We now know that, like so much of what Jordan and Trump have to say, these are damnable lies. Maj. Gen. William J. Walker, the commander of the D.C. National Guard, told a Senate committee Wednesday that he had been prevented by then-Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy from deploying a quick-reaction force or distributing weapons and riot gear before Jan. 6. McCarthy, in turn, was acting on the orders of then-acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller. Walker said such restrictions were “unusual” and were not imposed during Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Washington.
When the attack on the Capitol began, Walker continued, he received a frantic call for assistance at 1:49 p.m. from the then-head of the Capitol Police and immediately relayed the request to the Pentagon. But it was not until 5:08 p.m. — three hours and 19 minutes later — that Walker finally received permission to deploy his troops. That was long after the Capitol had been overrun.
Walker said that two Army generals — Lt. Gen. Walter E. Piatt and Lt. Gen. Charles A. Flynn — initially expressed opposition to the deployment, because they thought the “optics” wouldn’t be good and that it could “incite the crowd.” Charles Flynn is the brother of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser and a pardoned felon, who in December advocated using the military to “rerun” the election in states that Trump lost.
So much for Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, claiming the military responded at “sprint speed” to the insurrection. Tortoise speed is more like it.
We still don’t have the full story of what happened; Congress will need to hear from McCarthy, Miller, Piatt and Charles Flynn, among others. Clearly there were multiple failures that day at different government agencies, including the Capitol Police, not just at the Defense Department. But what we already know suggests that the senior Pentagon leadership, installed by Trump, was either incompetent or malevolent. Or, quite possibly, both.
The best-case scenario is that the Pentagon was slow to respond in January because of all the blowback it had received for deploying troops to Lafayette Square in June. This might explain the generals’ concern about “optics,” which was shared by the House sergeant-at-arms. But it should have been obvious that there was a world of difference between using troops to attack unarmed demonstrators and using troops to stop terrorists from overrunning the Capitol.
The worst-case scenario is that Pentagon leaders were slow to act because they did not want to battle a mob that had been mobilized and incited by their commander in chief. As my colleague Dana Milbank notes, Miller, the acting defense secretary, did not finally give permission for the Guard to deploy until after Trump had belatedly told the insurrectionists to “go home.”
The larger problem is that Miller should never have been running the Defense Department even temporarily — and he should never have been surrounded by a coterie of unqualified Trump loyalists with extremist views. They were installed in November after Trump “terminated” Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, who had angered him by opposing the deployment of active-duty troops to quell racial justice demonstrations.
Esper himself was complicit in allowing Trump to politicize the Defense Department before finally reaching his breaking point. He did not vocally protest pardons for war criminals, the use of the defense budget to build a border wall or the withdrawal of troops from Germany. Nor did he shield Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from retaliation for testifying about Trump’s attempt to use military aid to coerce Ukraine into helping him politically.
The only defense secretary who consistently stood up to Trump was Jim Mattis, and he resigned in protest in December 2018 over Trump’s abandonment of the Syrian Kurds. As former CIA officer Marc Polymeropoulos tweeted, it is hard to imagine that if Mattis were still in charge — rather than a “highly political JV leadership team” — that the Defense Department would have been so unprepared for an attack on the Capitol or so slow to respond.
After four years of assiduous effort, Trump succeeded in politicizing the Defense Department and undermining its effectiveness. The result was the Jan. 6 catastrophe. It is terrifying to imagine how much worse the Pentagon would have gotten if Trump had won a second term. Now it is incumbent on Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to clean up the department and rebuild the battered guardrails of military professionalism.