It was an attack centered on blocking Trump’s 2020 election loss — after weeks of disinformation on the subject from Trump himself — and precipitated in part on a deliberate effort to do precisely that. People came to Washington on Jan. 6 because Trump asked them to; some of them came with the specific intent of breaching the building to obstruct the transition of power to President Biden.
Since that day, there’s been an effort to broadly compare the incident to last year’s protests centered on concerns about police treatment of Black Americans. It’s a deeply flawed comparison, mixing wild disparities in scale, intent and motivation to try to craft some sort of what-about response to something that was, in reality, an exceptional event.
This week, the Senate has held briefings aimed at exploring the security failures that allowed the storming of the Capitol to occur. Over the course of two days of questioning, a new effort to draw equivalence to the left has emerged, centered on one particular moment in last year’s protests.
On Tuesday, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) began a hearing taking testimony from FBI Director Christopher A. Wray by painting a sweeping picture of how the protests at the White House itself unfolded in late May and early June.
“Sixty-seven Secret Service officers were injured during a three-day siege on the White House, which caused then-President Trump to be brought into a secure bunker,” Grassley said. “We also remember on television seeing our colleague from Kentucky having a hard time getting to the White House when he wanted to go there sometime last summer. We also had the church across the street was lit on fire across the street from the White House.”
This is revisionism. There wasn’t a “siege” on the White House; there were repeated demonstrations outside the White House. Trump was removed to a secure bunker at one point out of an abundance of caution — as leaders were removed during the attack on the Capitol — but as officials later told the New York Times, the president and his family “were never really in danger,” just “rattled” by the loud protests. (The ever-defensive Trump, of course, claimed that he was only in the bunker for an “inspection.”)
Incidentally, the colleague from Kentucky was Sen. Rand Paul (R), who was accosted by protesters more than two months later after he left the White House following Trump’s GOP convention speech.
There were certainly clashes with law enforcement at the White House during those protests and acts of vandalism, including the setting of a small fire at a church across the street. (It was quickly extinguished.) But, again, the intent was different (protesting vs. occupation); the scale was different (a handful of violent actors vs. scores or hundreds); and the motivation was different (concerns about police brutality vs. disinformation about Trump’s election loss).
Still, Grassley’s “siege” is a more defensible term than the one used Wednesday by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.).
“The events of the spring, which we’re all familiar with — I mean, we had the attack on the White House where 60 Secret Service officers were injured,” Hawley said when questioning Robert Salesses of the Defense Department. “The president had to be evacuated into a bunker. Church across the street from the White House was lit on fire.”
Hawley noted that the overwhelming response from law enforcement became a subject of political controversy, which is true. On June 4, The Washington Post reported that city officials were concerned about the broad deployment and the use of resources like a National Guard helicopter to monitor, contain and intimidate the protesters. This, he proposed, made the National Guard wary of a similarly robust deployment at the Capitol, an assessment with which Salesses agreed.
But Hawley’s framing is ludicrous. The protesters weren’t seeking to attack the White House, nor did they. In fact, the protesters in Lafayette Square just north of the White House were eventually the target of a violent effort to disperse them by law enforcement at the scene. This wasn’t a function of their behavior; Trump, you’ll recall, wanted to cross the street to have his photo taken outside of the church at which the fire had been set.
It is true that the robust deployment of law enforcement at the White House would have prevented any attempt to overrun the building should the protesters have wanted to do so. It’s also true that the more sparse presence of law enforcement at the Capitol allowed the mob to storm inside. The question the Senate hopes to answer is precisely why that disparity existed, particularly given the understanding from some in law enforcement that people were traveling to Washington with the stated intent of storming the building.
There are, of course, few members of the Senate for whom a left-wing equivalent to the Capitol breach would be more useful than Hawley. The senator led the charge to placate Trump supporters who viewed the election as stolen by announcing he would seek to block the counting of electoral votes from Pennsylvania. On the morning of Jan. 6, he walked past protesters outside the Capitol, giving them a fist-pump of support. He’s seen as inextricably tied to the eventual violence, thanks to rhetoric like this — retweeted with approval by Trump.
If left-wing attackers had tried to storm the White House, threatening Trump’s life and seeking to disrupt the functioning of the federal government, Hawley’s own role in encouraging those who eventually stormed the Capitol would gain the context that such actions were the new political normal, not an aberration. If there had been an attack on the executive mansion as there was an attack on the legislature, Hawley might better wave away questions about his decision to oppose the counting of electoral votes.
But that is not what happened.