KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Rioters breached the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday prompting many to use words like “insurrection” and “coup” while others referenced the “25th Amendment.”
These are terms many hadn’t heard before and that aren’t used often. Below you’ll find definitions and context to help better understand the significance of the events that took place at the U.S. Capitol and the conversations surrounding them.
“That’s an attack on democracy,” Dr. Richard Pacelle, an expert on constitutional law at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, said.
Beyond the obvious concerns of violence, danger, and lawlessness, Dr. Pacelle said, the acts speak to an attack on democracy.
“We elect other people to speak for us. That’s what makes elections really important is that you have to abide by the results of the election,” he explained.
The Electoral College voting process
At the time the rioters showed up to the U.S. Capitol, lawmakers were in a joint session to confirm the results of the Electoral College vote. This is a process that has been in place for decades.
“It’s largely a ceremonial thing that they do on this date,” Dr. Pacelle explained.
Congress meets every four years at 1 p.m. on Jan. 6. The sitting Vice President presides over the meeting. Members of Congress vote in alphabetical order. During this meeting, lawmakers can object to electoral votes. This is detailed in the 12th Amendment of the Constitution.
In a tweet the day before the joint session, President Donald Trump said, “The Vice President has the power to reject fraudulently chosen electors.” According to the Electoral County Act of 1887, that’s not possible.
“The votes have been tabulated. The Secretary of State in that state signs off, the governor signs off, then it comes to Washington,” Dr. Pacelle said. “At that point they could just say, ‘okay, that’s it, we have a President,’ but we have this formal process.”
The Vice President presides. He does not decide. This is outlined in the Electoral Count Act. At the end, the Vice President announces the next President of the United States. President-elect Joe Biden said we must “defend the Constitution” in response to Wednesday’s events.
To read more in depth about how the Electoral College works and the joint session, click here.
Assault on media
Another aspect Dr. Pacelle said is an attack on democracy was the assault on journalists.
Photos and videos show rioters charging journalists and damaging their equipment. A photo of one of the doors to the U.S. Capitol showed graffiti with the words “murder the media.”
You may be familiar with the First Amendment in that it protects freedom of speech. It also protects freedom of the press.
“There is nothing more important in a democracy than free press. Nothing. You know, it’s in the First Amendment,” Pacelle said. “If you have a country like Russia or China where the media’s controlled by the government, how does anybody get any information or know about it?”
For this reason, journalism is often called the first rough draft of history.
Peaceful transfer of power
The peaceful transfer of power is often called a cornerstone of democracy. Police regained control of the Capitol complex around 6 p.m., roughly four hours after rioters stormed the building. Despite the disruption, by 8:05 p.m. Congress had reconvened. Overnight, Congress confirmed President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral college win.
“I think it says here we have faced a big threat and we’re not backing down. On the same night, we’re going back in that chamber, things are broken in there, our offices have been broken, too, and vandalized. This isn’t going to stop us. You’re going to have to do a lot worse than this to stop us,” Dr. Pacelle said.
He said democracy prevailed.
Biden defeated Trump by 306-232 electoral votes and will be inaugurated Jan. 20. On Thursday, President Trump said there would be an “orderly transition.” He also said he would not be attending the inauguration.
Definition of terms
Below are some words you may be hearing or reading and their definitions:
RIOT: Police called the event a riot. The Merriam Webster definition, a riot is a tumultuous disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons assembled together and acting with a common intent.
DOMESTIC TERRORIST: Some are calling the people who showed up at the capitol domestic terrorists. The FBI definition of domestic terrorist is violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.
INSURRECTION: Merriam Webster defines the word insurrection as an act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government.
COUP: Oxford defines a coup as a sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of power from a government.
25TH AMENDMENT: After all of this, some lawmakers began referencing the 25th amendment. ABC News reports the 25th Amendment, which was ratified in 1967 in the wake of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, lays out the procedures for replacing the president in the event of death, removal, resignation or incapacitation.
“Under the 25th amendment if the president goes into the hospital or is going to be away for a few days for medical reasons, he or she can sign over their power with saying as soon as I’m finished I take the power back, but what if a President is either incapacitated or the President is, as some are arguing, unfit to serve right now,” Dr. Pacelle explained. “Then the Vice President and half the cabinet can put a vote in to say that we want to take the power of the presidency away from this person and hold on to it at least temporarily.”
SIEGE: The Oxford definition of siege is a military operation in which enemy forces surround a town or building, cutting off essential supplies, with the aim of compelling the surrender of those inside.
MOB: By definition, a mob is a large and disorderly crowd of people. This is a bit more broad and less severe than coup or insurrection.