Neighboring states may need to reserve National Guard members to protect their own facilities and personnel, possibly limiting the ability of the Defense Department, which oversees the D.C. National Guard, to call on them for additional help.
“We’re not going to pull too much out of their states and put them at risk, so a very delicate risk management process is underway,” Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said in an interview.
In response to the threat, Guard members in Washington will carry their firearms, said two defense officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Capitol Police pleaded for help on Jan. 6 as pro-Trump rioters smashed their way into the Capitol building, while Pentagon officials said inadequate planning meant they were unable to immediately respond. As part of their attempt to ensure a more robust military response, officials plan to station up to 15,000 Guard members — or potentially more — in and around the nation’s capital.
McCarthy was to meet with senior officials from the FBI, the Secret Service and other agencies to finalize plans Tuesday afternoon. Starting Wednesday, Guard members will be taking part in security rehearsals, signifying the heightened stakes surrounding an inauguration already marked by concerns about the coronavirus pandemic and threats of violence by supporters of President Trump.
The Pentagon’s attempt to recalibrate its posture ahead of more planned protests underscores the balancing act it has attempted — sometimes unsuccessfully — in recent months. Defense officials have sought to steer clear of charged election politics and manage the uncomfortable reality that their commander in chief has employed increasingly aggressive tactics to subvert the 2020 election.
In an unusual public message Tuesday, Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other top military leaders acknowledged Biden’s imminent ascension to the presidency and called the riot “a direct assault on the U.S. Congress, the Capitol building and our Constitutional process.”
“We support and defend the Constitution,” the Joint Chiefs, composed of the military’s highest-ranking officers from each service, said in a statement. “Any act to disrupt the constitutional process is not only against our traditions, values, and oath; it is against the law.”
The Joint Chiefs also affirmed that Biden would take over as the 46th commander in chief and called upon service members to reflect the ideals of the nation. The message came after a number of the rioters turned out to have been military veterans.
Unlike in the summer, when the Pentagon was faulted for taking part in an overly aggressive response to protests over racial discrimination and police violence, the Pentagon last week was accused of failing to come to the aid of overwhelmed local officials when chaos engulfed Capitol Hill.
Officials from the Capitol Police and D.C. government have said the Pentagon responded slowly to urgent requests for military assistance and initially denied help beyond a small force of Guard members overseeing traffic stops. Pentagon officials, meanwhile, have blamed the Capitol Police and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) for not requesting adequate assistance ahead of time and then expecting part-time soldiers to immediately appear.
Even as recriminations continue, Pentagon officials have for the second time in a year adjusted decision-making for the D.C. National Guard in the hopes of ensuring a nimble response. Unlike on Jan. 6, when acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller was required to sign off on activating additional D.C. Guard members, McCarthy now will have the ability to employ Guard personnel and equipment as he sees fit, without higher-level sign-off.
Because Washington, D.C., is not a state, the president functions as the D.C. Guard’s commander in chief, as governors do elsewhere. Under a 1969 executive order, the president delegates that authority to the defense secretary, who then may delegate it further. In recent history, the Army secretary has acted as the Guard’s commander.
That was the case in June, when D.C. Guard members were on hand as uniformed federal personnel forcibly cleared crowds of demonstrators and a D.C. Guard helicopter flew dangerously low over protesters.
After the June events, “we had to put much tighter left and right limits for these types of activities the next time around,” McCarthy said, referring to limits that Congress put on the use of military forces beginning this month.
The Defense Department is leaning forward to provide everything it can, McCarthy said.
“The key for us is, if a request is made for a certain capability, and we can legally provide it,” McCarthy said. “We will do whatever we have to do to support this inauguration.”
As Trump, now stripped of his platform on Twitter, makes only indirect reference to his electoral loss, the FBI is warning of intelligence suggesting “armed protests” may occur in all 50 states as his supporters attempt to keep him in office.
Already, city authorities in Michigan have asked Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) to activate that state’s National Guard ahead of planned protests at the Capitol. Conservative protests have rocked Michigan for months, culminating in a foiled far-right plot to kidnap Whitmer.
“Michigan had the dress rehearsal already,” Lansing City Council President Peter Spadafore said. “When folks tell you ahead of time they will be violent, we should take them at their word.”
In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) has authorized 750 Guard members to support law enforcement operations to defend the Capitol.
Pentagon officials suggested that additional Guard activations could follow in coming days. Already, as D.C.’s relatively small Guard seeks to prepare for additional violence, it is being joined by counterparts from states including New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and Minnesota. They will probably stay in both hotels in Washington and on military installations.
Pentagon officials have said that before the Jan. 6 protest, which began with a rally at which Trump spoke near the White House and culminated in the Capitol breach, they received no intelligence indicating a major or violent protest would occur.
The Defense Department doesn’t carry out domestic surveillance or threat-tracking operations not involving the military, meaning it relies on federal law enforcement.
Pushing back at assertions from officials including Bowser and Steven Sund, who stepped down after the riot from his post as chief of the Capitol Police, McCarthy denied the Pentagon had held back because of loyalty to Trump. He said the Pentagon was responding in keeping with requests from the city and Capitol Police, which explicitly asked for a limited, unarmed National Guard role.
That changed suddenly when rioters converged on the Capitol. “When the calls started coming in, it was all under duress; it was very challenging to understand,” McCarthy said. “No one could articulate what was really going on.”
When the alarming picture began to emerge, “we ran down the hallway at the Pentagon. We were trying to get a handle on this,” McCarthy said. “And when we got moving, we moved as fast as we could from a cold start, not configured to take a reaction.”
A second defense official emphasized that federal law enforcement was better placed to clear the Capitol building itself than members of the D.C. Guard.
“It would have been a very bad employment to have the Guard try to clear those buildings,” said the second official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “If you ever cleared buildings with people that don’t do it for a living, you could have some very challenging types of things happen.” Instead, the Guard later helped federal and local law enforcement reestablish the perimeter around the Capitol and its grounds.
Officials acknowledged a troubling current of right-wing ideology in the military. The second defense official said the military is trying to address the issue ahead of the inauguration preparations. But officials have also said they will not be able to screen all National Guard members involved for extremist affiliations, as some lawmakers have requested.
Alex Horton contributed to this report.