Corrected 9:31 p.m. | In the space of two weeks, the Capitol has seen a siege and an inauguration. For some lawmakers who witnessed both, the events will be forever linked.
As Joe Biden took the oath of office Wednesday, Democrats in the audience described overwhelming feelings of relief.
“Half of us were having a hard time holding it together,” said Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan. “I know I was.”
Kildee was in the House gallery on Jan. 6 when pro-Trump rioters breached the building. He used his cellphone to record shaky footage of colleagues scrambling for cover as officers sealed off the chamber doors. Now he listened as Biden described the inauguration ceremony as a kind of reclamation.
“Here we stand just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground,” the incoming president said, standing in front of the balustrade where rioters had once draped a Trump banner. “It did not happen; it will never happen, not today, not tomorrow, not ever.”
It was almost like a shared healing session, especially as lawmakers watched the weather turn in their favor. A brief snow fell in the final moments of Trump’s presidency, but by the time Biden placed his left hand on his family’s bible and raised his right into the air, the west balcony of the Capitol was bathed in warm light.
“The last few weeks have been so traumatic — personally and just for the country,” said Kildee. “It’s therapeutic in a lot of ways, just to be able to stand here.”
It had rained before dawn, leaving puddles and ice scattered around the Capitol grounds. A squadron of Architect of the Capitol employees armed with white cotton rags had carefully wiped down each of the hundreds of plastic folding chairs, setting the stage for a fresh start.
“I feel like the whole country is exhaling right now,” said Rep. Sean Casten of Illinois. “The chance to have someone who's decent and empathetic and kind and loving — that shouldn't be something to celebrate, that should be the norm, but what a relief to have it back.”
In the weeks since the Capitol’s storming, Democrats have accused Republicans calling for unity — particularly those 147 members of Congress who objected to certifying Biden’s election — of refusing to acknowledge the pain they’ve caused.
With Trump’s presidency ended, Democrats sounded ready to begin the healing process, with Biden playing therapist-in-chief. But along the way, most were careful to mention the work of dealing with the pain and acknowledging its causes.
A reporter asked Rep. Karen Bass of California what the day meant for her personally. “An end of the divisiveness, an end of the racism, of the narcissism,” she said. “Maybe our nation can heal now.”
Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois described a swirl of emotions. “[It’s] a combination of a sense of relief that we have the last four years behind us, and a real sense of optimism that we have, I hope, what will be a great four years ahead of us,” she said.
During his speech, Biden led a moment of silence for the more than 400,000 Americans killed so far by the coronavirus. It was a recognition of pain and loss that stood in contrast to the outgoing president’s refusal to acknowledge the pandemic’s toll.
Throughout his remarks, Biden echoed themes repeated by past presidents: of hope and change, of morning again in America.
“Together, we shall write an American story of hope, not fear; of unity, not division; of light, not darkness; a story of decency and dignity, love and healing, greatness and goodness,” he said.
Compared to Trump, this was like night and day, said Kildee.
“The contrast between what we've been going through and just these first minutes of his presidency is just, it's beyond words,” he said. “It just feels really good. The sun came up.”
Chris Cioffi, Lindsey McPherson and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.
This report has been revised to reflect the state Rep. Cheri Bustos represents in Congress. It is Illinois.