Scores of District of Columbia National Guardsmen loaded on buses at the Washington Armory and were ready to deploy as pro-Trump rioters breached the Capitol on Jan. 6, but minutes turned into hours as they awaited permission from the Pentagon to move out.
Maj. Gen. William J. Walker, the commander of the D.C. National Guard, told lawmakers Wednesday that written instructions issued ahead of the insurrection from then-acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller and then-Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy limited his ability to deploy his troops where, as a commander, he felt they were needed.
On Jan. 6, Walker and top officials from the U.S. Capitol Police and Metropolitan Police Department pleaded for permission to send the National Guard to help secure the Capitol during a phone call around 2:22 p.m. with defense officials. But Walker said he didn’t receive the go-ahead to send his troops to the Capitol until just after 5 p.m.
Consequently, the roughly 150 guardsmen who were just blocks away at the armory, including a 40-person Quick Reaction Force, were sidelined that afternoon while police tried in vain to keep rioters from breaking into the Capitol.
“I believe that number could have made a difference,” Walker said during a joint hearing Wednesday of the Senate Rules and Administration and Homeland Security committees. “We could help extend the perimeter and help push back the crowd.”
Most members of Congress, as well as the vice president and the vice president-elect, were in the Capitol on Jan. 6 to certify the results of the November presidential election. After a rally on the Mall in which President Donald Trump falsely claimed he had won the election, the protesters marched on the Capitol and quickly overwhelmed Capitol Police officers. A riot ensued, interrupting the certification and triggering the relocation of lawmakers and staff to secure locations.
Because the District of Columbia is not a state and thus does not have a governor, the president is the commander in chief of the D.C. National Guard. The chain of command runs down to the Defense secretary and the Army secretary.
Walker drew a contrast between the Pentagon’s response to the Jan. 6 uprising, when it took hours to approve the deployment of the National Guard, and the June 2020 protests in Washington after the killing of George Floyd.
During the summer protests, Walker said he and McCarthy were in constant contact and were often together. In June, the approval to deploy the National Guard once the protests turned violent came within minutes, Walker said.
The National Guard deployed military helicopters, which flew low in an apparent effort to intimidate and disperse protesters, and guard members were involved in violent clashes during those summer protests.
By comparison, Miller issued a memo Jan. 4 that approved 330 D.C. guardsmen for traffic control but stressed that they not be armed or wear riot gear. The next day, McCarthy told the guard they could not deploy the Quick Reaction Force without prior approval.
Those orders came, in part, from a desire to avoid the criticism of a heavy-handed military response that followed the events in June, said Robert Salesses, a Pentagon official who is performing the duties of the assistant secretary of Defense for homeland defense and global security.
Salesses, who was not a part of the Pentagon’s response to the events of Jan. 6, said Miller approved the mobilization of the D.C. National Guard at 3:04 p.m. It was not until 4:32 p.m. that Miller gave verbal permission for the 300-plus guardsmen who were already manning traffic checkpoints and Metro stations in support of the Metropolitan Police Department to redeploy to the Capitol, according to the Pentagon’s timeline of the events of Jan. 6.
Walker said he didn’t receive approval to send his troops to the Capitol until just after 5 p.m., about three hours after insurrectionists first breached the building.
Neither Miller nor McCarthy, who both left their positions at the start of President Joe Biden’s administration, appeared at the hearing.
The delay, Salesses said, happened partly because McCarthy had questions about how the guardsmen would be deployed, their mission and how they would be armed.
“He wanted to understand how they were going to be armed because, obviously, shots had been fired” and there had been reports of bombs found on the Capitol campus, he said.
McCarthy’s written instructions from Jan. 5 required Walker to seek specific permission to deploy a 40-member quick reaction team. McCarthy also required Walker to send him a “concept of operation” before that team could be used.
Walker said he found these restrictions “unusual.” In fact, he had to get authorization to simply move several guardsmen on traffic duty to another position one block away.
Defense officials worried about the “optics” of deploying uniformed troops to the Capitol, Walker said, although the Pentagon has pushed back on this account. Concerns over optics did not come up during planning for the response to June protests or in July or August, when the National Guard again supported the city, he said.
Sen. Gary Peters, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, said he is worried that the country’s national security agencies are not adequately focused on domestic terrorism, the No. 1 terrorist threat to the U.S.
“The three-hour-and-19-minute delay in authorizing the deployment of the National Guard to respond to the Capitol to quell the violence was one that left police, members of Congress, staff and the public in danger and is without question completely unacceptable,” Peters said. “The breakdown of communication in the chain of command within the Department of Defense that contributed to this delay, a stark difference from the Department of Defense’s response during the summer protest, is concerning and should never, ever happen again.”
Sen. Rob Portman, the top Republican on the Homeland Security panel, said he would like to hear testimony from the Defense officials who were making the decisions on Jan. 6, namely Miller and McCarthy.
“Based on the Defense Department’s public timeline, once requested, it took the National Guard over three hours to arrive at the Capitol. Now remember, we were all watching this on CNN, and Fox and MSNBC, and it’s a riot,” the Ohio Republican said. “We need to know why the Pentagon took so long to deploy the National Guard.”