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Pentagon chief approves request to extend National Guard protection of Capitol

National Guard troops stand their posts around the Capitol at sunrise Monday. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has approved a request from the Capitol Police to extend the deployment of National Guard members to protect Congress into May, defense officials said Tuesday, keeping a military presence around one of the nation’s major landmarks for two more months.

The number of Guard members will be reduced from about 5,200 to 2,300 as a part of Austin’s authorization, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement Tuesday night. The forces left are approved through May 23.

“This represents a reduction of nearly 50 percent of the current support force,” Kirby said. “This decision was made after a thorough review of the request and after close consideration of its potential impact on readiness.”

The National Guard has been on duty around the Capitol since hours after hundreds of people supporting former president Donald Trump’s false claim that he won the presidential election smashed their way into the building on Jan. 6, as lawmakers were certifying election results. The number of Guard members peaked at about 26,000 on Inauguration Day, before falling in recent weeks.

Kirby said defense officials will work with Capitol Police in coming days to “incrementally reduce the National Guard footprint as conditions allow.”

“We thank the National Guard for its support throughout this mission, as well as for its significant efforts across the nation in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kirby said.

A spokesman for the D.C. National Guard, Capt. Tinashe T. Machona, said in a statement on Tuesday after Kirby’s announcement that the D.C. National Guard “will continue to work with our civilian law enforcement agency partners” and guardsmen participating in the mission to carry out the mission.

The Capitol Police requested the extension last week, without saying publicly how long it would be. The agency in recent weeks sought continued National Guard involvement, citing ongoing security threats to Congress.

The National Guard force has included about 1,100 of the D.C. Guard’s roughly 2,700 members, plus Guard troops sent by governors to assist in the District. All of the Guard members fall under the command of Maj. Gen. William Walker, head of the D.C. National Guard, while taking part in the mission.

The appearance of soldiers has become increasingly polarizing in recent weeks.

Last week, Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the Capitol Police’s request for an extension “outrageous.” The continued deployment of National Guard members, who mostly have civilian jobs, is wrecking careers, he said.

“That’s not what they’re supposed to be. That’s not their mission,” Inhofe said. “We have the Capitol Police. That is their mission.”

The discussion has come as lawmakers and security officials wrestle with how to make the nation’s capital safer against violence in the future.

A review of security at the Capitol by retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré after the riot recently found that the Capitol Police is “understaffed, insufficiently equipped, and inadequately trained,” according to a draft copy of the report he submitted to congressional leaders.

Honoré recommended filling 233 open positions on the Capitol Police force and adding 854, the report said.

Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.