WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Joe Biden on Thursday offered "profound gratitude" to law enforcement officers who responded to the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection as he signed legislation to award them Congressional Gold Medals for their service. The president thanked the officers for saving the lives of members of Congress during those "tragic hours" of the attack seven months ago.
The medal is the highest honor Congress can bestow. Joined by members of Congress, law enforcement officers and the families of police who died following the attack, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris held the formal signing ceremony in the White House Rose Garden.
Many officers were brutally beaten and injured that day as the violent mob of then-President Donald Trump's supporters pushed past them to break into the Capitol and interrupt the certification of Biden's victory. Many of the insurrectionists repeated Trump's false claims about widespread election fraud as they hunted for lawmakers and tried to beat down the doors of the House chamber with lawmakers inside.
Some of the officers, including four who testified at a House hearing last week, have spoken openly about the lasting mental and physical scars.
"My fellow Americans, let's remember what this was all about," Biden said of the siege. "It was a violent attempt to overturn the will of the American people, to seek power at all costs, to replace the ballot with brute force. To destroy, not to build. Without democracy, nothing is possible. With it, everything is."
The Senate passed the legislation unanimously earlier this week. The new law will place the medals in four locations -- Capitol Police headquarters, the Metropolitan Police Department, the U.S. Capitol and the Smithsonian Institution. Biden said the medals will be at the Smithsonian "so all visitors can understand what happened that day."
The Senate passed the legislation by voice vote, with no Republican objections. The House passed the bill in June, with 21 Republicans who have downplayed the insurrection in Trump's defense voting against it.
Trump, along with many Republicans still loyal to him, has tried to rebrand the rioting as a peaceful protest, even as law enforcement officers who responded that day have detailed the violence and made clear the toll it has taken on them. The four officers who testified in the emotional hearing last week detailed near-death experiences as the rioters beat and crushed them on their way into the building.
Metropolitan Police Officer Daniel Hodges described foaming at the mouth, bleeding and screaming as the rioters tried to gouge out his eye and crush him between two heavy doors. Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn said a large group of people shouted the N-word at him as he was trying to keep them from breaching the House chamber. Both were at the White House ceremony, along with several other officers.
The officers testified at the first hearing of a new House committee investigating the insurrection. Most House Republicans have staunchly opposed the Democrat-led panel, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi proposed after Senate Republicans blocked the formation of a bipartisan commission. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy has called the committee a "sham" and criticized Pelosi for rejecting two of the members he tried to appoint to the panel.
Instead, McCarthy and other Republican leaders -- still loyal to Trump -- withdrew all their appointments and have tried to pin blame for the insurrection of Trump's supporters on Pelosi, falsely claiming she was responsible for delays in military assistance that day.
Biden said at Thursday's ceremony that "we cannot allow history to be rewritten" and the officers' heroism cannot be forgotten.
"We have to understand what happened," Biden said. "The honest and unvarnished truth. We have to face it."
At least nine people who were at the Capitol that day died during and after the rioting, including a woman who was shot and killed by police as she tried to break into the House chamber and three other Trump supporters who suffered medical emergencies. Two police officers died by suicide in the days that immediately followed, and a third officer, Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, collapsed and died after engaging with the protesters. A medical examiner determined he died of natural causes.
Last week, the Metropolitan Police announced that two more of their officers who had responded to the insurrection had died by suicide. Officer Kyle DeFreytag was found dead on July 10 and Officer Gunther Hashida was found dead in his home Thursday. The circumstances that lead to their deaths are unknown.
"We are grieving as a department," the police said in a statement.
In a ceremony to send the bill to the president, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that Jan. 6 was "a moment, a day of extraordinary tragedy for our country" and praised the Capitol Police for their bravery and patriotism.
"I'm so sad that it took a tragedy of this nature for the recognition to be given to them," Pelosi said.
The Congressional Gold Medal has been handed out by the legislative branch since 1776. Previous recipients include George Washington, Sir Winston Churchill, Bob Hope and Robert Frost. In recent years, Congress has awarded the medals to former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason, who became a leading advocate for people struggling with Lou Gehrig's disease, and biker Greg LeMond.