WASHINGTON — The center of Washington, DC, was under security lockdown Thursday as more than 20,000 armed National Guard troops were mobilized following the deadly assault on the Capitol and the threat of more violence surrounding the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden next week.
Police Chief Robert Contee said the US capital was facing “a major security threat” after supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol building a week ago in a violent bid to block Biden’s confirmation that left five people dead.
A day after Trump was impeached in Congress for allegedly supporting the assault, more barriers were being erected and razor wire laid as part of precautions ahead of the January 20 inauguration ceremony.
Most of downtown Washington was off-limits to traffic, drawing comparisons to Baghdad’s high-security “Green Zone.”
The Secret Service, in charge of security, was weighing an unprecedented shutdown of the entire National Mall, the grassy spread where hundreds of thousands traditionally gather to celebrate the inauguration of a new president.
Security officials are warning that armed extremist Trump supporters, possibly carrying explosives, pose a threat to Washington as well as state capitals over the coming week.
“We are seeing an extensive amount of concerning online chatter,” FBI Director Chris Wray told Vice President Mike Pence in a televised briefing.
“We’re concerned about the potential for violence at multiple protest rallies planned here in DC and state capitol buildings around the country in the days to come, that could bring armed individuals within close proximity to government buildings and officials,” he said.
In steps not seen since after the September 11, 2001 national alerts, an internal FBI bulletin, warned that an armed group planned to “storm” government offices in all 50 states as well as Washington to protest Biden.
“The FBI received information about an identified armed group intending to travel to Washington, DC on 16 January,” the bulletin added.
The New York Times reported that the FBI has told police departments around the country to stay alert for extremist activity and pass on intelligence.
Political figures boosted their own personal security, as Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser revealed she has received death threats.
“Clearly we are in uncharted waters,” Bowser said.
Last week’s “violent insurrection” at the Capitol by Trump supporters has “impacted the way we are approaching working with our federal partners in planning for the 59th inauguration,” Bowser said.
Between the pandemic and the security threat, Bowser is flat-out asking people not to come to the District of Columbia for the inauguration.
Police vehicles sealed off a huge swath of downtown on Wednesday, causing immediate traffic snarls. Starting Wednesday, Bowser said, anyone inside the inauguration perimeter might be stopped and questioned.
Starting Friday, all parking garages in the downtown restricted zone will be sealed through the inauguration. Bowser is asking city residents to avoid the downtown area entirely, and the city announced that 13 Metro stations inside the security perimeter will shut down for several days.
Bowser is also being pushed to deny lodging options to potentially violent protesters. The local Black Lives Matter affiliate and Shutdown DC issued a joint statement Wednesday urging all downtown hotels to voluntarily close and pay their staffs.
In addition to the threat of violence, the activist groups say Trump supporters are a threat to the health of hotel staff for their general refusal to wear facemasks during the pandemic.
Some downtown hotels closed their doors, and Airbnb has canceled reservations in the days around the event.
“We are aware of reports emerging yesterday afternoon regarding armed militias and known hate groups that are attempting to travel and disrupt the Inauguration,” a company statement said. “We are continuing our work to ensure hate group members are not part of the Airbnb community.”
Peter Meijer, one of 10 House Republicans who voted with Democrats on Wednesday to impeach Trump for supporting “insurrection,” said he and other lawmakers were taking precautions like acquiring body armor.
“I have colleagues who are now traveling with armed escorts out of the fear for their safety,” he told MSNBC. “Our expectation is that someone may try to kill us.”
The potential threat was underscored earlier this week with the discovery that one of those arrested for taking part in the January 6 attack on the Capitol had the kind of weapons and ammunition one might use for an assassination.
Court documents said Cleveland Grover Meredith had two guns, one with a telescopic sight, and around 1,000 rounds.
Another man was arrested with four guns and 11 Molotov cocktails in his truck.
Police are still searching for a man who planted two pipe bombs near the Capitol on January 6.
Worries were heightened when The Washington Post reported that dozens of people on an FBI terrorist watch list were in Washington for the pro-Trump rallies on January 6.
Airlines were tightening security, with Delta announcing that legally armed travelers formerly allowed to check their guns at security would not even be allowed to do that on flights to Washington.
In several states, National Guard were also called out to prepare security for January 16-20.
Washington State, Michigan and others said they were concerned about possible far-right violence.
Troops pour in
On the ground in the US capital, much of the most visible security will come in the form of the National Guard troops, some of them armed. Pentagon officials approved requests to have some of them carry either long guns or handguns, particularly those assigned near the Capitol building. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss security details.
National Guard members operate under strict rules of engagement on the use of force, but generally speaking, troops can use lethal force to protect the lives of others and themselves.
Police chief Contee estimated Wednesday that more than 20,000 National Guard members would be active in the city on Inauguration Day. But officials said Thursday that law enforcement had requested many more, and the number approved by the Pentagon is now 21,000.
As of Thursday, there were roughly 7,000 already in the city, with thousands more en route. The length of their missions may vary, but Defense Department officials were authorized to deploy the Guard for up to 30 days for the inauguration and surrounding protests.
US defense officials say state leaders have made it clear that their priority is to protect their own capitals, which are on alert against violent protests or attacks, but they also have given assurances that they will have enough troops to send some support to the US Capitol.