ONE PHRASE was repeated over and over at Wednesday’s Senate hearing on the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol: Three hours and 19 minutes. Three hours and 19 minutes. That is how long it took the Pentagon to agree to dispatch troops to help beleaguered Capitol Police overrun by the violent pro-Trump mob. Lawmakers were clearly incredulous about the agonizing delay, and rightly so. Equally stupefying was the lack of any good explanation as to why, despite frantic and repeated pleas from officials on the scene as well as the live broadcast of the chaos on television, the Defense Department delayed in sending help.

The hearing, the second in an examination by two Senate committees into the security failures that left the Capitol vulnerable to attack, featured riveting testimony from the commanding general of the D.C. National Guard. Maj. Gen. William J. Walker didn’t pull any punches in detailing what he called “unusual” Pentagon restrictions that hamstrung his ability to provide emergency assistance. He laid out a timeline that began at 1:49 p.m. with a frantic phone call from the then-head of the Capitol Police reporting a “dire emergency” with the breach of the security perimeter by hostile rioters and requesting immediate assistance. Maj. Gen. Walker promptly alerted Army leadership, but said he encountered resistance from officials worried about the “optics” of sending in troops. He said he didn’t receive authorization to send forces to the Capitol until 5:08 p.m.

Had he not been restricted, including in deploying a quick-reaction force, he said he would have been able to send 155 soldiers to the Capitol hours earlier. “I believe that number could have made a difference,” he said. “We could have helped extend the perimeter and helped push back the crowd.” Most vivid was his description of readying troops and then having them sit on buses waiting for a green light from the Pentagon — this while the Capitol was being ransacked, and frightened members of Congress and their staffs were hiding from the mob.

Robert G. Salesses, the senior Defense Department official testifying on the department’s behalf, had not been involved in any of the Jan. 6 discussions. Not surprisingly, his explanations about the chain of the command and assertion that only the defense secretary could approve troop use for civil disturbances left many members unsatisfied. As well they should be. What happened Jan. 6 was an abomination that must never happen again. Efforts to find out exactly what went wrong have so far mainly produced a lot of finger-pointing and a lot more questions. That underscores the need for Congress to appoint a bipartisan commission to investigate the events of Jan. 6.

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