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Pentagon placed limits on D.C. Guard ahead of pro-Trump protests due to narrow mission

Capitol Police were unable to stop a breach of the Capitol. Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig and a former Senate Sergeant at Arms describe the events. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Reuters/The Washington Post)

The Pentagon placed tight limits on the D.C. National Guard ahead of pro-Trump protests this week, trying to ensure the use of military force remained constrained, as the Guard carried out a narrow, unarmed mission requested by the city’s mayor to help handle traffic ahead of planned protests.

In memos issued Monday and Tuesday in response to a request from the D.C. mayor, the Pentagon prohibited the District’s guardsmen from receiving ammunition or riot gear, interacting with protesters unless necessary for self-defense, sharing equipment with local law enforcement, or using Guard surveillance and air assets without the defense secretary’s explicit sign-off, according to officials familiar with the orders. The limits were established because the Guard hadn’t been asked to assist with crowd or riot control.

The D.C. Guard was also told it would be allowed to deploy a quick-reaction force only as a measure of last resort, the officials said.

Then the mission abruptly changed — and the Pentagon is now facing criticism from governors and local officials who say it moved too slowly to send National Guard troops to respond, a charge that its leaders denied Thursday.

The Capitol Police, the law enforcement force that reports to Congress and protects the House and Senate, hadn’t requested help from the Guard ahead of Wednesday’s events. But early Wednesday afternoon, its chief made an urgent plea for backup from 200 troops during a call with top Pentagon and city officials, according to officials familiar with the call.

On the call, Capitol Police Chief Steven A. Sund was asked whether he wanted help from the National Guard. “There was a pause,” one of the D.C. officials said. And Sund said yes. “Then there was another pause, and an official from the [office of the] secretary of the Army said that wasn’t going to be possible.”

The Army official — who was speaking on behalf of the secretary of the Army, who was de facto commanding the D.C. Guard but was not on the call — said the “optics” of soldiers inside the Capitol building was not something they wanted, the two District officials said.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) confirmed that account in an interview with The Washington Post, saying Capitol Police “made it perfectly clear that they needed extraordinary help, including the National Guard. There was some concern from the Army of what it would look like to have armed military personnel on the grounds of the Capitol.” One concern was whether the Army had been invited by Congress.

A U.S. defense official said the Army general on the call didn’t formally deny the request but rather reinforced the negative optics of having uniformed personnel inside the Capitol, a point on which Bowser had agreed, and later checked with the chain of command. The defense official said Bowser agreed that if further support was necessary, D.C. police would provide it inside the Capitol, and the Guard would backfill D.C. police positions away from the building.

The defense official said the military wanted to be the force of last resort, and that military officials had urged Bowser to request more support from federal law enforcement but that she didn’t do so until Wednesday.

Higher-up leaders at the Pentagon then evaluated the request and activated the full D.C. Guard, in addition to later calling the governors of other states to send their Guard forces as reinforcements. The officials also lifted limits on the Guard for the new mission, arming guardsmen with riot gear, but not guns, before they headed to create a perimeter around the Capitol.

In the roughly three hours it took the Pentagon to make the shift from traffic policing to full-fledged riot response, the Capitol Police found themselves overwhelmed and rioters stormed the building, forcing lawmakers to take cover and barricade themselves in their offices. The Pentagon left it to federal law enforcement to clear the Capitol of the rioters, amid the hesitancy about sending Guard units into the building itself. By the evening, Guard units helped the Capitol Police and federal and city law enforcement reestablish a perimeter around the building.

As Trump backers descend on capital, military hopes to avoid political fray

By Thursday, National Guard forces from across the Mid-Atlantic region were moving into the Washington area.

On Thursday afternoon, 24 hours after the Capitol breach, acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller called the violence “reprehensible and contrary to the tenets of the United States Constitution.”

“I, and the people I lead in the Department of Defense, continue to perform our duties in accordance with our oath of office, and will execute the time-honored peaceful transition of power to President-elect Biden on January 20,” he said in a statement.

Images of rioters overpowering a light law enforcement force and smashing their way into the Capitol building prompted immediate questions about how such a dramatic security breakdown could occur, especially given that rioters had openly voiced their intent to use violence on social media.

One contributing factor: As the seriousness of the threat became clear, the jumble of jurisdictions and command structures made it more difficult to respond with speed. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, who functions as de facto commander of the D.C. National Guard on behalf of the president, because the District is not a state, said 6,200 troops would be positioned in and around the city by the weekend, including Guard forces from Pennsylvania, New York and other nearby states.

Speaking alongside Bowser on Thursday, McCarthy said the military acted as quickly as it could once it received local authorities’ request for additional support and said officials had not been anticipating such a violent event, despite prolific calls on online platforms for violent action to overturn the Nov. 3 election.

McCarthy said officials didn’t in their “wildest imagination” envision rioters breaching Capitol grounds. City leadership had asked the Guard to carry out only a narrow mission, defense officials noted.

The chaotic and violent outcome of the events, which claimed four lives Wednesday, including a rioter who was shot by Capitol Police, came shortly after Trump egged on supporters in an address outside the White House, falsely insisting the election was fraudulent and urging the crowd to fight to keep him in office.

The turmoil follows a divisive year leading up to the election, amid the coronavirus pandemic and civil unrest after the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in May.

The protests triggered by Floyd’s death and race-related violence appeared to have prompted both city and Pentagon officials to opt for a muted response that kept military personnel far from protesters and let local and Capitol police take the lead. The Pentagon came under severe criticism in June, after National Guard forces were on hand when unarmed protesters were forcibly cleared from an area near the White House and front-line troops were positioned outside of Washington.

On Thursday, some local officials complained about a delay in granting their request for additional National Guard help as rioters swarmed the Capitol.

But Guard units arrived less than three hours after local authorities made the emergency request for more help, defense officials said.

The Defense Department controls the D.C. Guard because the military force answers to the president rather than the mayor. The president’s power over the D.C. Guard is delegated to the defense secretary, then the Army secretary, who makes command decisions. It is therefore up to the Pentagon leadership to call state governors if the D.C. Guard needs reinforcement.

Security preparations ahead of Wednesday’s events came after Trump ordered a mass military response to racial justice protests in the nation’s capital this summer, prompting a public outcry when military helicopters flew low over protesters, surveillance assets hovered above the city and residents were left with a sense that the District was being occupied or was under siege.

A U.S. defense official, who like other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations, said the military always issues memos outlining the parameters of any mission. The limits added ahead of Wednesday’s events made sense, the official said, given that D.C. officials requested the deployment of only a small contingent of some 340 guardsmen, primarily to control traffic and monitor Metro stations.

“All commanders have left and right limits,” the official said. “There is no such thing as carte blanche.”

The official said that when the mission changed Wednesday afternoon, the Pentagon provided more forces than were requested, bringing in Guard units from outside states and loosening the restrictions, and moved quickly.

The scope of the initial mission request by D.C. and the unique command structure of the D.C. Guard may have made it more difficult for authorities to quickly send guardsmen to aid at the Capitol. Defense leaders defended the timing of the Guard response, citing “confusion” in scoping out a revised mission among multiple agencies and jurisdictions during a chaotic, fast-moving situation.

Speaking to reporters by phone Thursday, McCarthy said that after violence erupted around 2 p.m. Wednesday, he spoke with Bowser and the request was relayed for about 200 additional soldiers.

“It was at that time we were trying to get to figure out the situation up on the Capitol Hill between our two entities and phone calls from members of Congress and others,” he said.

McCarthy then briefed Miller, who authorized the deployment of all available D.C. Guard troops, some 1,100 soldiers, with the goal of getting them to the D.C. Armory within four hours.

At the same time, McCarthy said, they began trying to pull the approximately 250 Guard troops who were already deployed in D.C., return them to the Armory to don riot gear and redirect them to support law enforcement at the Capitol. By early evening, D.C. Guard troops were in place around the Capitol, allowing police and FBI to search the building and clear it for lawmakers’ return.

“People were moving hard and fast,” he said. “Of course, there’s some very challenging physics with marshaling National Guard capability and doing fragmentary orders to support other missions.”

But lawmakers and other officials, including the governors of Maryland and Virginia, suggested they wished the Pentagon had moved faster in switching missions and calling in outside Guard units as backup. 

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said he received a call from House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who said he was in a secure location with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer.

“I was actually on the phone with Leader Hoyer, who was pleading with us to send the guard,” Hogan said. “He was yelling across the room to Schumer and they were back and forth saying we do have the authorization, and I’m saying, ‘I’m telling you we do not have the authorization.’ ”

Hogan said Maj. Gen. Timothy Gowen, the adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard, was repeatedly rebuffed by the Pentagon. “The general . . . kept running it up the flagpole, and we don’t have authorization,” he said.

Ninety minutes later, Hogan said, he received a call “out of the blue, not from the secretary of defense, not through what would be normal channels,” but from McCarthy, who asked if the Maryland guardsmen could “come as soon as possible.”

“It was like, yeah, we’re waiting, we’re ready,” said Hogan, who had already sent 200 State Police troopers at Bowser’s request.

Virginia sent in its Guard after Gov. Ralph Northam (D) received a call from Pelosi asking for help.

Clark Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff, said he received a call from his counterpart in Bowser’s office, who suggested the Defense Department wasn’t moving fast enough and asked for Virginia to send in its own state Guard.

Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said the governor called up the Guard immediately after talking with Bowser, knowing it would take some time for guardsmen to prepare. The Northam administration worked with the Defense Department only after the fact, but was able to reach the necessary agreements before guardsmen crossed state lines, she said. The governor’s office publicly announced that he had called up the Guard at 3:29 p.m.

Once the Pentagon signed off, the Guard mounted a vast response.

“Going through that mission analysis process, we were able to do an analysis and provide more than what they asked for,” the defense official said. “No one asked us to activate the entire Guard. Those are decisions we made on our own by taking a pause and conducting another analysis.”

Ovetta Wiggins and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.