WASHINGTON - Thousands of flag-waving supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump swarmed over the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, forcing lawmakers to evacuate their chambers and delaying by several hours a normally routine procedure clearing the way for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to be sworn in as president and vice president on Jan. 20.
House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced after hours of chaos around the white-columned edifice that police had secured the area and legislators would reconvene to continue the work of certifying the Electoral College vote that determines the next president.
“Today, a shameful assault was made on our democracy,” Pelosi said. “It was anointed at the highest level of government. It cannot, however, deter us from our responsibility to validate the election of Joe Biden,” she said.
Hours earlier, U.S. television audiences were riveted by live images of closely packed rioters clambering over the exterior of the building, which includes both the House and the Senate. Hundreds more pushed past Capitol Police and poured into the building.
“Where are they?” a Trump supporter demanded as some tried to break down the doors of the House of Representatives chamber.
Rep. Scott Peters, a California Democrat, told reporters he was in the House chamber when the mob began storming it. He said security officers urged lawmakers to put on gas masks and herded them into a corner of the massive room.
“When we got over to other side of the gallery, the Republican side, they made us all get down, you could see that they were fending off some sort of assault, it looked like,” he said. “They had a piece of furniture up against the door, the door, the entry to the floor from the Rotunda, and they had guns pulled.”
"And they just told us to take our pins off," he added, referring to lapel pins members wear so Capitol Police can quickly identify them. The lawmakers were later evacuated.
News channels showed photographs of plainclothes police officers with handguns drawn, guarding House members as rioters tried to break through a door. A woman was shot in the melee and later died, a spokesperson for the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department said, adding late Wednesday that no other details were available.
Once inside, one Trump supporter sat in the chair where Vice President Mike Pence had been presiding over the Electoral College discussions before they were interrupted, apparently taking selfies with his phone.
By 5 p.m. local time, Washington Police Chief Robert Contee said the protest had been declared a riot, and at least 13 arrests had been made. Mayor Muriel Bowser imposed a 6 p.m. curfew, and the D.C. National Guard was activated.
Elsewhere, a pipe bomb was found and safely detonated outside the headquarters of the Republican National Committee and a suspicious package prompted the evacuation of the nearby Democratic National Committee, according to The New York Times. Both are within blocks of the Capitol.
Trump had encouraged the crowd to march on the Capitol in a fiery midday speech outside the White House, telling his supporters they needed to be strong in order to keep him in office. “We will never give up, we will never concede,” he said.
The outgoing president tweeted twice during the protest, asking his supporters to go home but assuring them of his affection and repeating his unfounded claims that the election had been stolen from him.
As the mayhem accelerated in and around the Capitol building, Trump tweeted a video urging the mob to remain peaceful and respect the police.
“No violence!” Trump said. “Remember, WE are the Party of Law & Order – respect the Law and our great men and women in Blue. Thank you!"
Biden, from his transition hub in the eastern state of Delaware, said, "At this hour our democracy is under unprecedented assault" and called on Trump to go on national TV and fulfill his obligation as commander in chief to call off the mob.
As he walked out of the Capitol, Democratic Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut said he had lived in Latin America and “always assumed it could never happen here.”
“We’ve known for years that our democracy was in peril, and this is hopefully the worst and final moment of it,” Himes said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.