob injured dozens of officers, and in the months since the attack four officers have died by suicide.
Biden said Trump continues to sow political divisions in the year since the attack because he is unable to accept his election loss.
“The former president of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election,” he said. “He's done so because he values power over principle, because he sees his own interest is more important than his country's interest and America's interest. And because his bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution. He can’t accept he lost.”
Overseas, the U.S. president’s strong words are unlikely to move America’s adversaries, said history professor Jeremi Suri of the University of Texas at Austin.
“Biden’s words will not convince his detractors, but they will encourage millions of Americans who want their country to be better, and their democracy to be more secure, in the next few years,” he told VOA. “I think these words are likely to resonate among America’s traditional democratic allies — especially Germany, Britain, Japan, Canada, and Australia — all of whom want to see the US move on from the Trump years and return to its role as a leading world democracy. America’s critics — Russia and China especially — will dismiss Biden’s words as naive and empty.”
The Biden administration has faced criticism for not doing enough or moving quickly enough to get justice for those affected by the insurrection attempt, with critics noting that so far, only low-level offenders have faced charges.
On Wednesday, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland vowed that Justice Department prosecutors will pursue perpetrators “at any level” responsible for the riot. He added that in complex cases, it is normal for lesser charges to be processed first, as prosecutors build their case against bigger targets.
He did not name any individuals who may face prosecution, but said: “There can be no different rules for the powerful and the powerless.”
Late Tuesday, Trump canceled a press conference scheduled for Thursday evening at his Florida estate. Trump said he would instead discuss “important topics” at a January 15 rally in Arizona.
Trump, in a statement, accused the congressional committee investigating the January 6 event of showing “total bias and dishonesty.”