The jarring images of U.S. President Donald Trump’s supporters marauding inside the United States Capitol on Wednesday left America’s traditional allies astonished and aghast, and some rivals snidely gleeful.
The mayhem in Washington, after four years of Trump sowing chaos and two months of his refusal to accept election defeat, was shocking but not entirely surprising. In Europe, it confirmed a grim conclusion that many leaders had reached long ago: that Trump was a symptom not the cause of something badly broken in America, and that the bigger worry was not the outgoing president but his tens of millions of supporters who aren’t going anywhere.
Immediately after the November 3 election came and went with no clear winner, European leaders had said they were braced for days, months or even years of uncertainty about their troubled transatlantic ally. The confirmation of Joe Biden’s victory brought a collective sigh of relief and swift messages of congratulations. But as world leaders reacted equally quickly to the chaos at the Capitol on Wednesday, using language normally reserved for unstable nations with few democratic traditions, it was clear that America’s image as a beacon of freedom had suffered a potentially irreparable blow.
“Disgraceful scenes in the U.S. Congress,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted. “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.”
But the rebuke was too late. A woman had already been shot inside the Capitol; rioters had attacked the police who sprayed tear gas; Vice President Mike Pence had been whisked out of the Senate chamber, disrupting the formal counting of Electoral College votes; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office was infiltrated and pilfered; lawmakers and journalists were in protective lockdown. (Authorities later said the woman who was shot had died.)
As Trump issued a mixed message, calling for calm but publicly voicing sympathy with the rampaging mob and reiterating his claims of a stolen election, the consequences were stark: for perhaps the first time since 1865, the year the Civil War ended and Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, the transfer of power in the United States could not be considered peaceful.
“Shocking scenes in Washington D.C.,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg posted on Twitter, along with a plea: “The outcome of this democratic election must be respected.”
Calling the scenes in Washington “horrible,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte directly implored Trump to acknowledge Biden’s victory. “Dear @realDonaldTrump,” Rutte wrote. “Recognise @JoeBiden as the next president today.”
“The U.S. Congress is a temple of democracy,” European Council President Charles Michel tweeted, not long after video footage showed heavily-armed F.B.I. SWAT teams marching down one of the Capitol’s marble stairwells. “To witness tonight’s scenes in #WashingtonDC is a shock.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen professed faith “in the strength of US institutions and democracy” and said she looked forward to working with Biden.
European Parliament President David Sassoli sent a letter of support to Pelosi. “My thoughts are very much for the safety of you and your fellow colleagues and I hope that order can be swiftly restored and that a peaceful transfer of power can take place, in line with the wishes of the American people,” he wrote. “You have my full support and solidarity in these very challenging moments.”
Along with expressions of dismay, there was trolling.
Turkey, which has had a tense relationship with the Trump administration, called for calm. “Turkey invites all parties in the U.S. to use moderation, common sense to overcome this domestic political crisis,” the state-run Anadolu news agency reported from Ankara.
Some observers described the events in Washington as an “attempted coup” and an effort to over turn the election results.
“Normally at this stage of an attempted coup the U.S. issues a statement demanding respect for the democratic process,” Roula Khalaf, the editor of the Financial Times, tweeted from London.
But while there were questions about Trump’s role in inciting the violence (in September he refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he lost) and questions about security at the Capitol, which seemed uncharacteristically lax, there were no signs that the siege had been orchestrated.
Perhaps fittingly, the election results, which Trump continued to deny so adamantly, were resoundingly affirmed Wednesday. As the authorities were still trying to clear the Capitol complex, news outlets declared Democrats in the southern state of Georgia had won in both of the runoff Senate contests held on Tuesday.
Trump has falsely insisted, including in a long phone call to the state’s Republican election officials last weekend, that he won the state of Georgia. Indeed, he appeared to have lost it not only for himself in November, but also for Senate Republicans who as a result will now lose their majority control of the chamber.
Throughout Wednesday night, there was worldwide condemnation of the lawless unrest.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Marie Eriksen Søreide, whose country currently holds a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, said that Trump “has a particular responsibility to ensure that the situation comes under control.”
“The Congress must be able to fulfil its mandate in accordance with the constitution,” Eriksen Søreide said in a statement.
Even Ukraine issued a statement urging respect for democratic procedures, a remarkable turn of events considering that the country was thrust into the center of Trump’s impeachment scandal because the U.S. president withheld military aid while demanding that Kyiv investigate Biden’s son.
“Concerning scenes in Washington, D.C. I’m confident American democracy will overcome this challenge,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a statement. “The rule of law & democratic procedures need to be restored as soon as possible. This is important not only for the U.S., but for Ukraine and the entire democratic world as well.”
Biden gave a speech insisting that Trump go on television to “demand an end to this siege,” and calling on Americans to rise above the rancor, saying: “This is not who we are.”
“The world’s watching,” Biden said. “Like so many other Americans, I am genuinely shocked and saddened that our nation, so long the beacon of light and hope for democracy, has come to such a dark moment.” He added, “Today’s a reminder, a painful one, that democracy is fragile and to preserve it requires people of goodwill, leaders with the courage to stand up.”
Other Democrats issued calls for Trump to be impeached anew, with less than two weeks left in his presidency.
Trump, for his part, was unbowed, and characteristically contradictory. He expressed total solidarity with the demonstrators while repeating his assertions that the election had been stolen even as he urged them to avoid violence and leave the Capitol. “I know your pain,” Trump said in a statement directed at the demonstrators. “I know your hurt. we had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election and everyone knows it, especially the other side. But you have to go home now.”
In Brussels, there was continuing disbelief.
“In the eyes of the world, American democracy tonight appears under siege,” the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, tweeted. “This is not America. The election results of 3 November must be fully respected.”
Florian Eder contributed reporting.
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