How a ragtag mob incited by US President Donald Trump managed to overpower security and invade the US Congress triggered anger and disbelief in Washington on Thursday.
The debacle forced the resignations late Thursday of Capitol Police chief Steven Sund and the top security officials of the two chambers of Congress, the sergeants-at-arms.
Also Thursday, a Capitol Police officer died of injuries sustained during Wednesday’s riot, according to US media reports. The officer was hit with a fire extinguisher during the melee but the exact cause of death was unclear. Four protesters died in the riot, including one shot inside the building.
As dust continued to settle on the extraordinary scenes of a besieged seat of power, voices were quickly raised to ask why the 2,300-strong Capitol Police force so easily gave way to the protesters, appearing not to try to arrest them.
The ease with which they breached security barriers to rampage through the white-domed building at the center of Washington — terrorizing lawmakers and briefly shutting down Congress — laid bare a serious security threat two weeks before US President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Top lawmakers in the House and Senate demanded investigations into the breach, saying it exposed a weakness that should not be have been there since the September 11, 2001 attacks.
“It was well known that extremist groups, some of whom desire to foment civil war, were planning violence,” said Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
“Nearly 20 years after 9/11, we still clearly have massive gaps in the Federal government’s terrorism preparedness and response capabilities,” he said.
It is not clear how many officers were on-duty Wednesday, but the complex is policed by a total of 2,300 officers for 16 acres of ground who protect the 435 House representatives, 100 US senators and their staff. By comparison, the city of Minneapolis has about 840 uniformed officers policing a population of 425,000 in a 6,000-acre area.
The images of hundreds of Trump supporters easily pushing into the main building of Congress despite a lockdown, striding through the halls and climbing on statues while guards had guns drawn to protect lawmakers, were astonishing and unprecedented in US history.
Police and defense officials said they had been planning for the January 6 rally of violent Proud Boys and other militia, QAnon conspiracy theorists, and other die-hard Trump followers for weeks.
It was timed for the day Congress was to confirm Joe Biden’s victory over Trump in the November 3 election — a verdict Trump and followers have refused to accept.
Despite many planning meetings and tracking the likely attendees, officials said they didn’t expect the group to besiege the Congress.
“The USCP had a robust plan established to address anticipated First Amendment activities,” said Sund, referring to protests protected by the US constitution’s guarantee of free speech. “But make no mistake — these mass riots were not First Amendment activities; they were criminal riotous behavior.”
Three days before the riot, the Pentagon asked the Capitol Police if it needed National Guard manpower, and as the mob descended on the building, Justice Department leaders reached out to offer up FBI agents. The police turned them down both times, according to senior defense officials and two people familiar with the matter.
There were signs online for weeks that violence could strike, with discussions on far-right message boards and in pro-Trump circles.
The unique structure of policing in Washington, the US capital with broad swathes of federal government property but also a city unto itself, fed into the disastrous attack on Congress.
The Capitol Police control the area around the Congress, and the city’s larger, better-trained force can’t go there unless asked.
The siege of the Capitol building was well underway when they were called in at about 1 p.m. Wednesday, said metropolitan Washington police chief Robert Contee.
“Things were already pretty bad at that point,” he told a press conference Thursday.
The city government also directs local National Guard forces which had been called up to help with the demonstrations.
But Mayor Muriel Bowser said she was never asked for their help Wednesday.
“The Capitol Police and the leadership at the Capitol, they did not make the decision to call in guard support. I cannot order the army, National Guard to the United States Capitol grounds,” Bowser said.
In fact, said Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, through multiple meetings with all the stakeholders including Capitol Police, Sund’s team repeatedly rejected offers of provisional support.
“There was no request and it was necessary to have requests for planning and coordination of any sort to be conducted in the event of a crisis situation,” said McCarthy, who oversees the national Guard in the US capital.
Michigan kidnap plot
The breach was embarrassingly easy and clearly dangerous.
Capitol Police had their weapons drawn at several points but didn’t stop the breach. At one point, however, one officer fired his weapon at the demonstrators, hitting and killing a woman.
Several protesters were arrested with weapons and two pipe bombs and a car laden with Molotov cocktails were also discovered by the Capitol.
Among the crowd of Trump fans were a number of members of armed militia groups known to be a threat.
Some were from Michigan, where last summer a similar pro-Trump group heavily armed with assault rifles, invaded the Michigan state capitol to protest COVID-19 controls.
In October the FBI arrested 13 in a plot to kidnap and possibly execute Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a critic of Trump.
And the FBI has called right-wing extremists the biggest threat of domestic terrorism.
But Contee admitted they didn’t know what the protesters had planned.
“There was no intelligence that suggested there would be a breach of the US Capitol,” he said.
Bowser and Biden both pointed out that the Trump administration treated the Black Lives Matter protesters who descended on Washington last year much more harshly than those rioting on Wednesday.
It took four hours to evict the protesters from the Capitol complex. By then, they had roamed the halls of Congress, posed for photos inside hallowed chambers, broken through doors, destroyed property and taken photos of themselves doing it. Only 13 were arrested at the time; scores were arrested later.
In the aftermath, a 7-foot fence will go up around the Capitol grounds for at least 30 days. The Capitol Police will conduct a review of the carnage, as well as their planning and policies. Lawmakers plan to investigate how authorities handled the rioting.