On Aug. 24, 1814, British troops entered Washington after defeating American militia at the Battle of Bladensburg. They then burned both the White House and the Capitol. Since that sad day, Washington D.C. has endured civil war, numerous large demonstrations, riots and disturbances. But the Capitol, the architectural symbol of our democracy, has not been attacked and occupied since the British humiliation.
The Capitol, the architectural symbol of our democracy, has not been attacked and occupied since the British humiliation. Not until Wednesday.
Not until Wednesday, that is, when a mob of pro-Trump supporters stormed the building. One person was fatally shot during the riot, and a Capitol policeman has now died of injuries he sustained while defending the Capitol. According to police, one explosive device was found outside the headquarters of the Republican National Committee and a second device was found near the offices of the Democratic National Committee.
City leaders, as well as federal officials, knew violence might occur during or after the planned “Save America” rally in support of Trump’s unsubstantiated election fraud claims. Many businesses in downtown Washington boarded up their windows earlier in the week as a precaution. Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio was also arrested upon his arrival in Washington on Monday and ordered to leave the city.
But the spectacle Americans witnessed on their televisions begs several important questions. Why were senior D.C. and federal officials apparently so unprepared for the crisis? And what does this portend for the remaining few days of Trump’s presidency — for both our nation’s security as well as the future of our democracy?
On Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she had called Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley to see if there was a way to to prevent Trump from accessing nuclear launch codes. This terrifying responsibility is one of any president’s biggest burdens as commander in chief. Throughout the past four years, Trump has repeatedly frequently acted irrationally. But the past week has only reinforced his lack of fitness — a failing that could have catastrophic consequences.
In the aftermath of the mob’s attack, President-elect Joe Biden demanded that Trump appear on national television to “fulfill his oath and defend the Constitution and demand an end to this siege.” Perhaps shamed by Biden’s speech, Trump delivered a rambling mixed message that urged people to go home peacefully while at the same reiterating his baseless claims that “the election was stolen.” He told those involved in the attack that “we love you.”
But Trump’s tweets were not necessarily the worst part of his response. The commander-in-chief seemed to have abrogated his primary responsibilities — to Congress and to the nation. The immediate response appears to have been directed by Vice President Mike Pence. Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller announced that he and the Joint Chiefs’ Milley had spoken with the vice president as well as congressional leaders about how to respond to the situation.
The 9/11 Commission Report argued that one of failures revealed by the 2001 terrorist attack was a failure of “imagination.” This might also explain, at least in part, the appalling lack of preparedness by federal agencies to deal with the protest. No one could “imagine” that a serving president of the United States would urge a hyped-up crowd to march on the Capitol. But that is exactly what Trump did. His speech at the “Save America” rally was preceded by incendiary remarks by both Rudy Giuliani and his son, Don Jr. Giuliani exhorted the crowd to settle the election “dispute” with a “trial by combat.” The younger Trump thanked the “red-blooded, patriotic Americans” in the crowd, urging them to “fight for Donald Trump” and threatening Republican lawmakers who failed to support his father. Trump senior then called for the crowd to “fight” and “show strength.” He said he would lead them in the march on the Capitol and vowed to “never concede.”
Some actions were taken in advance of the planned protest. Mayor Muriel Bowser warned citizens to stay away from downtown and requested the Pentagon place around 340 D.C. National Guardsman on alert — a request which was approved by the Pentagon a few days in advance. The security of the nation’s capital is complicated due to overlapping jurisdictions between local government and federal agencies. While a governor has direct control over their respective state’s National Guard, but the guard in Washington is under the control of the federal government, not the mayor. Federal agencies retain the primary responsibility for securing the Capitol.
But overall the lack of preparation by these organizations was stunning. Right-wing groups had openly discussed conducting a violent protest. These sites are routinely monitored by federal law enforcement agencies. Larry Schaefer, a Capitol Police veteran for over 34 years observed, “We have a planned, known demonstration that has a propensity for violence in the past and threats to carry weapons — why would you not prepare yourself as we have done in the past?”
Unlike during the unrest following the killing of George Floyd, the Department of Homeland Security (HLS) did not make plans to deploy agents from Customs and Border Protection to the demonstrations. They only planned for a modest “quick reaction force.” In fact, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf was in Bahrain. The Justice Department positioned only around 100 trained officers from the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington as a “reserve capacity.” There is also no evidence that other federal agencies such as the Secret Service or U.S. Park Police were deployed, as they have during previous demonstrations
Clearly these efforts were insufficient, reflecting at minimum an inaccurate threat assessment and poor coordination between city and federal officials. Regarding the latter, federal and local officials were still smarting over the militarized response to the mostly peaceful demonstrations in June. One senior (and anonymous) Pentagon official told the Washington Post, “everyone has got a lot of scar tissue and a lot of PTSD from the domestic unrest of the summer,” and no one wanted to repeat that. He added, “We’ve learned our lessons and will be absolutely nowhere near the Capitol Building.”
The Capitol was finally declared clear late Wednesday night, as lawmakers worked into the early morning hours to finish their Electoral Vote count. But longer-term, our adversaries in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran were delighted by a spectacle that clearly undermines the image of American democracy around the globe. Our allies were certainly horrified. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson described it as “disgraceful.”
The finger pointing has already begun, which is predictable and perhaps needed. The lack of preparedness requires accountability. A congressionally directed investigation is essential in the aftermath to determine if the failure of federal agencies was simply a matter of incompetence or something more purposeful on the part of senior administration officials.
But clearly, Trump wanted a confrontation. He urged the crowd to assault the Capitol, and did very little to stop the violence once the riot started.
The most frightening two weeks in recent memory occurred in October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. President John F. Kennedy said at the time that the possibility of nuclear war and the destruction of the nation was even odds. But this was an external threat — and the nation rallied in response.
The roughly two weeks between now and Inauguration Day may be equally daunting. Coronavirus is spiking, and many Americans face a dire economic future. Tensions in the Middle East continue to rise. The agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban in Afghanistan is unravelling. North Korea likely has more nuclear weapons now than it did when Trump arrived in office. The United States has just suffered one of the largest cyberattacks in our history and once again, Russia is the culprit.
In response to these enormous challenges, our president is spiraling, focused only on how to escape reality. This moment may be the greatest internal threat to our security and democracy in American history. President Abraham Lincoln once observed, "At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reaches us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide."
In one of his final tweets on Wednesday, Trump urged his supporters to “Remember this day forever.” All Americans and the entire world will always remember this day, but not for the reasons Trump thinks.