Debates over the Electoral College results Wednesday were halted and the U.S. Capitol was placed on lockdown as massive crowds of President Donald Trump's supporters stormed the building in protest against Congress confirming President-elect Joe Biden's victory.
Vice President Mike Pence, who was presiding over the process of counting and confirming the Electoral College results, was rushed out of the Senate chamber as the crowds stormed the Capitol building.
The unprecedented chaos quickly produced shocking images of rioters occupying the halls of government where U.S. officials had deliberated just hours earlier.
Members of Congress were photographed wearing plastic breathing devices over their heads to protect themselves from tear gas. CNN showed an image of protester sitting at the desk of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. A handwritten note near her computer said: "WE WILL NOT BACK DOWN." One protester dangled from the balcony in the Senate Chamber.
Reports soon emerged of injuries, including at least one person shot at the Capitol and five sent to the hospital, according to NBC News.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Wednesday afternoon that the National Guard was being deployed "along with other federal protective services."
The lockdowns and evacuations came as both chambers of Congress debated Republicans' objections to Arizona's electoral results. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., at the start of the debate, forcefully rebuked efforts from members of his own party to overturn Biden's win.
"The voters have spoken," McConnell said on the Senate floor. "If we overrule them, we damage our republic forever."
Just before the proceedings began, Trump had hosted a rally outside the White House where he repeatedly, and falsely, claimed the election had been stolen from him. The president also pressured Pence to reject states' slates of electors.
McConnell in his remarks explicitly rejected claims that Trump's loss to Biden was due to massive fraud, and called out his colleagues in Congress who have vowed to lodge objections to the electoral results.
"Nothing before us proves illegality anywhere near the massive scale, the massive scale that would have tipped the entire election," McConnell said. "If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral. We would never see the whole nation accept an election again."
"It would be unfair and wrong to disenfranchise American voters and overrule the courts and the states on this extraordinarily thin basis. And I will not pretend such a vote would be a harmless protest gesture while relying on others to do the right thing," McConnell said.
"I will vote to respect the people's decision and defend our system of government as we know it."
Those comments came as a joint session of Congress convened with the intention of counting and confirming the results of the Electoral College. Republicans were expected to object to other states as their electoral vote tallies are announced.
Shortly before the joint session of Congress began at 1 p.m. ET, Pence rejected Trump's call for the vice president to unilaterally overturn the Electoral College vote, saying in a letter that he did not believe he had the authority to do so.
In a tweet Wednesday afternoon, Trump lashed out at Pence, saying that he "didn't have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution."
But as the chaos escalated, Trump tweeted a follow-up message: "Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement. They are truly on the side of our Country. Stay peaceful!"
And later, he asked "for everyone at the U.S. Capitol to remain peaceful."
With Democrat Biden's 306 electoral votes — 36 more than needed — the process normally would be a formality. But this year, it may take days because of the doomed effort by Trump to overturn his defeat.
Pence's role, which involves reading the vote tallies as they are unsealed and asking Congress if there are any objections, is traditionally a ceremonial one.
But in the lead-up to the joint session of Congress, Trump publicly heaped pressure on Pence to intervene, falsely claiming the vice president has the power to reject electoral votes that were cast weeks earlier by electors confirmed by their states' governors.
"All Mike Pence has to do is send [the electoral votes] back to the States, AND WE WIN," Trump tweeted. "Do it Mike, this is a time for extreme courage!"
The president's assertion came after the Trump campaign pushed back on New York Times reporting that Pence told Trump he had no power to block the certification of Biden's win.
A baker's dozen of Republican senators and dozens of GOP House members, however, have indicated they will object to certifying electors from several battleground states that gave Biden his margin of victory.
While those objections will trigger formal debate in both chambers of Congress, Biden is expected to be confirmed as president.
That's because Democrats hold a majority in the House, and enough Republican senators have said they would join Democrats in the Senate in opposing objections to Biden's slate of electors.
Overturning a state's Electoral College result requires the agreement of both chambers of Congress.
In grievance-filled remarks at the White House Ellipse, about two miles from the U.S. Capitol, Trump again falsely asserted that he beat Biden, while lashing out at "weak Republicans" who have "turned a blind eye."
Less than an hour before the congressional proceedings were set to begin, Trump repeatedly urged Pence to reject certain electoral votes.
"If Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election," Trump told a large crowd of his supporters. "Mike pence has to agree to send it back."
"Mike Pence I hope you're going to stand up for the good of our constitution and for the good of our country, and if you're not I'm going to be very disappointed in you, I will tell you right now. I'm not hearing good stories," Trump said.
Biden remains scheduled to be inaugurated two weeks from Wednesday.