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On Capitol Hill, President Biden and other leaders mark anniversary of Jan. 6 attack

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It was a solemn day on Capitol Hill where President Biden and other leaders, mostly Democrats, gathered to mark a day that shook this country.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: To state the obvious, one year ago today, in this sacred place, democracy was attacked - simply attacked.

CHANG: It was the anniversary of the January 6 insurrection when a violent mob took over the halls of Congress and threatened everyone in the building, all in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election. Joining me now to talk about today's events are NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid and NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales, who has been closely following the aftermath of January 6 all year in Congress.

Hey to both of you.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Hi there.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good to be here.

CHANG: So, Asma, I want to start with you. Can you just tell us, what did President Biden say today to mark this anniversary?

KHALID: Well, he delivered a forceful rebuke of the attack on the Capitol last year, and he did it from within the Capitol building itself. This speech was unlike what we usually hear from him. You know, throughout his presidential campaign, he would often speak nostalgically about healing, about restoring the soul of the nation, unifying the country. But today, his rhetoric was different.

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BIDEN: I did not seek this fight brought to this Capitol one year ago today, but I will not shrink from it, either. I will stand in this breach. I will defend this nation. And I'll allow no one to place a dagger at the throat of democracy.

KHALID: You know, it appeared that the president believed the only way to truly heal was to address these wounds directly. He systematically tore apart the so-called big lie perpetuated by former President Donald Trump and some of his supporters. He was explaining why it's not true. He also presented this idea that what occurred on January 6 last year was unpatriotic and un-American. This speech, Ailsa, was certainly, I thought, an appeal to his base that has been wanting to hear a damning critique of Donald Trump, and they got that. It also did sound, though, like he was trying to persuade some persuadable middle. But he's waited a year to say these words. And in the interim, the anger, the polarization has grown. So it is not entirely clear that there's really much of a persuadable middle left to persuade.

CHANG: Claudia, turning to you - I mean, the Capitol building is, of course, basically the workplace for lawmakers. And I know that many of them spoke today about what happened last year in very, very personal terms. Can you just talk about what stood out to you?

GRISALES: Right. Many of these members were trapped in parts of the Capitol. They lived through this attack, and they shared very stark memories. One of those lawmakers was Delaware Democrat Lisa Blunt Rochester who was trapped in the House gallery. She was caught in a viral video on January 6 praying. Today, she talked about her memories from that day.

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LISA BLUNT ROCHESTER: Ducking, crawling, under, over railings, hands, knees, the sounds, the smells - we had a front-row seat to what lies, hate or plain old misinformation conjures.

GRISALES: She said they went from victims to witnesses and said, quote, "today, we are messengers." And this was much of the theme today, the personal vantage points these members shared. And as you noted, this was largely Democrats at the Capitol today who took part. And we knew of only one Republican member, Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who attended along with her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney.

CHANG: Right. Of course, former President Trump is inextricably tied to January 6. And in fact, a week later, the House of Representatives voted to impeach him for inciting the insurrection. Trump was then acquitted in the Senate. And, Asma, you mentioned the very intense anger that Biden expressed today. What did he say specifically about the former president?

KHALID: Well, Ailsa, he did not call him out by name, but there was no doubt who he was talking about. He painted a picture - rioters, he said, were storming the halls of the Capitol, threatening the speaker of the House. And the former president, who had just rallied the mob, President Trump - President Biden, I'm sorry, was saying - was sitting in the private dining room of the Oval Office, watching it on TV and, quote, "doing nothing for hours." Biden said that Donald Trump had actually spread a web of lies about the election.

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BIDEN: He's done so because he values power over principle, because he sees his own interests as more important than his country's interests, than America's interests, and because his bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution.

KHALID: You know, President Biden has made a point of rarely criticizing his predecessor so publicly in this way. He ran as an alternative to Trump, but also as a healer. Today, it seemed he was flatly trolling Trump, throwing verbal punches at him in a way that he knew would get under his skin - calling him, at one point, the defeated president.

CHANG: I mean, there is a political divide on how January 6 is perceived. And, Claudia, can you talk a little more about that? Like, what have you been hearing leaders saying on both sides?

GRISALES: Right. We did hear from some Republicans today, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, that January 6 was the day we saw the Capitol stormed by criminals who brutalized police officers and tried to stop Congress from doing its job - so acknowledging what happened that day. But he also noted that Democratic leaders in large part focused the day in terms of how it can be connected to bringing along voting rights. He said they were exploiting that as an opportunity. Now, when we heard from Democratic leaders, they talked about how close former President Trump and these rioters came to stopping the certification of these election results. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said they remembered on this, quote, "darkest day that the insurrection sought to undermine democracy." And she and others kept returning to this point that democracy won that day, while also emphasizing that much work remained. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer talked about this as well.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: It's about falsehood versus truth. In the history of this country, we have always disagreed on ideology but never on facts until recently and in such an important area.

GRISALES: So it's another reminder that this partisan divide intensified after the attack.

CHANG: And real quick, Asma - President Biden touched on the importance of preserving voting rights. What's next for both the president and the vice president on that legislation now?

KHALID: Well, they're due to travel to Atlanta, Ga., next week where they intend to really push on this issue of voting rights. You know, I don't know exactly what it means from a legislative standpoint because Democrats have struggled to ensure that they actually have the votes to pass any sort of voting rights legislation.

CHANG: That was White House correspondent Asma Khalid and NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales.

Thanks to both of you.

GRISALES: Thank you.

KHALID: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.