AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Rioters try to break through a police barrier in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on January 6.

Chaos at the U.S. Capitol

After a day of violence, Congress officially approved the election of Joe Biden as president.

Last updated: January 8, 12:00 p.m. EST

On Wednesday, January 6, the U.S. Congress met at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Lawmakers were set to officially approve the vote count that would make Joe Biden the next U.S. president. However, during that meeting, supporters of President Donald Trump broke into the Capitol to attempt to stop that from happening. It was unlike any event in modern American history. 

Here’s what you need to know.

Wasn’t Joe Biden already officially elected? 

Not exactly. In November, more than 155 million Americans cast their votes for president—the most in U.S. history. Biden, the Democratic candidate, received more than 81 million votes. That was about 7 million more than Trump, the Republican candidate, received. 

But in the U.S., voters don’t directly elect the president. Instead, we use a system called the Electoral College. The candidate who receives the most popular votes in a state wins that state’s electoral votes. There are 538 electoral votes in all. A candidate who wins at least 270 of them is elected president.

With wins in 25 states and Washington, D.C., Biden racked up 306 electoral votes. (Click here to learn more about the Electoral College.) On December 14, electors in each state met to cast their votes. 

But according to the U.S. Constitution, Congress must count the Electoral College votes to make the election results official. That is why members of Congress were meeting on January 6.

What has been President Trump’s response to the election?

For more than two months, Trump refused to concede, or admit defeat in, the election. He had repeatedly claimed that he was the victim of widespread voter fraud. But state election officials and federal (national) agencies that monitor elections have found no evidence that the results were unfair.  

Trump’s legal team filed dozens of lawsuits to dispute the election results in certain states that the president lost. State and federal courts rejected those challenges because of a lack of evidence. Despite those rulings, Trump continued to claim that the election was “stolen” from him.

What exactly happened at the Capitol on January 6?

President Trump had used Twitter and Facebook to invite people to a protest rally near the White House. An estimated 30,000 people arrived from across the country. During his 70-minute speech, the president continued to falsely claim that he won the election. He also encouraged the crowd to “walk down to the Capitol.” 

The full Senate and the House of Representatives were gathered inside. Vice President Mike Pence was overseeing the counting of the electoral votes. 

Later that afternoon, a crowd of Trump’s supporters pushed past police and broke into the Capitol. Vice President Pence and the members of Congress had to be evacuated for their safety. The rioters smashed windows and looted items from lawmakers’ offices. They also broke into the Senate chamber where the meeting had been taking place. One of the rioters was shot inside the Capitol and later died. More than a dozen police officers were injured, and one later died of his injuries. 

It took several hours for law enforcement to clear the rioters and make sure the building was safe. The mayor of Washington, D.C., called for a citywide curfew to prevent the violence from spreading. 

What happened after the riot?

Lawmakers from both the Republican and Democratic parties spoke out forcefully against the riot. Many called it an attack on democracy itself.

“It’s not protest. It’s insurrection,” Biden said in a speech that afternoon. “The world’s watching. I am genuinely shocked and sad that our nation, so long the beacon of light and hope for democracy, has come to such a dark moment.”

President Trump has been widely criticized for inciting the rioters and for his response to the violence as it was happening. He recorded a video telling the protesters to leave the Capitol but also told his supporters that he loved them. He also claimed once again that the election was stolen from him. 

Did Congress continue to count the electoral votes?

Erin Schaff/Pool via REUTERS

Vice President Mike Pence (top, left) and Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi of California (top, right)

Yes. The Senate and House of Representatives returned to finish the count on the evening of January 6. They were determined to show that they couldn’t be stopped from performing their duty.

“To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today, you did not win,” Vice President Pence said. “Violence never wins. Freedom wins. Let’s get back to work.”

At about 4:00 a.m. the next morning, Congress finally finished approving the electoral votes, making Biden’s victory official. According to the Constitution, the next step is for the president-elect to take an oath of office. This is set to happen on January 20, when Biden will be inaugurated, or officially sworn in, as the 46th president of the United States.

What has happened since Congress approved Biden’s election?

A lot. Law enforcement has arrested dozens of rioters who stormed the Capitol. On January 7, President Trump gave a speech in which he condemned the riot. 

“To those who engaged in the acts of violence and destruction, you do not represent our country,” he said. “And to those who broke the law, you will pay.” 

The president also stated, “My focus now turns to ensuring a smooth, orderly, and seamless transition of power.” For more than 200 years, presidents have peacefully handed over power to newly elected presidents.

For many, Trump’s speech was not enough. Several of the president’s top advisers quit their positions to protest the way he handled the events of January 6. Many members of Congress, mostly Democrats, have called for the president to be removed from office before his term officially ends on January 20. 

1. What does it mean to you to live in a democracy?

2. What do you think Vice President Pence meant when he said, “Violence never wins. Freedom wins”?

3. Members of Congress worked together, even though many of them disagree on big topics. Why is it important to be able to work with people even when you have differences?