As rioters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, threatening the lives of Vice President Mike Pence, lawmakers, and police there, most of then-President-elect Joe Biden’s senior advisers were isolated from their boss.
Covid precautions had forced them to scatter in Washington and elsewhere across the country. And so they watched mostly separately on television as the pro-Donald Trump mob raged through the Capitol on a mission to overturn the lawfully cast votes of the electorate that had resulted in their boss’ win.
Biden White House officials, lawmakers and close presidential allies in interviews describe a chaotic day, filled with phone calls and last-minute audibles as they fine-tuned the speech he would give from 100 miles away. They quickly internalized that the day would have a lasting imprint on their work: from the remarks Biden gave that day to the agenda he would go on to pursue once in office.
“What flowed from him on the 6th was something he was speaking to for a long, long time. It was not a difficult thing to bring together,” Mike Donilon, a senior adviser to the president, recalled in an interview with POLITICO. “I believe — I think he believes — that there was a through-line and that the threat that he saw when he announced at the time — that everything that made America America was at stake.”
“What we believe, what we stood for, our democracy, was all on the line,” he added.
While much of the focus has been on how Trump’s White House and members of Congress spent the day, little is known about how Biden and his team processed, in real time, the riot that was taking place. The day, like many during the transition, was supposed to be a fairly quiet one for Biden, with an event scheduled before a Covid-safe audience of journalists at The Queen music hall, a short drive from his Wilmington, Del., house.
Biden spent the morning at home, preparing to talk about the economy — a speech that ultimately would be scrapped and replaced by the one about the crisis at the Capitol. He was with his wife, future first lady Jill Biden. They had the TV on in the background to monitor the election certification process in Congress.
As activity began, starting with a rally attended by then-President Donald Trump that soon moved over to the Capital, Biden’s top advisers couldn’t believe what they were seeing: breached barriers and rioters pushing their way through throngs of police officers. But in those moments, one of them said they also felt determined to get the president-elect on the phone with senior staff to make sure he was tracking every angle of the disorder that was unfolding. Everyone was aligned on the magnitude of the day.
On a quiet road near the president-elect’s house, the small pool of reporters assigned to cover the Biden transition event in downtown Wilmington were waiting in an idling bus. One by one, they pulled up clips of clashes between rioters and police. “Was that blood?” one recalled asking the others.
Biden’s own entourage decided to just get the cars and go to The Queen, knowing he would need to address the events. After the press bus rolled up to the venue, they saw the now-iconic video and images of officer Eugene Goodman luring an angry mob away from the Senate floor entrance. But it was still difficult to process the full scope of what was happening across Washington.
After feeling isolated most of the morning in her Washington, D.C., home, Kate Bedingfield, then Biden’s communications director and deputy campaign manager, got on a call with other senior staff and the president-elect. On the call, Biden told them he felt it was important for people to hear from the incoming president. He wanted to convey that “this is not who we are, and that the defense of democracy is really woven into the fabric of our country,” said Bedingfiled, now White House communications director.
“I remember the president being both shocked and stunned and horrified by the images that we were seeing in the Capitol, but also very clear eyed and resolute about wanting to speak to this,” Bedingfield said. Biden and his staff discussed structuring the themes of the speech he would be giving that day around the core message of his presidential campaign — the “battle for the soul of the nation.”
“We were sort of seeing it play out in an almost unimaginable way on screen in front of us that day,” Bedingfield added. “He really wanted to call it out and to speak to it directly. And he felt that in the void of presidential leadership that we were seeing that day from his predecessor, that it was incredibly important for him to speak to the country about what was happening.”
Biden was initially briefed on the phone by Ron Klain, a longtime adviser who would become his White House chief of staff. He left his house about 2:20 p.m. and arrived at The Queen minutes later. By that time things had escalated significantly and he went right into the hold to keep watching. Then, he went dark.
He huddled with advisers as his U.S. Secret Service detail flanked the small stage. With him were Annie Tomasini, then the traveling chief of staff who is now director of oval office operations; Bruce Reed, longtime adviser and a top policy guru in the White House; personal aide Stephen Goepfert; and Ashley Williams, now deputy director of oval office operations. They were later joined in person by Klain, and Biden spoke by phone with others including Donilon, Bedingfield and Cedric Richmond, another senior adviser who at the time was still a member of Congress and later joined the White House.
It wasn’t until after 4 p.m. that he would finally address the public, with aides offering last-minute heads up to press that the president had been mulling over his words.
“There was always an argument [that the 2020 election] was much more about an economic case, or a case about health care, or a case about wealthy folks having too much say; there was a whole debate in the party and the country,” Donilon said. “And a lot of people didn’t think the soul of America argument was really at the center of the debate.”
When Biden appeared, he was dressed in a blue suit and tie. He walked slowly to the podium alone, taking off a black mask and apologizing not just for the delay, but for the reason he was so late. He would speak for roughly eight minutes in total, saying that American democracy was under unprecedented assault — “unlike anything we’ve seen in modern times.”
Watching the scenes at the Capitol, which he called the “citadel of liberty,” Biden said he was reminded of a line from former President Abraham Lincoln’s annual address to Congress in 1862, during the Civil War: “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
“The work of the moment and the work of the next four years must be the restoration of democracy, of decency, of honor, of respect, the rule of law,” he added. “Just plain, simple decency.”
Biden was back home before 5 p.m., as the Capitol complex was still being cleared. He continued to watch the events with the incoming first lady. The sergeant at arms declared the building secure just after 5:30 p.m, and Biden continued to speak over the phone with a wide range of people, including advisers and elected officials.
Aides say at no point were they worried the vote would not be certified, citing lawmakers, staff and police in Congress who worked expeditiously to carry it out. Congress finally certified the election in the early morning hours of Jan. 7.
Two weeks after the riot, Biden would expand on the themes of his Jan. 6 speech, saying in his inaugural address that the mob came to take down democracy, but it failed that day and would fail each time it happened again.
Late in the process of drafting his inaugural speech, advisers said he’d added a line about the country being in a moment where citizens had an obligation to defend the truth, ensuring that false and dangerous revisionist history doesn’t overtake actual events.
“That we had an obligation as a country to stand up for the truth,” is how Donilon puts it.
White House officials contend Biden’s work to date has been informed by the events of Jan. 6 — designed to demonstrate to Americans and the world that democracy can still succeed and function effectively. But Democratic lawmakers say the ultimate test will be whether Biden and Congress can pass protections for voting and the election system threatened on that day.
As the anniversary of the riots approaches, Biden has taken more concrete steps toward that goal. In December, after nearly a year of pressure from civil rights advocates and some top House leaders, he endorsed a filibuster carveout to allow for a pathway to passage of voting rights restoration and elections legislation that would shield officials and expand ballot access.
Activists still want more. Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, said that in the president’s speech on the Jan. 6 anniversary, Biden “ought to say that the same spirit that led people to a physical insurrection on the Capitol is now being actualized in 19 states that have changed election laws based on a big lie because there was no need to change election laws in those state.”
“He ought to connect the spirit of people that stormed the Capitol to people that will go back to states rights to break down the union,” added Sharpton.
Biden understands that shielding voting protections and the elections process is foundational to preserving that democracy, White House aides say. On Tuesday, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will give speeches in Atlanta to press the urgent need to pass voting rights legislation and prevent partisan state officials from undermining the vote counting processes, officials said. And in the interview, Donilon vowed that the president “will get that done.”
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who had a lengthy conversation with Biden before the holiday break, said he expects the president’s speech on Jan. 6, to be the public face of what will then become a “one-on-one campaign that he and others in the White House will be doing” to reach Democratic senators ahead of a mid-January vote.
“He’s got to puncture the big lie, but also offer the antidote to the big lie,” said Kaine, referring to Trump’s lies about the 2020 election being stolen. “And I think the antidote is [to] guarantee more people convenient participation, protect the systems that implement elections, and then carry out the electoral count to make sure that people can trust them.”
“This will be as big as the vote on the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Kaine said. “And I think Joe Biden knows that.”