To say January 6 was a chaotic day in American politics would be an understatement. In hours, control of the Senate changed parties, an angry mob stormed the Capitol, President-Elect Joe Biden’s election victory was certified in Congress, and President Trump said for the first time that he would leave the White House.
In Georgia, Senate candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff won runoff elections against their GOP opponents in tight races, giving Democrats control of the Senate for the first time since 2014. The results give both parties 50 seats in the Senate, with Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) replaces Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as the Senate majority leader.
A Senate majority gives the Biden administration much more leeway to enact its agenda. A 51-vote majority in the chamber means Democrats can confirm cabinet appointees and judges and can pass certain legislation through the budget reconciliation process. Reconciliation allows for a majority of Senators to pass bills that impact taxes, spending, or the debt. For example, the reconciliation process was used to pass the Trump administration’s $1.5 trillion tax bill. Other legislation that falls outside of this narrow window will still require Republican support to pass, including annual budgets.
Another key step in the election process began yesterday with the certification of electoral votes in Congress. This typically ceremonial process requires lawmakers to certify the electoral votes from each state, formalizing the presidential election results. This year, however, a sizeable number of Republicans in the House and 14 Republican Senators said they would object to the election results in several key swing states during this process.
The objectors were not going to impact Biden’s victory, but there is no doubt that many of these lawmakers felt pressure from their constituents who support the president’s position that the election was stolen. Trump has been voicing claims of widespread voter fraud since before the election even took place. Trump’s voter fraud rhetoric goes back to the Iowa caucuses during his first presidential campaign in 2016, when he came in second to Ted Cruz. At the time, Trump said Cruz committed fraud and stole the election, and Trump called for a new election. After his eventual 2016 Electoral College win, he also claimed with no evidence that he would have won the popular vote if not for millions of people who voted illegally. Regarding the 2020 race, Trump’s claims have been rejected by multiple courts, and even his administration officials have said there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud that would change the results of the election. Trump specifically called on Vice President Mike Pence to decertify the election results to give him a second term in office, but Pence informed him that the Constitution does not give him that authority.
As the congressional session began, Sen. McConnell urged his Republican colleagues to stand down and accept the results of the election. “The voters, the courts, and the states have all spoken,” he said. “If we overrule them, it would damage our republic forever…If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral. We’d never see the whole nation accept an election again.” His words did little to stop objectors from moving forward.
The president held a rally outside of the White House earlier in the day where he lambasted his political opponents and repeated accusations of a stolen election. His supporters later made their way down to the Capitol to protest the certification vote. As lawmakers began debating, a violent mob broke into the building, forcing the proceedings to stop. President Trump eventually released a video asking his supporters to go home, while at the same time echoing unsubstantiated claims that a landslide victory was stolen from him. Capitol police were desperately unprepared for this incident, but the mob and other protestors were eventually cleared as reinforcements arrived.
Lawmakers resumed the certification process after the Capitol was cleared. The chaos from earlier in the day resulted in some Republican objectors in the Senate standing down, and votes were only held on objections for results in Arizona and Pennsylvania, instead of the planned swath of battleground states. Eight senators and 139 representatives ultimately voted to sustain one or both of those objections, but both were defeated. The result was that lawmakers formally certified Biden’s victory in the early hours of January 7.
The president was banned from his social media accounts, but he issued a statement promising for the first time to adhere to an orderly transition of power on January 20. However, he did not concede and said he disagrees with the outcome of the election. Given a certain lack of humility and a demonstrated inability to accept defeat, it comes as no surprise that Trump’s term would come to an end without an actual concession. However, his actions set a dangerous precedent in modern American politics, undermining confidence in the electoral process and raising concerns about whether the populace will question future election results. To be sure, the battle over claims of voter fraud by Republicans and voter suppression by Democrats isn’t going away anytime soon.
Trump thrives in the spotlight, and he will likely continue to try to exert his influence in the political sphere even after leaving Washington. What remains to be seen is if Wednesday’s incident and the growing fissures in Trump’s administration in the waning days of his term will have a lasting effect on his influence in the Republican Party or on his legacy as a whole.