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Experts on U.S. Capitol riots: We’ve never seen this, either

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 6, 2021

President Donald Trump supporter Jeanette Delia protests the election results in Coeur d’Alene on Wednesday.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
President Donald Trump supporter Jeanette Delia protests the election results in Coeur d’Alene on Wednesday. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
By Jim Camden and Adam Shanks The Spokesman-Review

Historians and legal experts in the Inland Northwest described the events in the nation’s capital Wednesday as unprecedented.

“There’s never been anything like it,” said Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University.

In 1814, British troops burned the White House and briefly occupied the city, and some federal officials fled. But that involved foreign troops during a war.

In 1932 during the Great Depression, some out-of-work veterans of World War I formed what was called the Bonus Army, camped on the Capitol Mall to demand early payments of a bonus they had been promised for their service.

“They never breached the Capitol like this,” Clayton said, as images of protesters marching through the Capitol’s Statuary Hall or climbing on the balconies showed on television screens.

Many of the protesters carried flags, from the Stars and Stripes to the yellow Gadsden “Don’t Tread On Me” banner to the Confederate battle flag. Even during the Civil War, Confederate troops never got close enough to the city to threaten the Capitol, he said.

While the storming of the Capitol is without parallel, similar incidents on a smaller scale have happened in state capitals recently, said Todd Donovan, professor of political science at Western Washington University. Protesters broke doors to enter the Oregon Capitol last week and occupied the Kansas statehouse Wednesday.

Washington state officials were preparing to restrict access to protesters who announced plans to enter and occupy the Legislative Building on Monday, the first day of the legislative session.

Wednesday’s actions are just part of a bigger unprecedented event, the weeks of challenge to the Nov. 3 election, Donovan said. They include President Donald Trump refusing to concede, filing what Donovan described as bogus lawsuits and challenging the Electoral College votes.

“At what point do you just not call this a coup, from the social science perspective?” he said.

“If you saw this underway in any other foreign capital, you’d say ‘This is a banana republic,’” Clayton said.

Shortly before the Senate broke off discussion of whether to accept the Electoral College results from Arizona, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, contended requesting time to study allegations of voting irregularities had a precedent in the contested election of 1876.

After that election, Congress set up a commission to study the election, and it eventually awarded the presidency to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes rather than Democrat Samuel Tilden.

That’s not a valid comparison, Clayton countered. Because of questions of voter suppression in some Southern states, there were states where Electoral College results were contested. All the results of last year’s election have been certified by the states and all court challenges have been settled.

“As a matter of Constitutional law, it’s not a contested election,” he said. Congress’ role at this point is merely to make sure the reports of the Electoral College votes are opened and read. “They have no role to judge them.”

The commission that Congress set up in 1877 to settle the election is not a good historical precedent to cite, Clayton added. Hayes was made president with an agreement to pull Union troops out of the South and end Reconstruction.

“It was one of the most corrupt political bargains in history and led to decades of Jim Crow,” he said.

Mary Pat Treuthart, a law professor at Gonzaga University who teaches courses including constitutional law, said there’s nothing to which to compare Wednesday’s events.

“It’s absolutely unprecedented, and I don’t think that we have a rule book for this except for the fact that we as a country have made a commitment to the rule of law and to be governed by the rule of law,” Treuthart said.

Following the tumultuous events of Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R–Spokane, walked back her earlier pledge to vote against certification of the election.

In a statement, she insisted on a peaceful transfer of power but reiterated the logic behind her earlier objection, saying it was to “give voice to the concern that governors and courts unilaterally changed election procedures without the will of the people and outside of the legislative process.”

Treuthart called McMorris Rodgers’ argument “absurd.”

“To take that position when there is no factual evidence to indicate that there were aberrations in the process, when the states themselves, in a system of federalism, have signed off on their election results, I think is irresponsible,” Treuthart said.

As for President Trump’s fiery speech that preceded his supporters’ march into the Capitol, Treuthart said it was unclear whether it violated the law, as inciting a riot is not protected under the First Amendment.

“I think there could be political ramifications, obviously. In terms of whether it rises to level of sedition, I don’t know, honestly,” Treuthart said.

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