WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump addressed thousands of supporters, including members of far-right groups, at a rally in Washington protesting Wednesday’s meeting of Congress to confirm his election loss to President-elect Joe Biden in November.
A short walk from the rally, hundreds of Trump supporters overturned barricades and clashed with police on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol where Congress was meeting, clambering onto the structures erected for Biden’s inauguration ceremony on Jan. 20 to unfurl Trump flags and gathering on the Capitol steps. Police used teargas and pepper spray on some of the protesters.
Trump, who has spent much of his time since the Nov. 3 election trying to overturn the results, falsely said he won as he spoke on an outdoor stage framing the White House, which Biden is due to move into in two weeks.
Crowds gathered at the “Save America March” wore Trump-approved red baseball caps and cheered as Trump repeated the groundless conspiracy theories that have consumed his final days in office — a period in which coronavirus infections have surged throughout the United States as the pandemic worsens.
“You don’t concede when there’s theft involved,” Trump, a Republican, said after taking the stage following a playlist blasted over loudspeakers of power ballads by Elton John and Phil Collins. “Our country has had enough and we will not take it any more.”
For more than an hour, he aired familiar grievances with the news media and Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival from the 2016 election, and delighted the crowd by calling Democratic victories the product of what he called “explosions of bullshit.”
“Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!” the crowd chanted in reply. Most were not wearing the face masks urged by health experts to stem the spread of COVID-19, which has killed more than 350,000 Americans.
Weeks have passed since the states completed certifying that Biden, a Democrat, won the election by 306 Electoral College votes to Trump’s 232, and Trump’s extraordinary challenges to Biden’s victory have floundered in courts across the country.
Congress was due to confirm Biden’s victory on Wednesday. Many of Trump’s fellow Republicans have promised a stonewalling effort that could stretch proceedings past midnight but was almost certain to fail.
Vice President Mike Pence opened the proceedings in his constitutional role as president of the Senate. He said in a statement that while he shared the concerns about the “integrity” of the election, it was not correct that he should be able to accept or reject electoral votes unilaterally.
In his remarks at the rally, Trump repeatedly made clear his frustration with Pence if he didn’t stop Congress from certifying the result.
“Mike Pence, I hope you’re going to stand up for the good of our Constitution and the good of our country,” Trump said. “And if you’re not, I’m going to be very disappointed in you, I will tell you right now.”
Trump returned to the White House as some at the rally marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to join the protesters storming the U.S. Capitol grounds.
“Drain the swamp!” protesters chanted. “Fuck Joe Biden!”
Members of militia groups and far-right groups, some in body armor, mingled with the crowds, and some government offices buildings were on high alert.
“I’m sheltering in place in my office,” Haley Stevens, a Michigan congresswoman, wrote on Twitter. “The building next door has been evacuated. I can’t believe I have to write this.”
Washington police earlier banned from the city Enrique Tarrio, the leader of the Trump-supporting far-right group the Proud Boys, after he was arrested on Monday for destruction of property and possession of a firearm magazine.
Other members of the men’s group, which espouses white nationalism, gathered at the U.S. Capitol.
Crowd control largely fell to the Metropolitan Police Department, which mobilized all 3,750 officers, the Capitol Police, the Park Police, the U.S. Secret Service, and more than 300 members of the city’s National Guard, according to Washington police chief Robert Contee and other officials.
Police have told protesters not to bring their guns to Washington, which has some of the country’s strictest gun laws and bans the open carrying of firearms.
On Tuesday evening, Trump supporters trying to reach Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House were stopped by police in riot gear who used pepper spray and batons to drive them back. Police said a handful of their officers were injured in scuffles and 10 people were arrested from Tuesday into Wednesday morning, a police spokeswoman said.
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay in Washington; Additional reporting by Timothy Ahmann, Jim Urquhart and Andrea Shalal; Writing by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Howard Goller and Sonya Hepinstall)