WASHINGTON – Up to 15,000 National Guard members could be deployed in Washington during the presidential inauguration, senior defense officials said Monday, as lawmakers questioned the military’s ability to respond quickly to domestic crises and urged a crackdown on possible extremists in its ranks.
The dual discussions come days after a mob of pro-Trump supporters, some armed, forced their way into the Capitol building last week, beat police officers and hunted for lawmakers as Congress voted to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s election win over President Donald Trump.
At least five people, including a Capitol Police officer beaten by the mob, have died.
A contingent of 340 District of Columbia National Guard members had been activated ahead of the riot, which followed a speech by Trump in which he repeated baseless claims that he won the election and directed the crowd to the Capitol.
But the guardsmen were unarmed and mostly on traffic duty in other parts of the city, in a limited mission that D.C. officials had approved. Once the riot began, lawmakers and D.C. officials pleaded with defense officials to send National Guard members to help, but none arrived for hours as details were finalized, officials familiar with the situation said.
Defense Department officials have since activated thousands of National Guard members, with 6,000 in the city as of Monday, said Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, the chief of the National Guard Bureau. Up to 10,000 are expected to be deployed by Saturday, with the possibility for even more on the streets by the inauguration on Jan. 20, he said.
Hokanson, speaking in a phone conference with reporters, said the final numbers will be determined by the requirements of federal agencies. The National Guard members will carry weapons based on discussions with the FBI, police and other agencies.
“Obviously, we’re very concerned that we want our individuals to have the right to self-defense,” the general said. “And so that will be an ongoing conversation, and if the senior leadership determines that that’s the right posture to be in, then that is something that we will do.”
Defense Department officials had carved out a narrow role before the pro-Trump rally, seeking to avoid any appearance that the military was involved in determining the election. The Pentagon had prohibited the guardsmen from carrying firearms or riot gear, interacting with protesters unless required for their own self-defense, sharing equipment with local law enforcement, or using aircraft without explicit approval from acting defense secretary Christopher Miller.
That changed after the bloodshed began.
Hokanson said Monday that the guardsmen will arrive in Washington with protective equipment and will provide security. They will report to Maj. Gen. William Walker, the commander of the D.C. National Guard, and be deployed under federal authorities that allow them to perform law enforcement missions if required.
The expanding discussions come as lawmakers scrutinize why the Defense Department response last week was delayed.
In a letter to Miller, Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said they were “deeply disturbed by the lack of urgency in the immediate response to the invasion of the U.S. Capitol.”
“According to preliminary information, over three and a half hours elapsed between the initial breach of the barriers on the West side of the U.S. Capitol and the arrival of the D.C. National Guard,” they wrote. “While the exact timeline of requests and subsequent approval for support remains unclear, it is evident that the total response time was grossly inadequate.”
In a separate letter, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., requested that the Defense Department’s criminal investigators cooperate with the FBI and the Capitol Police to determine whether any active-duty members of the military were present during the riot. Several veterans have been identified and arrested.
“Upholding good order and discipline demands that the U.S. Armed Forces root out extremists that infiltrate the military and threaten our national security,” she wrote.
After speaking with Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., said in a statement Sunday that the Defense Department is aware of further threats in coming days, including on Inauguration Day, and is working with law enforcement authorities to prepare.
Crow also raised concerns that active-duty troops and reservists were involved in the insurrection and said McCarthy agreed to take additional measures to address that problem.
Defense officials have not said what those steps might include.
“We don’t tolerate extremists in our ranks, and that’s the bottom line,” said Jonathan Hoffman, the chief Pentagon spokesman. “Any effort and any opportunity that we have to identify individuals that have extremist behavior and extremist tendencies, they will be addressed.”
The FBI has been investigating whether current law enforcement and military personnel participated in the riot, and several local police departments have initiated probes into their own personnel. On Monday, the FBI declined to comment about whether it would be involved in investigating the backgrounds of those providing inauguration security to see whether they had ties to domestic terrorism.
If the Defense Department found concerning social media or other posts among its personnel, it is likely that information would be forwarded to the FBI to explore whether crimes had been committed.
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The Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.