Updated: 8:52 p.m.
A violent mob loyal to President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday and forced lawmakers into hiding, in a stunning attempt to overturn America’s presidential election, undercut the nation’s democracy and keep Democrat Joe Biden from replacing Trump in the White House.
The nation’s elected representatives scrambled to crouch under desks and don gas marks, while police futilely tried to barricade the building, one of the most jarring scenes ever to unfold in a seat of American political power. A woman was shot and killed inside the Capitol, and Washington’s mayor instituted an evening curfew in an attempt to contain the violence.
The Washington, D.C., police chief says at least five weapons have been recovered and at least 13 people have been arrested so far. Police Chief Robert Contee called the attack a riot.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said their debate on affirming Biden's victory would continue after officials declared the U.S. Capitol complex “secure” after heavily armed police moved to end the nearly four-hour violent occupation by pro-Trump extremists.
A somber President-elect Biden, two weeks away from being inaugurated, said American democracy was “under unprecedented assault,” a sentiment echoed by many in Congress, including some Republicans. Former President George W. Bush said he watched the events in “disbelief and dismay.”
As darkness began to set in, law enforcement officials were working their way toward the mob, using percussion grenades to try to clear the area around the Capitol. Police are using tear gas and percussion grenades to begin clearing Trump supporters from the grounds of the U.S. Capitol ahead of the 6 p.m. curfew in Washington. In the moments before, there were violent clashes between the police and protesters, who tore railing for the inauguration scaffolding and threw it at the officers.
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More than two hours after his supporters began storming the Capitol, Trump issued a restrained call for peace well after the melee was underway but did not urge supporters to disperse. Earlier he had egged them on to march to Capitol Hill. The Pentagon said about 1,100 District of Columbia National Guard members were being mobilized to help support law enforcement at the Capitol.
Wednesday's ordinarily mundane procedure of Congress certifying a new president was always going to be extraordinary, with Republican supporters of Trump vowing to protest results of an election that they have baselessly insisted was reversed by fraud. But even the unusual deliberations, which included the Republican vice president and Senate majority leader defying Trump's demands, were quickly overtaken.
In a raucous, out-of-control scene, pro-Trump extremists fought past police and breached the building, shouting and waving Trump and American flags as they marched through the halls. They also deployed “chemical irritants” on police in order to break into the U.S. Capitol, the police chief of Washington, D.C., says.
The chaotic moments came as dozens of Trump supporters breached security perimeters and entered the U.S. Capitol as Congress was meeting, expected to vote and affirm Joe Biden’s presidential win. Trump has riled up his supporters by falsely claiming widespread voter fraud to explain his loss.
The woman who was killed was part of a crowd that was breaking down the doors to a barricaded room where armed officers stood on the other side, police said. She was struck in the chest and sent to a hospital where she was pronounced dead. Officials believe she was struck by law enforcement but were investigating.
Police alerted individuals to shelter in place, citing a "security threat inside the building." Staff were urged to move inside offices, hide and lock external doors and windows. The White House says National Guard troops along with other federal protective services are en route to the Capitol to help end the violent occupation.
Republican lawmakers have publicly called for Trump to more vocally condemn the violence and to call to an end to the occupation.
The top Democrats in Congress are also demanding that Trump order his supporters to leave the Capitol.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a joint statement on Wednesday, "We are calling on President Trump to demand that all protestors leave the U.S. Capitol and Capitol Grounds immediately.”
In a recorded message via Twitter, Trump repeated false claims that the election was “stolen” and asked his supporters to go home.
“We need to have peace,” he said.
Trump had urged his supporters to come to Washington to protest Congress’ formal approval of Biden’s win. Several Republican lawmakers have backed his calls, despite there being no evidence of fraud or wrongdoing in the election.
Both chambers abruptly recessed as dozens of people breached security perimeters at the Capitol and lawmakers inside the House chamber were told to put on gas masks as tear gas was fired in the Rotunda.
A chaplain prayed as police guarded the doors to the chamber and lawmakers tried to gather information about what was happening.
An announcement was played inside the Capitol as lawmakers were meeting and expected to vote to affirm Biden's victory. Due to an “external security threat,” no one could enter or exit the Capitol complex, the recording said.
Individuals in Cannon were originally told to evacuate as well but were later instructed to stay in the building, according to recent email updates from Capitol Police. The evacuation notice has since been cleared.
Staff inside the Library of Congress were also told to exit the building and remain calm, according to reporting from Politico.
The skirmishes occurred outside in the very spot where president-elect Biden will be inaugurated in just two weeks.
Members of the mob tore down metal barricades at the bottom of the Capitol’s steps and were met by officers in riot gear. Some tried to push past the officers who held shields and officers could be seen firing pepper spray into the crowd to keep them back. Some in the crowd were shouting “traitors” as officers tried to keep them back.
At least one explosive device has been found near the Capitol, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. Law enforcement officials said the device was no longer a threat Wednesday afternoon.
The skirmishes came just shortly after Trump addressed thousands of his supporters, riling up the crowd with his baseless claims of election fraud at a rally near the White House on Wednesday ahead of Congress' vote.
“We will not let them silence your voices,” Trump told his supporters, who had lined up before sunrise to get a prime position to hear the president.
After the mob clashed with law enforcement and breached the Capitol building, Trump tweeted to his supporters to “stay peaceful.”
“Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement,” Trump tweeted, as tear gas was deployed in the locked-down Capitol. “They are truly on the side of our Country. Stay peaceful!”
“We’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women, and we’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them,” Trump said.
Lawmakers had convened for an extraordinary joint session to confirm the Electoral College results but protests erupted outside the Capitol and government office buildings were being evacuated.
Though fellow Republicans were behind the challenge to Biden’s 306-232 Electoral College victory, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sought to lower tensions and argued against it. He warned the country “cannot keep drifting apart into two separate tribes” with “separate facts.”
McConnell declared, “The voters, the courts and the states all have spoken."
But other Republicans, including House GOP leaders among Trump's allies were acting out the pleas of supporters at his huge Wednesday rally up Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House to “fight for Trump.”
“We have to fix this,” said Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the GOP whip.
The last-gasp effort is all but certain to fail, defeated by bipartisan majorities in Congress prepared to accept the November results. Biden is to be inaugurated Jan. 20.
Still, Trump vowed to he would “never concede” and urged the massive crowd to march to the Capitol where hundreds had already gathered under tight security.
“We will never give up,” Trump told his noontime rally.
Vice President Mike Pence was closely watched as he stepped onto the dais to preside over the joint session in the House chamber.
Pence has a largely ceremonial role, opening the sealed envelopes from the states after they are carried in mahogany boxes used for the occasion, and reading the results aloud. But he was under growing pressure from Trump to overturn the will of the voters and tip the results in the president’s favor, despite having no legal power to affect the outcome.
“Do it Mike, this is a time for extreme courage!” Trump tweeted Wednesday.
But Pence, in a statement shortly before presiding, defied Trump, saying he could not claim “unilateral authority" to reject the electoral votes that make Biden president.
Despite Trump’s repeated claims of voter fraud, election officials and his own former attorney general have said there were no problems on a scale that would change the outcome. All the states have certified their results as fair and accurate, by Republican and Democratic officials alike.
Arizona was the first of several states facing objections from the Republicans as Congress took an alphabetical reading of the election results.
Biden won Arizona by more than 10,000 votes, and eight lawsuits challenging the results have failed. The state’s Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the dismissal of an election challenge.
The joint session of Congress, required by law, convened before a watchful, restless nation — months after the election, two weeks before the inauguration’s traditional peaceful transfer of power and against the backdrop of a surging COVID-19 pandemic.
Lawmakers were told by Capitol officials to arrive early, due to safety precautions with protesters in Washington. Visitors, who typically fill the galleries to watch landmark proceedings, were not allowed under COVID-19 restrictions.
The session also came as overnight results from Georgia's runoff elections put Democrats within reach of a Senate majority.
With the Senate results from Georgia streaming in and Democrats within reach of controlling the chamber, Trump amplified his pleas to stay in office as a veto check on the rival party. At the rally he said he had just talked to Pence and criticized Republicans who are not willing to fight for him as “weak.”
While other vice presidents, including Al Gore and Richard Nixon, also presided over their own defeats, Pence supports those Republican lawmakers mounting challenges to the 2020 outcome.
It's not the first time lawmakers have challenged results. Democrats did in 2017 and 2005. But the intensity of Trump's challenge is like nothing in modern times, and an outpouring of current and elected GOP officials warn the showdown is sowing distrust in government and eroding Americans' faith in democracy.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, told reporters on Capitol Hill that Trump’s election challenge has “disgraced the office of the presidency."
“We'll proceed as the Constitution demands and tell our supporters the truth -- whether or not they want to hear it,” Romney said.
Still, more than a dozen Republican senators led by Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas, along with as many as 100 House Republicans, were pressing ahead to raise objections to individual states' reports of Biden's wins.
Under the rules of the joint session, any objection to a state’s electoral tally needs to be submitted in writing by at least one member of the House and one of the Senate to be considered. Each objection will force two hours of deliberations in the House and Senate, ensuring a long day.
House Republican lawmakers are signing on to objections to the electoral votes in six states — Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Hawley has said he will object to the election results from Pennsylvania, almost ensuring a second two-hour debate despite resistance from the state's Republican senator, Pat Toomey, who said the tally of Biden's win is accurate.
Sen. Kelly Loeffler may challenge the results in her state of Georgia. She was defeated in Georgia's runoff to Democrat Raphael Warnock, but was welcomed by crowds of lawmakers in the chamber. She can remain a senator until he is sworn into office.
The Associated Press Wednesday afternoon declared Democrat Jon Ossoff the winner of the other runoff race against Republican David Perdue. Perdue, who was seeking reelection, is ineligible to vote in the Senate because his term expired with the start of the new Congress Sunday.
The group led by Cruz is vowing to object unless Congress agrees to form a commission to investigate the election, but that seems unlikely.
Those with Cruz are Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Steve Daines of Montana, John Kennedy of Louisiana, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Mike Braun of Indiana, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Roger Marshall of Kansas, Bill Hagerty of Tennessee and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama.
Many of the Republicans challenging the results said they are trying to give voice to voters back home who don't trust the outcome of the election and want to see the lawmakers fighting for Trump.
Hawley defended his role saying his constituents have been “loud and clear” about their distrust of the election. “It is my responsibility as a senator to raise their concerns," he wrote to colleagues.
As criticism mounted, Cruz insisted his aim was “not to set aside the election” but to investigate the claims of voting problems. He has produced no new evidence.
Both Hawley and Cruz are potential 2024 presidential contenders, vying for Trump's base of supporters.
NPR contributed to this report.