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With the Capitol's breach, President Trump's virtual coup on Twitter became all too real

Susan Page
USA TODAY

It was the moment that the virtual coup President Donald Trump had been waging on Twitter since Election Day became all too real.

"We will never give up; we will never concede," the president told thousands of supporters on the Mall at midday Wednesday, repeating debunked allegations that fraud had cost him a second term. The crowd had gathered in Washington to pressure Vice President Mike Pence and Republican legislators to object to the certified Electoral College count that would make Democrat Joe Biden the next president.

With that, the protesters marched toward the Capitol, breached metal barricades, pushed their way into the halls of Congress, and took over the dais where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Pence had been standing an hour earlier. The rioters trashed offices and took selfies. They draped a huge Trump banner off the front of the Capitol.

What has traditionally been a ceremonial rite honoring the results of the presidential election already had been transformed into a partisan battle. Dozens of Republican lawmakers had vowed to object to accepting the electors certified by the states. 

'Violence and anarchy':Chaos erupts following Trump's unprecedented effort to overturn Biden's election win

Now that verbal clash sparked a violent one. The scenes of a mob taking over the Capitol was reminiscent of the forceful governmental overthrow more familiar in authoritarian regimes, not in the world's oldest democracy. Law enforcement officials used flash grenades and tear gas to clear the rioters from the outdoor balcony where Biden is slated to be inaugurated in two weeks.

Former President George W. Bush issued a statement calling it an "insurrection." Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, his face grave, said on MSNBC that "it's a moment where you know that indeed our democracy is fragile." 

'A colossal failure':How were pro-Trump rioters able to breach Capitol security?

The shock among officials and former officials, journalists and academics, and President-elect Joe Biden was palpable. The reaction from Trump himself was more muted. Only hours after the rioting began – and after Biden had delivered a public plea to the president to help put an "end to this siege" – did Trump post a short video calling for calm. 

"I know your pain; I know your hurt," Trump said, addressing the rioters. "But you have to go home now. We have to have peace. We have to have law and order." That said, he also repeated his baseless charges that the election had been "stolen" from him, the very issue that had sparked the mob's actions.

Later, he seemed to justify their actions in a tweet, calling the rioters "great patriots."

Twitter removed both posts shortly after it flagged them with warning labels.

"These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long," he said as darkness fell. "Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!"

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington. As Congress prepares to affirm President-elect Joe Biden's victory, thousands of people have gathered to show their support for President Donald Trump and his claims of election fraud.

There were calls to impeach Trump, despite the short time he has left in office. He "must be removed from office and prevented from further endangering our country and our people," said Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass, a member of the House Democratic leadership. The head of the National Association of Manufacturers, a business group not generally given to hyperbole, suggested Pence consider invoking the 25th Amendment to oust Trump. "This is sedition and should be treated as such," Jay Timmons said. 

In a step heavy with symbolism, Pelosi announced that the Electoral College count would resume Wednesday night once the Capitol had been cleared. 

Since Election Day, Trump has refused to accept the outcome. For two months, he and his allies have filed dozens of lawsuits in battleground states; none of them have gotten legal traction, not even from judges he appointed. He has lobbied governors and state legislators to change the count in their state or hold new elections. In a phone call Saturday that stretched for an hour, he cajoled and threatened the Georgia secretary of state to "find" the 11,000 additional votes Trump needed to win that state.

By the numbers:President Donald Trump's failed efforts to overturn the election

Through it all, he has repeatedly told supporters that a massive scheme waged by Democrats, the news media, Big Tech companies and others had robbed him of a victory he had won. 

In an interview on Tuesday, Alvin Tillery Jr., director of Northwestern's Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy, had compared Trump's actions to sedition. "This looks like a real coup d'etat we see in developing nations or in our Latin American neighbors," he said then. "People behave this way when they don't think they can win on the rules."

Trump's attacks on the legitimacy of the election erodes faith in democracy itself, said David Barker, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. "Support for the system is the thing that keeps a democracy going," he said. "If you lose it, you have to start wondering if there's a danger of the U.S. going the way most other democracies have gone in the history of the world."

Which would be what?

"Which would be failed," he said. 

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