Joe Biden on Thursday forcefully denounced Donald Trump for spreading a “web of lies” about the legitimacy of the 2020 election in a desperate attempt to cling to power.
The US president condemned his predecessor’s efforts as a “failed” pursuit, but one that continues to threaten the foundations of American democracy one year after the insurrection at the US Capitol when extremist Trump supporters tried, on 6 January last year, to overturn the official certification of Biden’s presidential election victory.
In a speech from the Capitol marking the first anniversary of the deadly assault, Biden was unsparing in his assessment of the harm caused by Trump’s “undemocratic” and “un-American” attacks on the institutions of democracy.
Though Biden never mentioned Trump by name, he was explicit in blaming the former president for fomenting the violence that led his supporters to place a “dagger at the throat of American democracy”.
“For the first time in our history, the president had not just lost an election, he tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power as a violent mob reached the Capitol,” Biden said. “But they failed. They failed.”
And yet the falsehoods and conspiracies that were a precursor to the violence which left five people dead and more than 140 law enforcement officers injured, still persist, Biden warned. He asked Americans to recommit to the protection of the nation’s 200-year-old system of government.
“The lies that drove the anger and madness have not abated,” Biden said, speaking from the National Statuary Hall in the bowels of the Capitol. “We have to be firm and unyielding in our defense of the right to vote.”
“At this moment we must decide what kind of nation we are going to be,” he continued.
Trump originally planned to hold a news conference from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida on Thursday evening, but canceled under pressure from Republicans and conservative allies who worried it would be a harmful distraction on the day.
But that did not prevent Trump from issuing a series of furious statements that continued to claim, falsely, that the election was “rigged”.
“They got away with something, and it is leading to our country’s destruction,” Trump wrote in one such salvo that did not mention the violence of the day, or his role in inciting it and failure to quell it.
Many Republicans will be physically absent from the Capitol, with most of the party’s senators, including Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, traveling to Georgia for the funeral of their former colleague Johnny Isakson, who died in December.
In a statement, McConnell called the attack “antithetical to the rule of law” and said he supported efforts to hold accountable those who broke the law.
But he did not denounce Trump, and quickly pivoted to partisan matters, denouncing Democrats for contemplating changes to the filibuster to overcome a Republican blockade of their voting rights legislation.
However, Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney, the vice-chair of the House select committee investigating the events of 6 January, told NBC News that Republicans who downplay the Capitol assault “should be ashamed of themselves”.
“Unfortunately, too many in my own party are embracing that former president, are looking the other way, are minimizing the danger,” she said. “That’s how democracies die.”
Biden’s speech opened a day-long program of events on Capitol Hill to mark the anniversary. Throughout the day, members of Congress planned to share their memories of the siege that sent them fleeing for their lives.
House speaker Nancy Pelosi was scheduled to hold a moment of silence on the House floor, and later Democratic leaders will host a discussion on the importance of preserving an accurate historical record of the day with the Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden and prominent historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham. The day’s formal events will conclude with a prayer vigil on the Capitol steps.
Speaking just before Biden, vice-president Kamala Harris, a former California senator who was in the Capitol working on 6 January last year, said the rioters not only defiled the building but assaulted “the institutions, the values, the ideals that generations of Americans have marched, picketed and shed blood to establish and defend”.
In their comments, Harris and Biden called for the protection of voting rights. Harris urged lawmakers to pass the voting rights bills currently stalled before Congress.
The insurrection was the last desperate attempt by Trump to overturn the results of the 2020 election, after a series of legal challenges and a pressure campaign failed.
On that day, a mob of his supporters stormed the Capitol after Trump delivered an incendiary speech, encouraging them to “fight like hell” as Congress convened to certify the election result. But lawmakers who had initially fled for their lives during the siege returned to the chamber, shaken but resolved, to make Trump’s electoral defeat official.
In the year since the attack, elected officials, historians and democracy advocates have warned that the threat of future violence remains high. Trump and his allies have spent the past months rewriting the 6 history of January, downplaying the violence and shifting the blame.
It was the the worst attack on the Capitol since it was burned by British forces in 1814.
Much of Biden’s speech was devoted to establishing fact from fiction about the events of 6 January, as a revisionist history of the attack, promoted by Trump and his allies, takes root.
“That’s what great nations do: they don’t bury the truth, they face up to it,” he said. “We must be absolutely clear about what is the truth and what is a lie.”
“This wasn’t a group of tourists. This was an armed insurrection. They weren’t looking to uphold the will of the people, they were looking to deny the will of the people,” Biden said.
All the while, Biden charged, Trump watched the violence unfold on TV without intervening to call for calm. “His bruised ego can’t accept that he lost.”