The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Military reaction was ‘sprint speed,’ top officer says as Pentagon takes heat for Capitol riot response

Army Gen. Mark Milley at the White House last year.
Army Gen. Mark Milley at the White House last year. (Al Drago for The Washington Post)

The Pentagon acted as quickly as possible when asked to help respond to rioting at the Capitol on Jan. 6, the top U.S. military officer said, calling the turnaround “sprint speed” in his first public comments about the Pentagon’s reaction to the lethal siege.

Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said defense officials approved a police request for assistance in about 60 minutes as a mob smashed into Congress in an effort to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential win. It then took several hours for D.C. National Guard members to mobilize and get in place, he said.

Milley spoke as lawmakers prepared to hold another hearing on the riot, which has become a defining moment in President Donald Trump’s months-long attempt to remain in office and overturn the Biden victory.

Maj. Gen. William Walker, the commanding general of the D.C. National Guard, will be among those testifying Wednesday as part of a joint hearing by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, part of a larger congressional effort to reckon with the violence.

Pentagon restricted commander of D.C. Guard ahead of Capitol riot

Milley defended the military’s efforts before and during the attack, saying that criticism in the aftermath of the events did not take into account the Pentagon’s decision-making process and the steps involved with calling up part-time troops.

His account diverged from that of current and former police officials who have placed a large share of the blame on the Pentagon, saying that officials there dragged their feet or even initially refused to send additional troops as the violent crowd overpowered a small police force.

“If the forces . . . were ready to go as part of the preparatory stuff, then I’d say, okay, that’s a fair assessment. But this is the D.C. National Guard that went from a cold start, and they had troops there in two and a half, three hours,” Milley told reporters traveling with him on Monday during a visit to Colorado. “They reacted faster than our most elite forces from a cold start.”

He said Pentagon leaders approved the request to send additional Guard members in about an hour. “For the Pentagon, that’s super fast. That’s like sprint speed,” he said.

In the lead-up to planned pro-Trump demonstrations on Jan. 6, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) requested that the Pentagon deploy a small contingent of about 340 D.C. National Guard personnel to help with traffic control and free up city police. Because the District is not a state, the president has control of the National Guard but typically delegates authority to the defense secretary and Army secretary.

Looming large for city and federal officials during planning for the protests was June 2020, when the Trump administration was criticized for a heavy-handed reaction to civil unrest over police violence against Black people and Pentagon leadership was seen as supporting that response. The shadow of those events appeared to have resulted in a smaller security presence than was needed when rioting broke out on Capitol Hill.

As the situation turned chaotic, acting D.C. police chief Robert J. Contee III and Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, who resigned after the attack, spoke to Pentagon officials and requested additional support.

Sund later told lawmakers that he was “very surprised at the amount of time and the pushback I was receiving when I was making an urgent request for their assistance.”

Contee went further, saying he was “stunned” by the response from the Department of the Army, calling senior Army officials “reluctant” to send the D.C. National Guard to the Capitol.

“While I certainly understand the importance of both planning and public perception — the factors cited by the staff on the call — these issues become secondary when you are watching your employees, vastly outnumbered by a mob, being physically assaulted,” Contee testified last week.

Milley said he understood why lawmakers or security officials at the Capitol may think the Pentagon response lacked urgency.

 “If you were down there and you’re in the Capitol being attacked, an hour is a lifetime. So I can clearly understand their feelings that that was a very slow response,” he said. “But from a technical military standpoint, from the receipt of the phone call, to alerting National Guard forces from a cold start, to them being on the scene, was very fast.”

“I think it’s a bit of a mischaracterization or a misunderstanding of response times for the military,” he added.

Asked about Trump’s claim that he told Pentagon leaders they should have 10,000 National Guard personnel on the National Mall to help manage the planned protests, Milley also said he was not aware of any request.

“As chairman of the Joint Chiefs, if there was an order for 10,000 National Guardsmen, I would like to believe I would know that,” he said. “I know that that was never transmitted to me by anyone — the president or secretary of defense or anyone else — for 6th of January.”