WASHINGTON — Three days before the pro-President Donald Trump riot at the Capitol, the Pentagon asked the U.S Capitol Police if it needed National Guard manpower. And as the mob descended on the building Wednesday, Justice Department leaders reached out to offer up FBI agents. The police turned them down both times, according to a defense official and two people familiar with the matter.
Despite plenty of warnings of a possible insurrection and ample resources and time to prepare, the Capitol Police planned only for a free speech demonstration.
Still stinging from the uproar over the violent response by law enforcement to protests last June near the White House, officials also were intent on avoiding any appearance that the federal government was deploying active duty or National Guard troops against Americans.
The result is the U.S. Capitol was overrun Wednesday and officers in a law enforcement agency with a large operating budget and experience in high-security events protecting lawmakers were overwhelmed for the world to see. Four protesters died, including one shot inside the building.
The rioting and loss of control by the police has raised serious questions over security at the Capitol for future events. The actions of the day also raise troubling concerns about the treatment of mainly white Trump supporters who were allowed to roam through the building for hours, while Black and brown protesters who demonstrated last year over police brutality faced more robust and aggressive policing.
“This was a failure of imagination, a failure of leadership,” said Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, whose department responded to several large protests last year following the death of George Floyd. “The Capitol Police must do better and I don’t see how we can get around that.”
Acevedo said he has attended events on the Capitol grounds to honor slain police officers that had higher fences and a stronger security presence than what he saw on video Wednesday.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said that as the rioting was underway, it became clear that the Capitol Police were overrun. There was no contingency planning done in advance for what forces could do in case of a problem at the Capitol. “They’ve got to ask us, the request has to come to us,” said McCarthy.
By the day after the rampage, the House sergeant-at-arms, the chief security officer for the House of Representatives, had resigned and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had called for the resignation of the Capitol Police chief.
“There was a failure of leadership at the top,” Pelosi said.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the incoming majority leader, said he will fire the Senate sergeant-at-arms.
The U.S. Capitol had been closed to the public since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 350,000 people. But normally, the building is open to the public and lawmakers pride themselves on their availability to their constituents.
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 U.S. 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.
There were signs for weeks that violence could strike on Jan. 6, when Congress convened for a joint session to finish counting the Electoral College votes that would confirm Democrat Joe Biden had won the presidential election.
On far-right message boards and in pro-Trump circles, plans were being made.
The leader of the far-right extremist-group Proud Boys was arrested coming into the nation’s capital this week on a weapons charge for carrying empty high-capacity magazines emblazoned with their logo. He admitted to police that he made statements about rioting in the District of Columbia, local officials said.
Both Acevedo and Ed Davis, a former Boston Police commissioner who led the department during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, said they did not fault the responses of clearly overmatched front-line officers, but the planning and leadership before the riot.
“Was there a structural feeling that well, these are a bunch of conservatives, they’re not going to do anything like this? Quite possibly,” Davis said. “That’s where the racial component to this comes into play in my mind. Was there a lack of urgency or a sense that this could never happen with this crowd? Is that possible? Absolutely.”
Trump and his allies were perhaps the biggest megaphones, encouraging protesters to turn out in force and support his false claim that the election had been stolen from him. He egged them on during a rally shortly before they marched to the Capitol and rioted. His personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, a former New York mayor known for his tough-on-crime stance, called for “trial by combat.”
But the Capitol Police had set up no hard perimeter around the Capitol. Officers were focused on one side where lawmakers were entering to vote to certify Biden’s win.
Barricades on the plaza to the building were set up, but police retreated from the line and a mob of people broke through. Lawmakers, at first unaware of the security breach, continued their debate. Soon they were cowering under chairs. Eventually they were escorted from the House and Senate. Journalists were left alone in rooms for hours as the mob attempted to break into barricaded rooms.
“The violent attack on the U.S. Capitol was unlike any I have ever experienced in my 30 years in law enforcement here in Washington, D.C.,” Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund said, explaining there had been a robust plan for what he had expected would be a display of First Amendment activities. “But make no mistake – these mass riots were not First Amendment activities; they were criminal riotous behavior.”
Gus Papathanasiou, head of the Capitol Police union, called for Sund to be replaced, saying planning failures left officers exposed without backup or equipment against surging crowds.
“We cannot leave our officers and the Capitol Hill community they protect to the mercy of further attacks amid a vacuum of leadership,” he said.
Justice officials, the FBI and other agencies began to monitor hotels, flights and social media weeks ago and were expecting massive crowds. Mayor Muriel Bowser had warned of impending violence for weeks, and businesses had closed in anticipation. She requested National Guard help from the Pentagon on Dec. 31, but the Capitol Police turned down the Jan. 3 offer from the Defense Department, according to Kenneth Rapuano, assistant defense secretary for homeland security.
The Justice Department’s offer for FBI support as the protesters grew violent was rejected by the Capitol Police, according to the two people familiar with the matter. They were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.
By then, it was too late.
Officers from the Metropolitan Police Department descended. Agents from nearly every Justice Department agency, including the FBI, were called in. So was the Secret Service and the Federal Protective Service. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives sent two tactical teams. Police from as far away as New Jersey arrived to help.
It took four hours to disperse 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.
The acting U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia, Michael Sherwin, said the failure to arrest more people is making their jobs harder.
“Look, we have to now go through cell site orders, collect video footage to try to identify people and then charge them, and then try to execute their arrest. So that has made things challenging but I can’t answer why those people weren’t zip-tied as they were leaving the building by the Capitol Police.”
Story by Colleen Long, Lolita Baldor, Michael Balsamo and Nomaan Merchant. Associated Press writers Ben Fox, Mary Clare Jalonick, Andrew Taylor and Ashraf Khalil contributed to this report.