Battered by months of protests and a violent insurrection at the Capitol last week, the District is making urgent pleas to the federal government and American people to try to prevent calamity from unfolding when Joe Biden is sworn in as president next week.
“If I’m scared of anything it’s for our democracy,” D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said at a Monday news conference, responding to a reporter who asked if she feared what might happen on Inauguration Day. “Because we have factions in our country . . . that are armed and dangerous.”
Bowser, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) held a joint call on Monday to discuss planning for the 59th presidential inauguration and agreed to discourage all in-person attendance in the interest of public safety.
Hours after Bowser addressed the public, acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf extended the National Special Security Event (NSSE) period to begin Wednesday instead of Jan. 19. A NSSE designation allows the U.S. Secret Service, the FBI and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to work together to secure certain areas that may be targets for violence.
Over the weekend, Bowser had sent a letter to Wolf asking him to start the NSSE period on Monday and coordinate with other federal agencies to “establish a security and federal force deployment plan for all federal property.”
Shortly after announcing the NSSE expansion, Wolf resigned, citing several court rulings challenging the validity of his appointment to lead the Department of Homeland Security.
The right-wing groups threatening to amass before and during the inauguration are different from the protesters the city normally welcomes, Bowser said.
One online post cited by Alethea Group, an anti-disinformation organization, has called for an “ARMED MARCH ON CAPITOL HILL & ALL STATE CAPITOLS.” Others have discussed a “Million Militia March” on Inauguration Day.
An FBI memo to law enforcement agencies across the country warned that “armed protests” were being planned “at all 50 state capitols” and in D.C. leading up to the inauguration, an official familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive law enforcement matter, told The Washington Post.
The city has already deployed its full police force of 3,700 officers and called in 2,908 additional law enforcement personnel from other states to assist for inauguration. The National Guard could also send up to 15,000 troops to the District during the presidential inauguration, senior defense officials said Monday.
But Bowser, who said she will be briefed by the FBI daily on threats to the city, warned that demonstrations across the country may mean states will rethink their ability to lend help. That could be especially dangerous at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has hamstrung the city’s emergency response teams. On average, the D.C. fire department is operating with a 10 percent reduction in staffing from coronavirus infection and exposure, according to city officials.
Over the weekend, Bowser sent a flurry of letters to federal agencies requesting resources to help keep the city safe. She asked President Trump to declare a pre-emergency declaration in the District.
“Based on recent events and intelligence assessments, we must prepare for large groups of trained and armed extremists to come to Washington, D.C. during the NSSE in an attempt to disrupt the Inauguration,” she said in the letter.
Trump granted the emergency declaration Monday night, which means the federal government will reimburse D.C. for costs related to emergency protective measures such as overtime and hazardous-duty pay. The federal government also granted the District such a declaration in 2009 for President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
Bowser also requested that the Interior Department rescind and deny all permits for gatherings in downtown Washington between Monday and Jan. 24. On Monday, the National Park Service shut down access to the Washington Monument through Jan. 24, citing threats surrounding the inauguration.
The National Park Service has issued two permits that together allow for 75 people to demonstrate around the inauguration, according to Mike Litterst, a department spokesman. On Monday, Litterst said the Park Service was still processing five outstanding permit requests, two of which are for events expecting 5,000 people. The first of those applications was submitted last January by DC Action Lab, a liberal group based in the District. The second was submitted in December by Black Pact, a nonpartisan political group organizing a march for reparations.
In addition to the focus on public safety threats from armed demonstrators, city officials are also pouring resources into preventing the spread of the coronavirus during a week with the potential for mass gatherings downtown. Late Monday night, Bowser issued an order extending restrictions on certain phase two activities, such as on indoor dining, through Jan. 22. The restrictions were set to expire Jan. 15.
The District’s health department has partnered with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to staff 10 first-aid stations downtown. D.C. Health is also providing coronavirus testing for law enforcement traveling to the District from other states and will conduct contact tracing for emergency responders, according Bowser’s letter requesting an emergency declaration.
Bowser also said Monday that she would “likely” extend the mandated closure of indoor dining, which was introduced in December to address rising coronavirus cases, through Jan. 24 in the interest of public safety around the inauguration.
There have already been coronavirus cases linked to the short-lived insurrection at the Capitol. On Monday, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), who took shelter in a room with other lawmakers, tested positive. She is a 75-year-old cancer survivor.
Julie Zauzmer, Dan Lamothe, Matt Zapotosky and Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.
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