PolitiFact: A day of crisis at the U.S. Capitol, fact-checked

Here’s a look at our fact-checks of the day’s short session, and the chaos that interrupted it.
Supporters of President Donald Trump are confronted by Capitol Police officers outside the Capitol, Wednesday in Washington.
Supporters of President Donald Trump are confronted by Capitol Police officers outside the Capitol, Wednesday in Washington. [ MANUEL BALCE CENETA | AP ]
Published Jan. 7, 2021|Updated Jan. 7, 2021

In an unprecedented day of chaos in the nation’s capital, hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building as lawmakers were counting the presidential electoral votes. They overran barricades and some reached the hallway outside the Senate chamber, forcing a halt to the proceedings.

Before the counting of the electoral votes began, President Donald Trump had spoken to a large crowd of supporters gathered between the White House and the Washington Monument, calling the presidential election the most corrupt in the nation’s history. Trump repeated the false claims of election fraud that have failed to find traction in courts across the country. Trump repeated many other unproven assertions, from vote switching by Dominion System voting machines, to dead people voting in Georgia, to back dating of ballots. None have held up.

Trump ended by urging the crowd to march down Pennsylvania Avenue to Congress, suggesting he would join them. He didn’t. But at the Capitol, his supporters pushed past barricades and overwhelmed Capitol Police officers, causing the House and Senate to break off debate. The Secret Service escorted Vice President Mike Pence from the Senate chamber.

As a mob breached the Capitol, cameras captured the seat of the legislative branch in a state of disarray. Inside, people waved Trump flags and a Confederate flag. A man hung from a balcony in the Senate chamber. One shirtless man held a megaphone and screamed “freedom” in a gallery. Another walked around the Capitol carrying a lectern, while another took over a chair in the Senate. One man made his way into Pelosi’s office and wrote “we will not back down” on a folder on her desk. Lawmakers in the House were told to put on escape hoods as protection from smoke or tear gas as they moved around the Capitol.

A woman was shot, and NBC news reported she died from her injuries. No further details were available.

President-elect Joe Biden, speaking from Wilmington, Del., said that our democracy “is under unprecedented assault unlike anything we’ve seen in modern times.”

“This is not dissent,” Biden said. “It’s disorder. It’s chaos. It borders on sedition, and it must end now. I call on this mob to pull back and allow the work of democracy to go forward.”

Biden called on Trump to go on national television and “demand an end to this siege.” At 4:17 p.m., Trump released a one-minute recorded video telling the protesters to go home, while repeating his falsehoods about a “fraudulent election.”

“I know your pain, I know you are hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election and everyone knows it, especially the other side. But you have to go home now. We have to have peace. We have to have law and order, we have to respect our great people in law and order. We don’t want anybody hurt. ….. So go home. We love you. You are very special.”

Earlier in the day, lawmakers in both chambers had made little headway on finalizing the election results. They began a joint session and then split into their separate chambers to discuss objections, starting with statements about Arizona, where Biden won narrowly. Some Republicans rehashed statements about voter fraud, while Democrats noted that such claims had been rejected by judges in dozens of lawsuits.

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Here’s a look at our fact-checks of the day’s short session, and the chaos that interrupted it:

Claims about the election results

“All Vice President Pence has to do is send it back to the state and recertify, and we become president.” — President Donald Trump

This is False. While there are fringe theorists who say the vice president has the power to reject results from any state, legal scholars across the political spectrum say neither the Constitution nor any law gives the vice president that authority. Pence’s role is limited to opening the certified results from each state, passing the papers to House and Senate officials, and reading the final tally at the end. Senators and representatives can object to a given state’s results, but not the vice president.

“Every time in the last 30 years that Democrats have lost a presidential race, they have tried to challenge, just like this. After 2000, after 2004, after 2016. After 2004, a senator joined and forced the same debate, and believe it or not, Democrats like Harry Reid, Dick Durbin and Hillary Clinton praised and applauded the stunt.” — Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R. Ky.

This stretches the historical comparison. While Democrats have raised issues about particular states, the scale of the recent Republican upswell dwarfs what has taken place before.

In 2001, about a dozen members of the Congressional Black Caucus objected to the disputed Florida results, saying Black voters had been systematically disenfranchised. No Democratic senator joined the objection, and Vice President Al Gore, presiding over the joint session of Congress, ended the challenge.

In 2005, similar concerns for Black voters drew a challenge to the Ohio results, and this time, there was both a member of the House and a member of the Senate. The Senate rejected the move by a 74-1 vote.

In 2017, Vice President Joe Biden shot down objections from House members, because no senator joined in. In contrast, this year, over a dozen Republican senators and over 130 House Republicans promised they would object to the results in at least three states.

“This election actually was not unusually close.” — McConnell

This is correct. Biden’s victory wasn’t a landslide, but it was decisive, the numbers show.

Biden’s Electoral College victory was exactly the same as Trump’s in 2016: They both will have won states totaling 306 electoral votes. Biden’s electoral victory is larger than either victory by George W. Bush, who accumulated only 271 in 2000 and 286 in 2004. It is also slightly larger than the number won by Jimmy Carter in 1976, Richard Nixon in 1968, and John F. Kennedy in 1960.

An even stronger sign of Biden’s decisive victory is the popular vote, where he beat Trump by about 7 million votes. Biden amassed a wider popular vote margin than any candidate since 1996, except for Obama in 2008, who won by more than 9.5 million votes.

39% of Americans, 31% of independents, and 17% of Democrats “believe the election was rigged.” — Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas

Mostly False. Cruz’s claim is based on a specific poll and the total percentage of survey respondents who “somewhat” or “strongly” agreed with the statement: “I am concerned that the election is rigged.” That doesn’t necessarily mean they thought it was rigged.

Another question in the Reuters/Ipsos survey asked people more directly about their view of the election. The percentage of people who said the election was “the result of illegal voting or election rigging” was much lower than the numbers Cruz cited.

“The 2020 election was the most secure election conducted in modern history.” — Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.

This is accurate. On Nov. 12, 2020, officials from two Department of Homeland Security committees — the Election Infrastructure Sector Coordinating Council and the Election Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council overseeing cybersecurity — released a joint statement debunking President Donald Trump’s rampant misinformation campaign.

“The Nov. 3 election was the most secure in American history,” the statement says. “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”

“President Trump and his allies have suffered the defeat, a defeat in court after court across the country losing no fewer than 62 legal challenges and I might add many Republican-appointed judges, some appointed by President Trump rendered those decisions.” — Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

This is correct. The Washington Post reviewed court documents and reported that 86 judges rejected at least one post-election lawsuit filed by Trump or his supporters. The judges served on the bench at many different levels, including the U.S. Supreme Court. The Post found that 38 judges were appointed by Republicans.

As PolitiFact reported, dozens of lawsuits failed because of errors, jurisdictional problems or lack of evidence of the widespread voter fraud they alleged.

Judge Stephanos Bibas, a Trump appointee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, said in dismissing one Pennsylvania challenge: “Free, fair elections are the lifeblood of our democracy. Charges of unfairness are serious. But calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here.

Claims about the Capitol siege

Was this sedition?

Multiple commentators, including CNN’s Jake Tapper, cast the actions of the protesters as sedition. Joe Biden also said the actions of Jan. 6 “border on sedition.” Several legal experts agreed.

A seditious conspiracy is defined in federal law as two or more persons “conspir(ing) to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, … or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof.” The law comes with a fine or imprisonment up to 20 years, or both.

“The people who stormed the Capitol building would seem to clearly qualify for prosecution under this provision,” said Carlton Larson, a law professor at the University of California-Davis.

James Robenalt, a lawyer with an expertise in political crises, agreed. “What we are seeing is sedition,” he said. “All those taking place and those in conspiracy are guilty and punishable.”

RELATED: Is this a coup? Here’s some history and context to help you decide

Claim: The people who stormed the Capitol were antifa activists in disguise.

There’s no evidence that the Trump supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol were actually or mostly “ANTIFA fascists in backwards MAGA hats,” as Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., tweeted.

Similar claims appeared on Facebook and in pro-Trump media. But video and photographs from the scene show people wearing and waving Trump-branded paraphernalia and flags. Reporters covering the events have described the crowd as Trump supporters. The crowd also included supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory, according to reporters present.

Trump spoke to a rally of supporters in Washington hours before the violence erupted, and he had urged them to come to the city on Jan. 6 and back his efforts to overturn the election.

A spokesperson for Brooks did not immediately respond to PolitiFact’s inquiry.

Reporting by Louis Jacobson, Amy Sherman, Miriam Valverde, Bill McCarthy and Jon Greenberg.