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One year after violent loyalists to president Donald Trump assaulted the US Capitol and tried to stop the formal certification of his election loss, US President Joe Biden warned that Beijing was watching to see if America’s democratic system would crumble into autocracy.
“From China to Russia and beyond … they’re betting America will become more like them and less like us,” Biden said on Thursday morning from the Capitol building, in a speech marking the first anniversary of the deadly January 6 attack.
“They’re betting that America is a place for the autocrat, the dictator, the strongman,” Biden said. “I do not believe that. That is not who we are. That is not who we have ever been. And that is not who we should ever, ever be.”
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The anniversary comes as Washington and some of the nation remain divided over the meaning and legacy of the attack – and even the basic facts of what happened that day.
In his speech, Biden furiously condemned Trump for not only provoking the assault but for continuing to lie about it to his millions of followers, some of whom are convinced that the attackers that day were merely strolling through the Capitol building like tourists.
“For the first time in our history, a president had not just lost an election – he tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power as a violent mob breached the Capitol,” Biden said. “But they failed.”
US Attorney General Merrick Garland, the nation’s top law enforcement officer, said on Wednesday that more than 725 defendants had been arrested and charged with crimes for their roles in the January 6 attack, which led to the deaths of five police officers and injured about 140 more.
Images of the day showed attackers with plastic handcuffs, while others searched the Capitol’s hallways and tunnels, prepared to kidnap lawmakers including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
A now infamous photo shows a gallows constructed outside the Capitol, built to hang Trump’s vice-president, Mike Pence, who ultimately certified the election results against Trump’s demands.
“One officer called it, quote, a ‘medieval’ battle, and that he was more afraid that day than he was fighting the war in Iraq,” Biden said. “They have repeatedly asked since that day, how dare anyone – anyone – diminish, belittle or deny the hell they were put through?”
An ABC/Ipsos poll published this week found that nearly three-quarters of Americans believe the people involved in the attack on the Capitol were “threatening democracy”. It also found that more than half of Republicans say that those involved in the attack were “protecting democracy”.
Trump has not backed down either from his lies about the election results, which have been amplified by right-wing media outlets and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.
Many Americans now wrongly believe that Trump won in 2020, but that his victory was fraudulently stolen from him. Biden beat him by more than 7 million votes, and Trump’s own attorney general confirmed after the election that there was no widespread voter fraud.
Biden said that Trump and his loyalists had put a “dagger at the throat of our democracy” – and said the country must accept the truth of what happened in the 2020 election and the January 6 attack in order to move on.
“This isn’t about being bogged down in the past. This is about making sure the past isn’t buried,” Biden said. “That’s what great nations do. They don’t bury the truth. They face up to it.”
Since taking office on January 20, two weeks after the Capitol attack, Biden has repeatedly linked America’s domestic struggles to its geopolitical competition with China.
He has urged Congress to fund more domestic science and technology research, to prevent the US from “falling behind” China, and when he signed a bipartisan, US$1 trillion infrastructure bill into law in November, he cited China multiple times.
At the same time, Beijing has held up the January 6 attack as evidence that American-style democracy is failing.
“The storming of Capitol Hill one year ago shocked the world and set people thinking,” Wang Wenbin, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said at a briefing on Thursday in Beijing.
Shortly after Biden’s address, Trump responded with a statement repeating his lies about the election results and accusing Biden of dividing the country.
The former president had initially planned to host a competing news conference in his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida on Thursday, but cancelled it on Tuesday citing grievances against lawmakers and the “fake news media”.
CNN reported that Trump pulled the plug on the press briefing over concerns that major TV networks were unlikely to broadcast it live.
Trump said that he would instead use an upcoming rally in Arizona to address issues around the events of January 6, including his complaints about the bipartisan congressional committee that is investigating his administration’s role in the attack.
Arizona, which voted for Biden by a slim majority in the election, was the target of numerous failed lawsuits by Trump allies challenging the state’s election results.
On Wednesday, Republican officials in Arizona released a lengthy, point-by-point rebuttal of numerous allegations of voter fraud in the state’s largest county – Maricopa, where Phoenix is located – and offered a stark warning about the consequences of those claims.
“We have seen how people react when they think that an election has been stolen,” the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors chairman, Bill Gates, who is a Republican, said in a speech on Wednesday.
“They stormed the US Capitol. They threatened to kill and hang and shoot elections workers. And they called other Americans traitors. The American family cannot stand for that and I will not stand for that.”
Additional reporting by Owen Churchill and Mark Magnier
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