U.S. President Donald Trump has finally acknowledged that his term is soon coming to an end, as some of his loyal Republican allies began abandoning him and Democrats pushed for his removal the day after he incited a mob of his supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol.
Mr. Trump said in a video Thursday evening that “a new administration will be inaugurated on January 20” and promised a “smooth, orderly and seamless transition of power.” He also condemned the Capitol Hill violence as a “heinous attack” that “defiled” the building.
But the President did not concede that Joe Biden had won the election, and cheered his own efforts to have it thrown out. “I was fighting to defend American democracy,” he said, before hinting at a comeback. “I also want you to know that our incredible journey is only just beginning.”
Mr. Trump has consistently refused to admit that he lost, fuelled conspiracy theories about voter fraud and encouraged supporters to descend on the Capitol Wednesday as Congress met to confirm Mr. Biden’s victory.
In the wake of the violence, a growing number of loyalists are distancing themselves from him.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, resigned Thursday, leading an exodus from the administration that also included Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and former White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. A string of Republican legislators, meanwhile, rejected the President’s claims that the election was fraudulent.
“Yesterday, our country experienced a traumatic and entirely avoidable event as supporters of the President stormed the Capitol building following a rally he addressed,” Ms. Chao said in a statement. “It has deeply troubled me in a way that I cannot simply set aside.”
Some critics saw such defections as too little, too late. Mr. Trump has less than two weeks left in his term, and most of those now leaving stuck with him through similar previous behaviour. But they were nonetheless extraordinary in a party that has until now generally enabled Mr. Trump’s falsehoods and his efforts to overturn the election. And they signal a reckoning for a party that has been utterly dominated by the President for the last four years.
Democratic legislators, for their part, put pressure on Vice-President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would strip Mr. Trump of his powers. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Mr. Pence to request this Thursday, Ms. Pelosi said, but he did not return the call. If Mr. Pence did not co-operate, they said, they would try to impeach the President and remove him from office.
Michigan Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Dingell told MSNBC that the party was likely to move forward on impeachment. Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark told CNN that proceedings could start in the middle of next week if Mr. Pence doesn’t act by then. Mr. Trump would be the first president to face a second impeachment; he was previously impeached by the House for trying to cajole Ukraine to interfere in last year’s election. The President was acquitted by the Senate.
Capitol police faced a reckoning of their own for failing to prevent the rioters from breaching what was supposed to be one of the country’s most secure buildings. Chief Steven Sund quit, as did both Michael Stenger and Paul Irving, the sergeants-at-arms for the Senate and the House, respectively, after pressure from Ms. Pelosi, Mr. McConnell and Mr. Schumer.
On Thursday night, a Capitol police officer became the fifth person to die as a result of the riot. The force said Brian Sicknick died of injuries sustained the previous day; it did not specify what his injuries were. Another officer is under investigation for shooting Trump supporter Ashli Babbitt, 35, dead during the riot. Three other people died of medical causes on Capitol Hill.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Metropolitan Police Department both announced plans to hunt down people responsible for the violence. Michael Sherwin, the top prosecutor in the District of Columbia, said “all options are on the table” for charging rioters, including sedition.
“We will bring the most maximum charges we can,” he told a press briefing Thursday. Mr. Sherwin said rioters may also have stolen sensitive national-security documents when they looted lawmakers’ offices.
So far, only 15 of the hundreds of Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol have been charged, with offences ranging from unauthorized access to theft. Significantly more people were charged by Metro Police, Washington’s local force, for violating a 6 p.m. curfew or illegally carrying guns on the streets of the city.
Tech companies moved to restrict Mr. Trump’s access to their sites. After years of refusing to ban Mr. Trump despite repeated violations of its rules, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the President would be banned until Mr. Biden is sworn in and possibly after that.
“We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” Mr. Zuckerberg wrote in a statement.
Ottawa-based Shopify, which runs the online stores for Mr. Trump’s official merchandise, also cut ties with him, closing down the stores.
But nowhere could the backlash against the President matter more than among his fellow Republicans.
The party has been unfailingly loyal to Mr. Trump, who is more popular with right-wing voters than any other politician. Even as he accused Democrats of rigging the election and repeatedly tried to cajole elections officials into invalidating Mr. Biden’s victory, Republicans either supported the President or refused to break with him.
On Wednesday, however, he appeared to cross a line by encouraging supporters to descend on the Capitol as Congress formally certified Mr. Biden’s victory. Within hours of the riot, Mr. Trump’s allies began to change their tune.
But Mr. Trump’s allies began to change their tune within hours of Wednesday’s riot. The President had called for his supporters to converge in Washington and, shortly before the violence, had exhorted them at a rally to march on the Capitol.
South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, Mr. Trump’s frequent golfing partner, acknowledged for the first time Wednesday night that Mr. Biden had in fact won the election. Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler, who previously had a track record of voting the way Mr. Trump wanted 100 per cent of the time, this time voted against Republican challenges to Mr. Biden’s electoral votes.
Mr. Mulvaney, the President’s special envoy to Northern Ireland, resigned amid an exodus from the White House. Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger also stepped down, as did Stephanie Grisham, chief of staff to first lady Melania Trump. The President’s social secretary and a press aide also quit.
Bill Barr, Mr. Trump’s former attorney-general, condemned the President in a statement: “Orchestrating a mob to pressure Congress is inexcusable. The President’s conduct yesterday was a betrayal of his office and supporters.” John Kelly, another of Mr. Trump’s former chiefs of staff, told CNN that he supported using the 25th amendment.
Adam Kinzinger became the first Republican legislator to call for the President to be kicked out of office. In an online video, the Illinois Congressman called on Mr. Pence to “end this nightmare” and invoke the 25th Amendment.
Doing so would require Mr. Pence and either a majority of cabinet or Congress to agree. Removing Mr. Trump from office through impeachment would require a majority of the Democratic-controlled House and two-thirds of the Senate, which is evenly divided between the two parties. Such a process, if successful, could also bar Mr. Trump from holding federal office in the future, blocking a 2024 comeback attempt.
Chris Edelson, an expert in government at American University in Washington, said most of the Republican’ condemnations were empty gestures. Only if they actively work to kick Mr. Trump out of office, he said, does their late change of heart have any effect.
“If Republicans were really serious, they would be calling for immediate removal of the President. Anything else is not really useful.”
Mr. Trump has caused similar crises before. In 2017, for instance, he refused to condemn a mob of white supremacists – many of whom strongly supported his presidency – after they started a riot in which a woman was killed. He repeatedly tried to shut down investigations into his campaign’s ties to Russia, while soliciting Ukraine’s help tarnishing Mr. Biden. And last spring, he repeatedly attacked anti-racism protesters; on one occasion, federal police pepper sprayed and beat a crowd outside the White House to make way for a presidential photo-op.
On those occasions, Republican response was muted or insignificant. After Charlottesville, then-economic adviser Gary Cohen wrote an op-ed condemning the violence but did not quit the administration. Mr. Barr helped the President manage the fallout from the Russia scandal, and defended the gassing of protesters last year.
And Mr. Trump still commands absolute loyalty from many lawmakers. Even after Wednesday’s mayhem, seven senators and 121 members of the House voted to throw out some of Mr. Biden’s electoral votes.
“The Republicans are always a step or two behind. It’s the same now,” Prof. Edelson said. “They’ve never been up to the task.”
With a file from The Associated Press
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