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Biden awards Presidential Citizens Medals on two-year anniversary of Jan. 6 Capitol riot

CNBC 1/6/2023 Kevin Breuninger
  • President Joe Biden spoke at an event marking the second anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by a mob of former President Donald Trump's supporters.
  • Biden awarded one of the nation's highest civilian honors to 14 individuals who showed courage and selflessness during the events surrounding the deadly riot.
  • The ceremony at the White House was Biden's first time bestowing the Presidential Citizens Medal.
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President Joe Biden on Friday marked the second anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot by awarding one of the nation's highest civilian honors to 14 individuals who showed courage and selflessness during the events surrounding the deadly insurrection.

The award ceremony at the White House was Biden's first time bestowing the Presidential Citizens Medal, which is given to Americans "who have performed exemplary deeds of service for their country or their fellow citizens."

The group included law enforcement officers, current and former politicians and election workers who were targeted with threats following the 2020 presidential contest. Three of the medals were awarded posthumously to officers who had defended the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and died afterward by injuries or by suicide.

"America owes you all, I really mean this, a debt of gratitude," Biden said during impassioned remarks at the Friday afternoon ceremony.

The recipients were honored for their actions before, during and after the riot, when a violent mob of former President Donald Trump's supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, fighting with officers, destroying and stealing property and threatening lawmakers. The attack came shortly after a joint session of Congress convened to confirm Biden's presidential victory over Trump, who had falsely asserted he won the 2020 election.

The mob forced lawmakers to flee their chambers for several hours, impeding the transfer of power. More than 100 officers were injured during the attack, and federal officials estimate the insurrection cost millions of dollars in damages.

"All of it was fueled by lies about the 2020 election," Biden said Friday, without mentioning Trump by name. The former president, who remains a major force in the Republican Party, has already launched a campaign for the White House in 2024.

Democracy held after Jan. 6 only because "we the people did not flinch, we the people endured, we the people prevailed," Biden said.

Among the honorees was Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman, who diverted a group of rioters hurtling toward the Senate chamber, which had not yet been fully evacuated. Multiple officers who were injured during the riot — Aquilino Gonell, Michael Fanone, Caroline Edwards and Daniel Hodges — were also given awards, as was Officer Harry Dunn, who testified about facing racial slurs and harassment from the mob.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and former Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers were honored for resisting pressure from Trump's allies to overturn their states' election results. Bowers, a Republican, lost a state Senate bid in 2022 to an opponent backed by Trump.

Biden also awarded Ruby Freeman and her daughter Shaye Moss, two election workers in Fulton County, Georgia, who faced waves of harassment and threats related to unfounded voter-fraud conspiracy theories in the state.

Officers Brian Sicknick, Howard Liebengood and Jeffrey Smith were given posthumous awards. Sicknick died a day after grappling with rioters at the Capitol. His manner of death was determined to be natural causes, but Washington Chief Medical Examiner Francisco Diaz said at the time, "all that transpired played a role in his condition." Liebengood and Smith both died by suicide after defending the Capitol.

Biden's speech marking the anniversary of the riot followed other ceremonies and remembrances on Capitol Hill, mostly from Democratic lawmakers.

"Today marks 2 years since a violent mob of insurrectionists — sanctioned by the former President —descended on the Capitol in an armed and deadly effort to halt the peaceful transfer of power and reverse the outcome of a free and fair election," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement Friday morning. "To this day, Donald Trump continues his attempt to poison American democracy with his Big Lie."

In a brief ceremony on the House steps, lawmakers gathered for a moment of silence with the families of officers who died in relation to the riot. Many more were injured or traumatized by the mob, noted Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the new House Democratic leader. "We stand here today with our democracy intact because of those officers," Jeffries said.

Only one Republican representative, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, attended that event, according to one report.

The anniversary came as House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of California continued his fight to become speaker of the House after three straight days of failing to win enough votes from his party. In the days after the Jan. 6 riot, McCarthy initially blamed Trump for the attack, saying the president "bears responsibility" even as he opposed Democrats' efforts to impeach Trump for a second time. But McCarthy soon walked back that criticism.

The somber event at the White House was punctuated by a few moments of levity. After Biden fumbled the pronunciation of Gonell's name, the former USCP Sergeant corrected him, prompting the president to shake the officer's hand and quip, "He can call me President Bidden from now on."

In another instance, Biden drew laughter when he acknowledged a technical difficulty causing an echo in his audio.

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