During a week of congressional committee hearings seeking to clarify why and how things went so wrong on Jan. 6, the officials testifying passed the buck and confused the particulars much more often than they shed light on what happened that day.
In his prepared opening statement, former acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller said that he partially held back given the already-tense atmosphere surrounding the day, alluding to calls by Michael Flynn for Trump to invoke martial law and a Washington Post op-ed by all 10 living former defense secretaries calling on Miller by name not involve the military in election disputes.
But, as experts told TPM, an egregious lack of preparation, a reluctance to take the clear threat seriously and a wariness about stepping on a volatile President’s toes seem to have added to layers of complexity and confusion atop those fears, creating a perfect storm.
“Those who were involved should have known better — or were chosen because they didn’t know better,” Juliette Kayyem, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at DHS under the Obama administration, told TPM.
The hearings have highlighted lingering, fundamental questions about why it took so long for the D.C. National Guard to reinforce the Capitol, arriving hours after officials first called for help.
Miller, who gave confusing and at times inconsistent testimony this week, has said that he was reluctant to call in uniformed troops due to concern of the appearance of a military coup, citing the calls for martial law and the Post op-ed.
In addition, there was recent bad precedent where overuse of the military prompted massive outrage. That episode, of course, happened when Lafayette Square was aggressively cleared of Black Lives Matter protesters with tear gas so Trump could take a photo in front of St. John’s Church. Military helicopters used their rotor blades to disperse crowds; then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper described American cities as a “battlespace.” The chairman of the joint chiefs later expressed contrition for his role that day.
“The politics were pretty crummy because of that incident outside the White House,” Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Steve Blum, former chief of the National Guard Bureau, told TPM. “I think they wanted to avoid those optics.”
But normal preparation for large and potentially violent events was simply not done in advance of the rally. Experts told TPM that there were ways to have soldiers ready to help that would have kept them out of public sight unless things got out of hand.
“If this had been taken seriously, they would have called up the Guard a day or two before and brought them to the Armory close to the Capitol,” Blum said. “They would have been ready if needed.”
Instead, as D.C. National Guard Commanding General William Walker testified in March, his offers to have guardsmen on standby fell on deaf ears, even as information flowed in indicating that some of the people coming to D.C. had violent intentions.
Hours elapsed after rioters breached the perimeter of the Capitol, overwhelming Capitol police officers. Lawmakers called Miller begging for help. The mob broke into the Capitol building itself just after 2 p.m. — Walker said he didn’t get the order to deploy the Guard until 5:08.
“Either they didn’t think they had this kind of a problem, or they wanted this kind of a problem,” Blum said. “I don’t want to be a conspiracy theorist, but if you thought this could happen, why didn’t you do anything?”
Government officials involved in the planning and execution of that day have been hauled in before Congress to answer that very question.
Concept of Operations
In particular, scrutiny has focused on a 90-minute delay on Jan. 6 between when Miller authorized troops to be mobilized, at 3:00 p.m., and when he authorized them to be sent to the Capitol, at 4:32 p.m.
During that delay, Vice President Mike Pence called Miller and told him to “clear the Capitol,” the AP reported.
What ultimately caused the delay, and caused it to end, remains unclear. Walker testified to the Senate that the delay was in part the result of a litany of unusual requirements that — for good reasons or bad — were placed on the unit for its response on Jan. 6.
The D.C. National Guard maintains a Quick Reaction Force for major public events in the federal enclave, composed of soldiers held in reserve to support law enforcement in the event of a crisis. But, Walker testified, on Jan. 5 Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy mandated that Walker file a “concept of operations” plan on the day of the electoral college certification before any troops could be committed to support law enforcement.
The plan, a written or verbal statement of how a commander will go about achieving a certain operation, was in part responsible for the delay, and was “unusual,” Walker said.
That differs significantly from Miller’s testimony, in which he told lawmakers that the requirement to have a plan was “reasonable and normal,” and one which “could be met in a matter of seconds with an oral briefing.”
So, then, why did it take 92 minutes? The answer remains unclear.
“All that kind of planning is normally done prior to someone pulling the trigger,” one former army commander told TPM. The former commander, who requested anonymity due to lack of authorization from the person’s employer, added that “strictures and limitations” placed on the unit by higher-ups may have contributed to delays.
Muddying The Waters
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) focused on the hour-and-a-half delay in her questioning of Miller Wednesday, asking whether he provided “authorization to deploy to the Capitol” at 3:00 pm. Miller said that he had, at 3:04 pm.
From that point, Miller said, it was up to Walker to draft the concept of operations.
But under further questioning from Ocasio-Cortez, Miller conceded that he didn’t order deployment of the troops until 4:32. That was after he approved Walker’s plan.
“It took 90 minutes to plan to send the Guard to the Capitol?” Ocasio-Cortez asked.
Miller replied only that he gave the order to mobilize at 3:00 pm.
“It’s all straightforward stuff,” said the former commander, who had experience running similar Quick Reaction Forces. “But if the decision to approve the plan or employ troops comes late, then that may have impacted the result.”
Kayyem added that Miller appeared to be taking advantage of an audience poorly versed in military lingo and practice.
“Miller tried to confuse people who don’t know how this works by saying he can’t just make a phone call and deploy people — if that’s happening you already made a mistake,” Kayyem said. “That call should have happened three weeks before.”
She also scoffed at his excuse about not wanting to create the appearance of a military coup.
“No one is saying they should have put the military solely in charge; the military should have been in a support function like we do all the time,” she said.
That’s particularly true in D.C., a city well-accustomed to hosting major events like the state of the union and summits with world leaders. Some have pointed to the D.C. Guard’s idiosyncrasies — D.C.’s lack of statehood means that its Guard is always a federalized force technically answering to the President — as further cause for the delay.
“There’s no delay when they need it,” Blum said of the D.C. Guard. “The only time there’s a delay is when politics enters into it — and obviously, that’s what happened.”