Special Report: Attack on Democracy

Here’s our take on the failed efforts of a pro-Trump mob to stop Congress from certifying ballots at the Capitol on Wednesday as Congress, led by Vice President Mike Pence, confirmed Biden’s presidential victory.

It’s now reported that four people died during yesterday’s events, though details of how they died have not all been released.

At The Cipher Brief, we’ll be focused on the security posture that allowed this to happen, but we’re also watching the division that has now reached the offices of the president and vice-president as earlier in the day, the President posted on Twitter that “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify, USA demands the truth!” His words fueled an already angry crowd, some of whom had traveled across the country to protest the election result.  Twitter tagged many of the President’s posts as disputed.

Later in day, as the mob stormed the Capitol building, the President did not address the nation in the way that President-Elect Joe Biden did in a message urging calm, but he instead posted a video on Twitter repeating untruthful claims that the election had been stolen from them but asking them to go home.  Twitter and Facebook removed the video.

After action scrutiny of yesterday’s events is certain to focus on the role of privately held social media companies in the future.

After the President posted his video in the midst of the storming of the Capitol, the Vice President of Integrity at Facebook, Guy Rosen tweeted, “This is an emergency situation and we are taking appropriate emergency measures, including removing President Trump’s video. We removed it because on balance we believe it contributes to rather than diminishes the risk of ongoing violence.”

Our eyes will also be on members of the President’s cabinet as well as fellow Republicans, over the next few days to see how they respond to Wednesday’s events.

Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger resigned on Wednesday.

During the protests, Republican Congressman Will Hurd tweeted, “This isn’t a peaceful protest. This is an attack on our democracy and domestic terrorism to try to stop certifying elections. This should be treated as a coup led by a president that will not be peacefully removed from power.”

Former Secretary of Defense and former CIA Chief Leon Panetta told CNBC, “I can think of no greater failure by a Commander in Chief, than to allow this kind of disturbance to continue and not stop it.”

We talked with many of our experts throughout the day, focusing on the national security implications of Wednesday’s events and how they were being interpreted by allies and adversaries alike.

Cipher Brief Expert Ambassador Joseph DeTrani told The Cipher Brief, “It’s a sad and tragic day for our country. Autocrats in the world have to be pleased and further emboldened by what the world witnessed in Washington today.”

Admiral James Stavridis (Ret.) told us, “I never thought, in a long life spent operationally in conflict and combat zones, that I would see scenes like this on Capitol Hill in the United States of America.  Our adversaries will be dumbfounded with their good fortune in seeing this destructive insurrection, stoked and indeed encouraged by Trump.  Dictators will say “look, you think you should tell us what to do?”  Russia and China will be actively thinking 1) how can they extend the scope and duration of these insurrectionists, 2) how can they publicize and leverage it with nations around the world to increase their influence and diminish ours, and 3) how can they best support ex-President Trump and his destructive policies after the inauguration.”

And in fact, according to the Mehr News Agency, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said, “What we saw in the United States last night showed annihilation of Western democracy in the world.”

Cipher Brief Expert and former Acting Director of CIA John McLaughlin told us that “Today’s events will deepen confusion among America’s friends in the world about what’s going on in the US.  They were relieved by Biden’s election, but they will wonder whether that signals the end to chaos in the US or whether something deeper and harder to cure is underway.  It undermines America’s ability to strengthen democracy elsewhere in the world. Our credibility on that score is tattered.”

When asked about how this event could impact future national security, McLaughlin said, “Adversaries will take pleasure in this.  Russia can take some credit, given that its efforts in 2016 and since then have aimed primarily to drive wedges in American society, deepen our divisions, and set Americans at each other’s throats. They will see this as success and unleash theirs trolls and bots to amplify a message about chaos in America.  China will cite these events as evidence that the American system is nothing to emulate and use it to magnify propaganda about the merits of theirs.”

Sir John Scarlett, the former Chief of MI6 told The Cipher Brief, “People outside the US, friends or otherwise, who know and understand US culture, politics and the Constitution, will have confidence in the integrity and discipline of the Government and the forces of law and order to control this situation. They will keep it in perspective. But the majority outside will not understand. Many will question the stability of US society. Everyone is watching, including our opponents. This is the worry.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted, “Disgraceful scenes in U.S. Congress. The United States stands for democracy around the world and it is now vital that there should be a peaceful and orderly transfer of power.”

“It has been clear for some time that President Putin thinks that virtually anything bad that happens to the US has to be good for Russia,” former Senior member of the British Foreign Office Nick Fishwick told us.  “The fact that you have a President who refuses to accept the outcome of a democratic election, and who is still supported by a large number of fellow American refuseniks, will help all opponents of democracy. ‘Look what happens if elections aren’t properly managed’, they will say.”

Fishwick when on to say that, “America’s allies have been shocked by what happened, as British Prime Minister Johnson’s reaction made clear. It makes democracy look weak, even a laughing stock, and reduces our influence around the world. It is a stark reminder of the vulnerability of democracy and we have seen other, very different, worrying developments in democracies around the world recently including in Europe. Perhaps this is another brutal reminder, in the middle of COVID, that we can take nothing for granted. “

Many of our experts are focused on the days ahead and whether there will be more violence before the inauguration and transition of power on January 20 and whether the divisions that exist in the country will lead to more violence.

When asked about Wednesday’s events, Former CIA and NSA Director General Mike Hayden, (Ret.) told The Cipher Brief that, “The president is not doing anything and for the sake of our country, that is really bad.  Two days ago, I was in class talking about national security and politics and I told the class that I’m worried about the possibility of violence.  I served in the military for decades and I have real concerns about the direction we’re moving in with the possibility of violence breaking out. This is a real problem. It’s the kind of problem that can lead to civil war.”

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