“There’s a reality there — the leaders of the House and the Senate don’t want the military up there. They don’t want to show they can’t control their own turf,” said Bill Pickle, who served as the Senate sergeant-at-arms from 2003 to 2007 and spoke to The Washington Post at Irving’s request.
Pickle confirmed the account of former Capitol Police chief Steven Sund, who previously told The Post that when he suggested bringing in the Guard, Irving responded that he was concerned about the “optics” of such a move. Irving did not consult first with his boss, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), but thought he was reflecting her likely response, Pickle said.
“The term ‘optics’ is not an unusual term up there on the Hill,” Pickle added. “He understands how the members think. He understands optics is everything to a politician.”
The subsequent attack on the Capitol that resulted in the deaths of five people has now put sharp focus on the two sergeants-at-arms — the top congressional security officials, whose positions date to the 18th century — and how the dynamic with their political bosses might have contributed to the massive security breach that day.
While Irving and his Senate counterpart Michael Stenger oversaw the Capitol Police, they also answered to the House speaker and Senate majority leader, leaving them squeezed between law enforcement and politics.
In a statement, Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said, “Our expectation is to always be fully briefed on the options. The failure of the nation’s law enforcement apparatus to fully understand the gravity of the situation coupled with the President’s dramatic and deliberate incitement to violence led to the failure of any and all plans previously briefed to the Congress.”
Stenger and Irving both had long careers in the Secret Service before taking positions on the Hill in 2011 and 2012, respectively, and congressional aides said lawmakers largely delegated questions about security issues to them.
But the two men also had to negotiate a long-standing tension on Capitol Hill between securing the building and the desire of lawmakers to keep it open to the public. Past attempts by congressional security chiefs to bolster the Capitol’s defenses were shot down by members of Congress who did not want to restrict access to the seat of American democracy.
Irving and Stenger, who have both resigned, have declined to comment publicly about what happened Jan. 6, when a violent mob of Trump supporters attacked the Capitol as Congress gathered to the count the electoral college votes and certify President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
But according to Pickle, Irving said he, Stenger and Sund were all comfortable with the security arrangements in place before Jan. 6 — and thought that the National Guard would be on alert if needed.
Pickle also said that Irving reviewed an internal Capitol Police intelligence report submitted three days before the report that warned of a violent scenario in which “Congress itself” could be targeted, but said the House sergeant-at-arms thought the report was similar to others compiled before previous demonstrations. Irving was comfortable with the roughly 1,400 police officers on duty guarding the building and 125 Guard members who Sund said he had been told could be available quickly if necessary, he said.
Irving and Stenger were surprised, Pickle said, when they issued an urgent request for the National Guard as rioters lay siege to the building and the Defense Department did not immediately approve the request.
“The thing that bothers him is that because he used the word ‘optics,’ everyone is focused on that,” Pickle said. But as the riot was unfolding, he said, “It was like everyone was watching the house burn down, but no one was throwing any water on it.”
Pentagon officials have said that congressional officials did not formally request military assistance in advance and that they moved as quickly as possible that day, noting that the National Guard is not designed to be a rapid-response unit.
As numerous federal agencies and congressional committees launch inquiries into the failures that led to the ransacking of the Capitol, experts say the slow response to the crisis may have been exacerbated by the unusual chain of command in Capitol security.
Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, said lawmakers need to reevaluate the Capitol Police’s oversight by its three-person board, which includes the two sergeants-at-arms and the architect of the Capitol, who is appointed by the president.
“If two of those three are worried about optics rather than security, that’s a problem for the policymakers that put them in those position,” Davis said.
While the leaders of each chamber appoint the top security officials, the sergeants-at-arms answer to myriad bosses: the House and Senate appropriations committees, the House Administration and Senate Rules committees, and virtually any member of Congress.
“It’s not a structure that makes decision-making easy,” said Drew Willison, who served as sergeant-at-arms from 2014 to 2015 after working for then-Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). “It’s a fraught environment, not a place where any one person gets to make all the decisions.”
And there is deep institutional resistance to increasing security in and around the building.
“Most members will tell you they take they openness of the Capitol complex very seriously because of the First Amendment and the right to free speech and the right to protest,” Willison said. “The general pressure was for a less blatantly hardened campus.”
Irving encountered that about eight years ago, when he laid out a radical plan: To better secure the Capitol, he suggested to House leadership that police could permanently bar traffic from a stretch of Independence Avenue bordering the southern base of Capitol Hill, according to two people familiar with the proposal.
Around the same time, Irving’s counterpart in the Senate, Terry Gainer, put forward an even more sweeping plan, suggesting a wrought-iron fence encircling the Capitol grounds that would force pedestrians to go through security checkpoints before approaching the building.
Both proposals, discussed around 2013, went nowhere — nixed by congressional leaders wary of erecting barriers between their constituents and the Capitol.
“It was expensive, bold, long-term and didn’t send the message that leadership was trying to send — that it was a Capitol open for business,” said Gainer, who served in the Senate post from 2007 to 2014. “The response was something like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”
Pickle recalled that he too suggested fencing the Capitol back in 2003. At the time, he said, then- Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) told him it was “never ever going to happen.”
Pickle remembered that Dodd went on to say that if there was a security failure at the building and something terrible happened, Pickle would probably remind him that he had rejected the fence.
“He said, ‘You know what? It’s still going to be your fault,’ ” Pickle recalled.
In an interview, Dodd said he did not remember the conversation, but said he had had concern about closing off the Capitol from the public. “We can’t have tanks at every door,” he said.
Despite overseeing combined budgets of more than $250 million, there are no formal requirements to hold the positions of sergeant-at-arms, which date to 1789. The House sergeant-at-arms steps into the spotlight only a few seconds once a year to announce the president’s arrival to deliver the State of the Union address. The Senate post is officially called the sergeant-at-arms and doorkeeper, harking back to its 18th-century duties of keeping members inside the Capitol to conduct the business of government.
The jobs were traditionally steeped in patronage. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, however, both posts have almost exclusively been held by former law enforcement or military officers.
While the full House and Senate vote to approve their sergeants-at-arms, they typically do not hold hearings or debate the selection proposed by the House speaker and Senate majority leader.
A onetime Marine, Stenger joined the sergeant-at-arms office after working 35 years in the Secret Service, including as head of the agency’s government affairs office, a role that put him in charge of congressional relations. He was hired as an assistant sergeant-at-arms in 2011 and promoted several times before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) installed him in the top job in 2018.
A spokesman for McConnell declined to comment on Stenger.
Some who worked with Stenger said he could be imperious, clashing at times with other staffers in part because he focused intensely on security rather than the office’s other priorities. The result, one former employee said, was that he did not build a close relationship with McConnell — the kind of mutual trust that might have made requesting additional assistance during the riot easier.
“It was all about security — nothing else was interesting to him,” the former employee said. “And it was that Secret Service background. Like, thanks. I’ve got this.”
Still, there were embarrassing lapses before Jan. 6. While Stenger was chief of staff to the sergeant-at-arms, a protester hid behind reporters and threw Russian flags at Trump during one of his visits to the Capitol.
A few months after Stenger’s appointment to the top job, protesters opposed to the confirmation of Brett M. Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court were able to confront then-Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) as he stepped into an elevator just off the Senate floor, a viral moment that thrilled Kavanaugh’s detractors but concerned some senators.
Stenger imposed strict crowd-control measures during the Kavanaugh hearings in 2018 and during Trump’s impeachment trial in early 2020. The moves drew blowback from the media and some senators, who complained that the barricades limited reporters’ ability question lawmakers but did little to improve security.
“These restrictions are antithetical to a free press, good governance, and the ability of the public to be fully informed about what we as elected leaders do in their name,” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) wrote a letter to Stenger at the time.
The response by the Capitol Police to the pro-Trump demonstration puzzled some staffers familiar with Stenger’s hard-line approach to security. Some have questioned whether he assumed that the crowd would be deferential to police or wondered if he was too focused on his impending retirement.
Two people who were evacuated to the Senate’s secure room on Jan. 6 overheard Stenger lamenting that he had not departed his office before Wednesday. “I wish I had just retired last week,” he said.
Irving came to Congress after 25 years in the Secret Service and working for his family’s private real estate and manufacturing companies and consulted for a security firm.
In 2012 he was hired to be the House sergeant-at-arms, replacing the long-serving Wilson “Bill” Livingood, who had held the post for 17 years, surviving several changes in party leadership.
Among his former Secret Service colleagues, Irving was seen as a logical choice for the post. After a stint on the White House protective detail, he had served as a liaison between the agency and the Hill.
Two former House staffers said he was chosen by then-Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) after a national search. The sergeant-at-arms withstood turnover when Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) took the gavel in 2015 and then handed it to Pelosi in early 2019.
“He was totally unquestioned in terms of his professionalism,” said a former House aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive questions about Irving’s leadership leading up to and during the riot. “He was recognized by three speakers as a professional and someone you could trust.”
Democrats praised his evenhandedness after their 2016 sit-in on the House floor to demand Republican leaders put gun-control legislation to a vote. Ryan decided not to directly discipline Democrats for breaking House rules after consulting with Irving, according to congressional aides, but six months later, the GOP-led House approved new rules making it possible to fine members up to $2,500 for taking photos or recording videos from the House floor.
Some lawmakers are now taken aback by how Irving managed the siege.
As the mob swarmed outside the Capitol that afternoon, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Administration Committee, recounted that she reached Irving, who was in the House chamber and assured her the mob would be kept out. “Nobody can get in,” Irving said.
Lofgren said she had always had a “fairly good working relationship” with Irving. “But,” she added, “this is a massive security failure — and he has responsibility.”
Former sergeants-at-arms said there must be thorough investigations into the security preparations and events that day, adding that they were wary of judging Irving and Stenger’s actions until more is known.
“They gave a lot during their careers in public service and I do not think they should be judged on the worst day of their lives,” Gainer said. “The 6th of January, I am sure, was the worst day of their lives.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.