WASHINGTON (CN) — President Joe Biden gave the nation's second-highest honor Friday to 14 people who stood up for democracy, as well as the U.S. government, before the storming of the Capitol two years ago.
Coinciding with the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack that sought to keep former President Donald Trump in power, the ceremony comes as the House of Representatives ends its first week of 2023 without a speaker. Former minority leader Kevin McCarthy has already lost a record-setting 11 votes to lead the party's new narrow majority. While most Republicans have made a political decision to downplay the riot in which a mob called for the execution of Trump's own Vice President Mike Pence and sent lawmakers into hiding, the 20 holdout lawmakers refusing to support McCarthy as speaker are pushing to expand the power of the far right in the House.
On Friday, Biden bestowed the award that is second only to the Medal of Freedom to two election workers and one Philadelphia city commissioner who resisted pressure to overturn the 2020 election results or faced threats for ensuring voters were properly tabulated. Nine law enforcement officers who responded to the siege received the bulk of the honors, three of them posthumously.
“The threats, the violence, the savageness of what happened — the trauma — [it is] all real,” Biden said. “And it’s not an exaggeration to say America owes you, owes you all … a debt of gratitude, one we can never fully repay unless we live up to what you did.”
Brian Sicknick, a Capitol Police officer who died one day after the attack, was honored posthumously Friday alongside the late officers Howard Liebengood with the Capitol Police force and the late Metro D.C. officer Jeffrey L. Smith. Capitol Police officers Eugene Goodman, Harry Dunn and Caroline Edwards; Capitol Police Sergeant Aquilino Gonell; Metropolitan Police Department officer Daniel Hodges and former officer Michael Fanone were each honored as well.
Biden also recognized Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson; former Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers; Georgia election workers Ruby Freeman and her daughter, Shaye Moss; and former Philadelphia election official Al Schmidt.
The actions of these individuals related to Jan. 6 were incredibly consequential. “That’s not political talk,” Biden said, “that’s historical fact.”
President Richard Nixon created the Presidential Citizens Medal in 1969 to honor those who "performed exemplary deeds or services for his or her country or fellow citizens."
Sicknick, Liebengood, Smith and two other officers who died after responding to the Capitol riot, Gunther Hashida and Kyle DeFreytag, were all highlighted earlier this week as well in a statement by Attorney General Merrick Garland.
The Biden-appointed attorney general is at the helm of the Department of Justice probe that has led to the arrests of approximately 950 suspects so far in relation to the insurrection. Biden touted the nearly 350 Jan. 6 convictions that his department has secured over the last two years but also emphasized the hundreds of suspects who remain formally unidentified.
Last month, the House lawmakers investigating the attack voted to transmit historic criminal referrals against Trump for his actions surrounding Jan. 6. The referrals are included in the committee’s 854-page report on the insurrection, which pins Trump as the mastermind behind a plot to keep him in power.
Garland had previously appointed a special counsel, Jack Smith, to take over Department of Justice probes involving Trump, given the former president's nascent campaign to recapture the White House in 2024.
Although the referrals are largely symbolic, legal experts told Courthouse News last month that it will likely be hard for the Department of Justice to ignore them. The charges, if proven, are punishable by significant prison time.
Trump is already facing multiple lawsuits related to Jan. 6, the most recent of which was filed Thursday evening by Sicknick's estate.
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