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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Capitol descended into chaos and violence Wednesday as hundreds of pro-Trump rioters swarmed the building, leaving four people dead and forcing the Senate to evacuate and Vice President Mike Pence to be ushered to safety.
The frenzied scene after rioters broke through barricades forced Congress to evacuate parts of the building and abruptly pause a ceremonial event affirming that President-elect Joe Biden won the November election. In one dramatic moment, police officers drew guns as rioters tried to break into the House chamber.
Pence, who was presiding over the joint session of Congress, could be seen rushing out of the Senate chamber amid the sounds of throngs of President Donald Trump's supporters who surrounded the Capitol. Pence and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the Senate president pro tem, were taken to a secure location, a senator told NBC News.
A woman was fatally shot by U.S. Capitol Police and three other people died in "medical emergencies," Washington Police Chief Robert Contee said.
The doors of the Senate were closed and locked, and senators were told to stay away from the area. The doors to the House were barricaded, and some lawmakers were seen praying. Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered a 12-hour curfew in the city that began Wednesday evening.
Twitter and other social media channels were flooded with images of protesters skirmishing with police officers, and there were multiple reports of rioting inside the Capitol as some rioters broke windows, battered down doors and postured in the Senate chamber.
Improvised explosive devices were found on the Capitol grounds, several law enforcement officials said. Officers were in the process of destroying the devices, and it was not clear whether they were functional. At least one was made of a small section of galvanized pipe.
The woman who was fatally shot by Capitol Police was Ashli Babbitt, 35, of San Diego, family members told NBC San Diego.
Her brother-in-law, Justin Jackson, said in a statement to the station: "Ashli was both loyal as well as extremely passionate about what she believed in. She loved this country and felt honored to have served in our Armed Forces. Please keep her family in your thoughts and respect their privacy during this time."
Five weapons were recovered from the complex, and three arrests were made, D.C. police said. None of the people were residents of the District of Columbia. There were 12 arrests in the two days leading up to Wednesday.
Images from the clashes were rife with disturbing hate symbols: a photo of a noose that had been hung on the west side of the Capitol, protesters waving Confederate flags or using white power gestures.
Trump directed the National Guard to head to the Capitol, he said in a tweet, and U.S. Capitol Police requested additional support. The FBI was deployed, and the U.S. Marshals Service assisted, too.
As Bowser's 12-hour curfew went into effect, most of the protesters dispersed, but pro-Trump demonstrators were seen in videos on social media roaming the city's streets amid a heavy police presence.
Washington police announced several arrests related to the protests and about 50 curfew-violation arrests as of 10:30 p.m. The police department said that most of the arrestees were from out of state and that it was processing additional arrests.
Bowser said the city is working with federal law enforcement agencies to identify and prosecute people who stormed the chambers of Congress.
All four living former presidents decried the rioting.
Former President George W. Bush condemned the violence in a statement and also indirectly criticized Trump and his supporters.
"It is a sickening and heartbreaking sight. This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic — not our democratic republic," he said. "I am appalled by the reckless behavior of some political leaders since the election and by the lack of respect shown today for our institutions, our traditions, and our law enforcement."
Bush said the passions of protesters were "inflamed by falsehoods and false hopes."
Former President Barack Obama excoriated Trump in a statement and denounced the violence, calling it "a moment of great dishonor and shame for our nation."
"Right now, Republican leaders have a choice made clear in the desecrated chambers of democracy. They can continue down this road and keep stoking the raging fires," Obama said. "Or they can choose reality and take the first steps toward extinguishing the flames. They can choose America."
Former President Jimmy Carter said in a statement, "This is a national tragedy and is not who we are as a nation," while Bill Clinton tweeted, "The match was lit by Donald Trump and his most ardent enablers, including many in Congress, to overturn the results of an election he lost."
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif, confirming on Fox News that shots had been fired inside the Capitol, called the mayhem "un-American" and said: "We can disagree, but we should not take it to this level. ... You do not do what is happening right now. People are being hurt. This is unacceptable."
Biden called on Trump to go on national television to "fulfill his oath and defend the Constitution and demand an end to this siege."
"It's not protest. It's insurrection," he said. "The words of a president matter, no matter how good or bad it is."
The top Democrats in Congress echoed Biden's message: "We are calling on President Trump to demand that all protestors leave the U.S. Capitol and Capitol Grounds immediately," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a joint statement.
Pelosi, in another statement Wednesday, called the violence "a shameful assault" on democracy and vowed that both chambers would finish certifying Biden's win under heightened protection.
Congress reconvened late Wednesday evening, with members of both parties sharply rebuking the violence and vandalism of the chamber. Pence called it "a dark day in the history of the United States Capitol."
"To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today: You did not win. Violence never wins. Freedom wins. And this is still the people's house," he said.
Former Attorney General William Barr, who was with Trump last summer as National Guard members sprayed tear gas to disperse peaceful protesters so the president could hold a Bible for a photo opportunity, admonished the rioters.
"The violence at the Capitol Building is outrageous and despicable. Federal agencies should move immediately to disperse it," he said.
Dan Eberhart, a prominent donor to Trump and the Republican Party, also sharply criticized the protests and the president.
"If President Trump wants to have any kind of political future within the Republican Party, he needs to condemn the violence at the Capitol and stop claiming the election was stolen," Eberhart told NBC News. "President Trump had his day in court. It's time to concede defeat and think about his political future."
He added, "The desecration of the Capitol is not going to be forgotten. He cost Sen. [Mitch] McConnell his leadership position, and now he's s------g all over the Capitol."
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the violence in a series of tweets and called for arrests and prosecution.
"Let us swiftly bring justice to the criminals who engaged in this rioting," he said in the tweet.
McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate majority leader, rebuked the rioters — without noting the source of the violence — and called them "thugs."
"Criminal behavior will never dominate the United States," he said. He did not identify its source, nor did he call on his members to drop their objections to the count. "This institution is resilient. Our democratic republic is strong. The American people deserve nothing less."
Schumer, who is poised to succeed McConnell as majority leader, sharply criticized the protests but squarely placed the blame on Trump in a fiery speech before Biden's win was certified.
"Make no mistake. Make no mistake, my friends. Today's events did not happen spontaneously," he said. "This mob was, in good part, President Trump's doing — incited by his words, his lies. This violence, in good part, his responsibility, his everlasting shame."
Schumer also called for rioters to be "prosecuted to the full extent of the law — hopefully by this administration. If not, certainly by the next."
Trump, who earlier Wednesday called on his supporters to march to the Capitol and even suggested that he might join them before he ultimately returned to the White House, addressed the chaos and the unrest in a series of tweets that Twitter eventually flagged for spreading false election claims and posing "a risk of violence."
He asked people to go home but did not condemn the violence.
The chaos erupted after Trump spoke to a large crowd in front of the White House. He angrily vowed never to concede to Biden and baselessly asserted that the election results were fraudulent.
"We will never give up. We will never concede. You don't concede when there is theft involved," Trump told supporters, some of whom chanted "USA!" or waved anti-Biden banners. He later falsely claimed that Biden would be an "illegitimate" president.
In the White House after the violent clashes in and around the Capitol, chief of staff Mark Meadows, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and senior advisers Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner were among those meeting with the president, a person familiar with the matter said.
Some aides appear shaken by the events, which aired on televisions in the West Wing.
"There's been some hard days and some challenging days," a person familiar with meetings said. "I would say that this one's the toughest."
Stephanie Grisham, Melania Trump's chief of staff and a former White House press secretary, submitted her resignation Wednesday.
Twitter also, for the first time, locked Trump's account after it flagged and removed several of his tweets for "repeated and severe violations" of the company's civic integrity policy. The company threatened permanent suspension if the tweets were not deleted. Facebook also blocked Trump's access to his account for 24 hours.
Trump had tweeted several messages, some of which were removed for "contributing to the risk of ongoing violence."
Trump's groundless claims of voter fraud have been widely debunked, and his legal team's efforts to challenge the election results in court have been rejected by a succession of judges. Trump had claimed that Wednesday's joint session of Congress was a chance to overturn the election, even though state electors had already certified the results and the event inside the Capitol was ceremonial.
Trump had put pressure on Pence to intervene in the count. In his lengthy and digressive remarks, Trump called on Pence to "do the right thing," even though Pence's ceremonial role did not give him with power to intervene. Pence sent a letter to Congress before the ceremony saying he would not be doing what Trump had hoped.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., tweeted that she was drawing up articles of impeachment against Trump.
"We can't allow him to remain in office, it's a matter of preserving our Republic and we need to fulfill our oath," she tweeted.
Trump was impeached by the House in late 2019 and acquitted by the Senate in early 2020.
Jason Bjorklund, who flew to the capital from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, said he did not know what to expect when Congress convened.
"I just felt compelled to be here, because it seems like our republic is slipping away from us," Bjorklund said. He added, baselessly, that there were "mountains of evidence of fraud" and detailed conspiracy theories about voting machines using software made by Dominion Voting Systems.
When asked to account for the judges who have rejected the Trump legal team's attempts to challenge the results, Bjorklund said: "I think we've got corruption from the top to the bottom."
Before Trump's speech, it appeared that some senators were being approached by Trump supporters near the Capitol, including an apparently exasperated Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., who said he would not vote against affirming Biden's victory because he was bound to follow the law.
"I took an oath under God, under God!" Young said. "Do we still take that seriously in this country?"
Theresa Reilly and her husband, Bill, came to the nation's capital from Michigan — a key Midwest swing state that fell into the Democratic column in November — to participate in the protests because they believe Biden's triumph was fraudulent.
"We don't believe they're honest, true voters," Theresa Reilly said as Celine Dion's theme song from the movie "Titanic" played on a speaker system in the background. "There's a lot of cheating going on, and I think everybody knows that, including Democrats."
Bill Reilly said that even without "doing too much research," it was clear that "something's up" with the November election results
"The only thing I can say is, however many people are here, this isn't going to go away," he said. "If you thought 2020 was weird, 2021 is going to be 'hold my beer,' if you ask me."
Allan Smith, Ginger Gibson, Pete Williams, Shannon Pettypiece, Haley Talbot, Kristen Welker, Carol E. Lee, Hallie Jackson, Monica Alba and Peter Alexander reported from Washington; Daniel Arkin, Dartunorro Clark and Tom Winter from New York; and Lauren Egan from Georgia.