The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion D.C. should be able to deploy its own National Guard

A National Guard soldier and protester interact near the White House in June 2020 after the death of George Floyd. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

One evening during the 2020 protests that followed the death of George Floyd, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) was getting out of her car and preparing to enter her home when she got a call from then-Police Chief Peter Newsham: The Trump White House was planning on taking over the D.C. police department.

She returned to her car.

In pushing back, Ms. Bowser argued that such a move by the White House would plunge D.C. into civic darkness. “I was concerned that we would have a riot in the District. I mean, a real one. A real riot,” Ms. Bowser told investigators for the House select committee on the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack, the transcript for which was released last month. Then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Ms. Bowser recalled, didn’t sound too convinced. “His basic tenor was that this was going to happen; there was nothing I could do about it,” she said.

Why did the White House want to take over the D.C. police? “They didn’t want protests outside of the White House,” Ms. Bowser told the committee.

In the end, the White House stood down. But the episode is remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which is that Donald Trump’s inclination — to essentially federalize the law-enforcement apparatus that D.C. taxpayers fund for their own protection — is allowable under the law on a carte blanche basis, “whenever” the president “determines that special conditions of an emergency nature exist.”

Bad laws have a way of hiding out for years and years, waiting for opportunistic politicians to seize upon them. It happens that D.C., because of its orphaned political standing, has been saddled with a disproportionate share. Not only does the city live with the prospect of a perfectly legal police takeover by the president, but also it lacks the authority to call out its own National Guard unit, a procedural indignity that hobbled the response to the riots of Jan. 6.

Around 1:30 p.m. on that day, the mayor requested National Guard assistance in a call with then-Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy. About 30 minutes before that call, protesters had broken through the outer security barrier protecting the Capitol and its surroundings; they’d soon be storming the building itself. By the time she got on the phone with the Army secretary, Ms. Bowser had already mobilized the D.C. police department and emergency services to assist at the Capitol. “My discussion with him was pretty much like, ‘You’re seeing what I’m seeing. Your Capitol is being overrun,’ ” Ms. Bowser recalled in her committee interview.

While a calamity was taking place in D.C., however, bureaucracy was prevailing in the Pentagon. Ms. Bowser emerged from the talk with the impression that Mr. McCarthy would run the request “up his chain of command.” What a slippery chain it would prove to be: As an appendix in the Jan. 6 panel’s report details, Pentagon officials convened and conferred and conference-called their way to a delay of 3 hours and 19 minutes, in the calculation of William Walker, who was then serving as the commanding general of the D.C. National Guard. It all amounted to an excruciating holding pattern for the Guard’s front-line personnel. “We’re all ready,” one service member told the Jan. 6 committee. “Now we’re all donned. So go sit on the bleachers and wait.”

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And wait. The D.C. National Guard didn’t show up at the Capitol until just before 6 p.m., by which time “pretty much all the other fighting, per se, had stopped on the Capitol complex,” a D.C. police officer testified.

One way to circumvent all the blundering of Jan. 6 would be to empower the D.C. mayor to deploy the National Guard — a fix that D.C.’s delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), has been introducing since November 1993. (This change can be effected without first granting the District statehood.) There are 54 National Guard units in the country, including all the states, Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia. As Elizabeth Goitein and Joseph Nunn wrote in 2021, the D.C. National Guard is the only one “never under local control.”

Governors, in other words, tell their National Guards what to do; Ms. Bowser makes requests and hopes for the best. Sometimes the results fall short. During the Floyd protests, for example, D.C. leaders were dismayed that on one night, some D.C. National Guard soldiers didn’t appear at key patrol stations and others arrived late, according to a District official. During a big 2016 snowstorm, when the District asked the Guard to help move vulnerable citizens around town, the soldiers came to the job without shovels. D.C. officials scrambled to provide them. In both cases, the Guard corrected its mistakes, said the official, who also credited the organization with first-rate assistance during the coronavirus pandemic. (A D.C. National Guard spokesperson said the organization has a “great and long-standing relationship with the District of Columbia government” that includes consultation after deployments.)

Tensions and miscues between large organizations are, of course, inevitable. What’s anomalous about this relationship is that Ms. Bowser, who has governor-level responsibilities for the safety and welfare of D.C. residents, has no authority over an institution central to providing both. (The District contributes nearly $6 million to the D.C. National Guard’s annual operating budget.) Last summer, Ms. Bowser requested D.C. National Guard assistance in accommodating migrants arriving on buses from Texas and Arizona. The Pentagon denied the request on the grounds that the operation would “negatively impact the readiness of the DCNG and have negative effects on the organization and members.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) was not required to pass a Pentagon “negative effects” test when he recently called out his National Guard to block the crossing of migrants into Texas.

By virtue of its extensive presence in D.C., the federal government has a robust interest in a strong D.C. National Guard. Yet even in a scenario in which the D.C. mayor were granted deployment authority, the president would also still have the ability to mobilize the Guard for whatever emergencies may arise, as is currently the practice in the states.

Empowering the D.C. mayor, accordingly, isn’t some zero-sum scheme to demote federal prerogatives. It’s an acknowledgment that a territory of nearly 700,000 people occasionally has needs best served by the National Guard. Without a helping of red tape.

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