WASHINGTON — Law enforcement authorities, responding to threats of violence before the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration, will deploy up to 15,000 National Guard troops to the nation’s capital and set up checkpoints around the city to avoid the botched response that helped rioters overrun the Capitol last week.
Sixteen groups — some of them armed and most of them hard-line supporters of President Donald Trump — have registered to stage protests in Washington, prompting deep concern among federal officials about an event that has historically been a packed celebration of American democracy. With coronavirus cases soaring and the deadly siege of the Capitol still fresh, the leaders of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia issued a joint statement asking Americans to stay away from the inauguration of Joe Biden and instead tune in virtually.
The FBI has notified local law enforcement of the potential for armed protests in all 50 state capitals, organized and promoted by far-right extremist groups.
Despite the increasing alarm, Biden’s inaugural committee said he was determined to make an outdoor appearance at the event to call on a divided nation to come together at a time of political and public-health crisis. The inauguration’s theme is “America United.”
Biden also plans to visit Arlington National Cemetery with three former presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — adding another challenge for federal law enforcement authorities.
“I’m not afraid of taking the oath outside,” Biden said Monday.
But the inauguration of the 46th president could echo the first inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, whose procession to the half-built Capitol was surrounded by heavily armed cavalry and infantry troops marching through a city on the brink of civil war.
Complicating the security effort further, Chad F. Wolf, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, announced Monday that he would resign as acting secretary at midnight Monday. The department includes the Secret Service, which is leading inauguration security. Wolf will remain with the department as an undersecretary for policy, a position for which he was confirmed by the Senate.
“This inauguration is going to look differently than previous inaugurations, I think we all know that,” said Michael Plati, the Secret Service special agent in charge leading security planning for the inauguration, who referred to lessons learned from last Wednesday.
About 6,000 National Guard troops from six states have already arrived in Washington, Gen. Daniel Hokanson, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, said Monday; by this weekend, that number is expected to have grown to 10,000.
At the same time, Defense Department officials have expressed concern that some of the protesters who stormed the Capitol are former military members. While the department has not announced a specific search for deployed National Guard troops with sympathies for the pro-Trump protesters, officials said they were reviewing photographs and videos from the protests.
“We do not tolerate extremists in our ranks,” a Pentagon spokesperson, Jonathan Hoffman, told reporters.
The acting U.S. Capitol Police chief and sergeant-at-arms briefed House Democrats on Monday evening on a handful of specific threats to the Capitol and to lawmakers that authorities were monitoring in the days ahead, as well as security steps they had begun to put in place.
Beyond the Capitol, the Secret Service is establishing a “healthy, layered buffer” with vehicle checkpoints, metal detectors and additional security screenings to prevent another deadly siege, Plati said.
“Obviously, the Capitol is a significant event,” he said. “We are sensitive to that. We constantly are evaluating our security plans. There’s always lessons that can be learned after an event of that nature.”
To avoid the breakdowns in coordination among law enforcement agencies that left badly outnumbered Capitol Police overwhelmed last week, Plati said the Secret Service would be working from a “multiagency coordination center” with other law enforcement leaders to make quick decisions about the movements of any protesters and make additional deployments.
“We’re going to create a bubble that is safe and secure,” Plati said.
With far-right extremists continuing to plot on online platforms, one senior Pentagon official called the security situation “unprecedented.”
Another Defense Department official said that law enforcement agencies were planning for any number of possible events, some of them horrific. Worst-case scenarios include snipers targeting inauguration dignitaries, “suicide-type aircraft” entering Washington’s restricted airspace, and even remote-powered drones attacking the crowd. The officials said they were particularly worried about multiple active-shooter situations flaring up simultaneously.
Defense Department officials have not made a final decision on whether National Guard troops will be armed; but even if they are initially unarmed, the troops will not be far from their weaponry, the officials said. Troops will be equipped with at least defensive riot gear, like helmets.
“We want our individuals to have the right to self-defense,” Hokanson said during a news briefing. “If senior leadership determines that that’s the right posture to be in, then that is something we will do.” All of the troops coming to Washington, he said, are bringing their guns with them.
Concerns are not limited to Jan. 20.
Flyers circulated in encrypted WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram groups over the weekend calling for an “armed march on Capitol Hill and all state capitols” at noon Jan. 17. The flyers, which include the instruction to “come armed at your personal discretion,” also appeared on chat sites Gab and Parler, which have attracted far-right voices. Various local militia groups in states like Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan have posted calls on those platforms for their members to come out in force.
Another group, “Let America Hear Us, Roar for Trump,” has requested a permit from the National Park Service for a demonstration of at least 300 people in downtown Washington. The Park Service on Monday shut down tours of the Washington Monument through Jan. 24, citing “credible threats to visitors and park resources.”
Far-right extremist groups continue to plot online. Nearly 400 people had joined a private group online dedicated to what is being billed as the Million Militia March, an event scheduled to take place in Washington on Jan. 20. Commenters have debated bringing baseball bats and body armor.
Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington has asked the Park Service to stop issuing permits for public gatherings through the inauguration. Mike Litterst, a Park Service spokesperson, said the Interior secretary, whose department includes the national parks, planned to discuss plans the matter with Bowser on Monday afternoon.
Bowser also sent a letter dated Saturday to the Department of Homeland Security requesting a disaster declaration, which would free federal funding for the inauguration. Trump granted the request Monday night.
“This is necessary because the inauguration poses several unprecedented challenges that exceed the scope of our traditional planning processes: the COVID-19 pandemic and of course the domestic terror attack on the United States Capitol,” Bowser said during a news briefing.
“If I’m scared of anything, it’s for our democracy because we have very extreme factions in our country that are armed and dangerous,” Bowser told reporters.
Plati said the inauguration was being designated a “National Special Security Event,” putting the Secret Service at the lead with the support of dozens of federal agencies. The heightened security measures were set to activate Jan. 19, just one day before Biden’s swearing-in, before Wolf said Monday that he was moving up their implementation to Wednesday. Security experts have said such a designation, which established a clear coordinator for a mass event and a chain of command, would have helped prevent the breach of the Capitol last week.
“Literally the secretary of Homeland Security can tell the Defense Department they are requiring this assistance and support,” said W. Ralph Basham, a former director of the Secret Service and the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the George W. Bush administration.
The finger pointing over the failures in policing the riot last week has continued.
Hokanson pushed back against complaints from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, that the Pentagon was slow to respond to his request that Maryland National Guard troops be deployed last Wednesday.
Hokanson insisted that Defense Department officials responded to the Hogan request Wednesday afternoon, and the first of the Maryland troops were not ready until 11 p.m. that day, with the bulk of them not deployed until 9 the next morning.
Basham said that this time security officials should not hesitate to use hard-line tactics against any group that gets out of line, even if its members support Trump. He echoed concerns made by criminal justice activists over a double standard employed by law enforcement against the Trump loyalists last week compared with those protesting racist policing this summer.
“I heard somebody say law and order for the Blacks and protect and serve for the whites. You can’t have that. You can’t have that,” Basham said. “You have to administer justice equally across the board.”