WASHINGTON – The Secret Service and federal law enforcement agencies are spending the final days of the Trump administration bracing for a possible violent assault against the Jan. 20 inauguration, launching a security mobilization that will be unlike any in modern U.S. history.
On Wednesday, the Secret Service will take command of security preparations at the U.S. Capitol and other federal buildings, backed by as many as 15,000 National Guard troops, thousands of police and tactical officers, and layers of eight-foot steel fencing.
The high-alert security posture is starting six days earlier than planned to coordinate roles for the FBI, National Guard, U.S. Marshals Service and a host of other federal agencies that will fall under Secret Service command.
“Everyone can just rest assured they are throwing the kitchen sink at this event,” said one Secret Service official involved in protective planning who was not authorized to speak to reporters.
The accelerated timetable has also allowed authorities to fortify the city and deploy officers in anticipation of potential violence on Sunday, when pro-Trump groups are calling for armed marches in Washington and the 50 state capitals.
Veteran Secret Service and Homeland Security officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share their worries described a level of concern unlike anything in their careers. Threats they fear include a plot by armed groups to encircle the White House or the U.S. Capitol and the inauguration event, as well as the possibility that gunmen could stage coordinated attacks against less-fortified targets in the city.
House Democrats were briefed by the new Capitol Police leadership Monday night about threats to the inauguration from groups supporting President Donald Trump, and the new security measures they are putting in place to avoid a repeat of last Wednesday’s riot.
According to members who were on the briefing call, the threats included promises to execute members of Congress, with the most dangerous coming from a handful of extremist groups. They are surfacing amid calls for a million “MAGA” devotees to flood Washington.
On Tuesday, police in the Chicago suburbs arrested 45-year-old Louis Capriotti, charging him with making threats to lawmakers last year in which authorities say he promised to kill any Democrat who attempted to enter the White House on Inauguration Day.
If people “think that Joe Biden is going to put his hand on the Bible and walk into that . . . White House on January 20th, they’re sadly . . . mistaken,” he told one member of Congress in an expletive-laden phone message, according to a criminal complaint. “We will surround the . . . White House and we will kill any . . . Democrat that steps on the . . . lawn.”
Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., said in an interview that the threats are real but will not stop the transfer of power.
“We’re not talking about a 90-person ISIS cell. . . . We’re talking mainly about a bunch of yahoos who, yes, are very dangerous. People could wind up dead,” Himes said. “But there’s no danger that they’re going to overthrow the United States government.”
The sweep of the heightened security was illustrated by the decision of the House sergeant at arms to use metal detectors to screen everyone entering the House chamber, including members.
The siege at the Capitol has put Secret Service planners and their federal partners in feverish reassessment mode to consider all the ways they can mitigate anything like a repeat of Jan. 6 – or something worse.
Starting Wednesday, the nerve center for coordinating inauguration security and locking down the District will be the Secret Service’s Washington field office. Known as the MACC, the Multi-Agency Command Center will bring together representatives from 50 to 60 agencies or private companies for the next eight days, everyone from heavyweight players like the FBI and the Defense Department to the gas company, rail company CSX and Amtrak. Most personnel will work in 12-hour shifts.
“Unlike Jan. 6, nobody has to ask for the National Guard anymore,” said one former Secret Service official who helped coordinate past inaugurations. “Nobody has to send out an emergency call for the FBI SWAT team. They’re all there, pre-positioned and ready.”
“It’s no longer game planning,” the former official added. “Radiation protection. Bomb detectors. Amtrak sweeps. All the security personnel – they’re all now in place.”
The Secret Service will coordinate all security decisions, including how to seal the Capitol, how to control the flow of demonstrations, which Metro stations are shuttered and which roads are blocked. But the Secret Service, a relatively tiny agency in the federal government, will rely heavily on the muscle and expertise of its partners. It will look to the FBI, for instance, for intelligence-gathering, and the National Guard, Park Police and D.C. police, as well as many other local police departments, to set up roadblocks, patrol security perimeters along the inauguration route and help shield the Capitol and White House.
Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., who participated in the security briefing for lawmakers, said that if the extensive measures planned for the inauguration had been in place on Jan. 6, “a fly could not have gotten into the Capitol.”
“Last week was a wake-up call,” Malinowski said in an interview, adding that rioters are not going to be allowed to stage a repeat because police at the Capitol are “not just playing defense, we’re playing offense.”
The Secret Service has overseen all national security special events since President Bill Clinton signed a presidential declaration in 1998 putting the agency in charge of all major gatherings that might be a target for terrorists. These have included Super Bowls, summits of world leaders, meetings of international organizations, presidential conventions and, of course, inaugurations.
While the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the Secret Service, is lacking key leadership following the resignation of acting secretary Chad Wolf on Monday, officials say they can rely on the experience of some the major players involved in inauguration security planning. They include Matt Miller, the head of the Secret Service Washington field office, who is widely admired by his subordinates and was promoted in the wake of the seamless security planning he crafted for the Republican National Convention in Tampa in 2012; and District of Columbia police Inspector Robert Glover, an incident commander who rushed to the rescue of Capitol Police on Jan. 6 and commanded the joint force to eject rioters from the grounds.
The Secret Service has sent out a call to all of its field offices around the country to send agents to Washington for the week.
“It’s really, truly all hands on deck right now,” said one person familiar with the request.
Secret Service spokeswoman Justine Whelan said the service began preliminary planning for the inauguration a year ago, working more intensely in recent months. But several officials said the Capitol siege has forced the agency to reexamine its previous work.
“The events of Jan. 6 serve as a stark reminder of the criticality of comprehensive security planning,” Whelan said in a statement. “As is always the case, security during a National Special Security Event (NSSE) is a layered network of operations, seen and unseen, that run in tandem with federal, state and local law enforcement, military, and public safety entities.”
A law enforcement official briefed on inauguration planning said extensive fencing is being erected throughout the District, including the area surrounding the White House. Those planning to attend the inauguration can also expect to barely be able to see the White House, as the perimeter will be expanded farther out than during past inaugurations.
Lamont Ruffin, the chief deputy U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia, said his office is planning to deputize between 3,000 and 4,000 local law enforcement officers from across the country who – at the request of the District police department – will come into Washington to help with security.
Ruffin said he has been asked to prepare to also possibly deputize members of the National Guard to give them law enforcement authority, though those plans have not been finalized. Guard members in Washington will carry their firearms, two defense officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Ruffin said the officers coming into District hail from all over the country – “all 50 states” – and will have to fill out a form attesting that they meet certain requirements, including that they not are not under active internal affairs investigation and that their departments are up to date with their certifications on using deadly and nonlethal force.
He said he was unaware of any additional requirements being imposed this year. Some law enforcement officers who participated in the rally that precipitated last week’s riot at the U.S. Capitol have found themselves under investigation by their own departments, and the FBI has been investigating whether any military or law enforcement members broke the law.
Inside the Secret Service, senior supervisors have long been worried about the ability of an armed or organized group to pierce the White House fortress.
An unwelcome reminder of that risk came on May 29. Protective detail agents rushed Trump to the White House’s underground bunker that night, as crowds of demonstrators protesting the killing of George Floyd converged on the White House’s north side and many pushed over temporary barricades meant to keep them farther away from the fence.
One male protester made it over the heightened fence line and into the complex near the Treasury building, and others got into an enclosed Treasury courtyard nearby. That’s when the Secret Service raised the threat level on the campus to “Condition Yellow” and spirited Trump, first lady Melania Trump and their son Barron to the subterranean shelter. After that night, the Secret Service pushed out the perimeter much farther and called in reinforcements from other federal law enforcement agencies to hold the line.
“They know that that’s a huge vulnerability,” said one Secret Service official. “There’s one silver lining from the whole Capitol insurrection: I still believe the White House is a softer target than others, but you better believe it’s going to get a really beefed-up security plan for the next couple of weeks.”
Another worry is that pro-Trump groups seeking permits for protests downtown include people who joined the riot on Jan. 6 at the Capitol and conducted some of their planning on encrypted apps.
Researchers are finding that right-wing extremists of all stripes have migrated to the encrypted messaging app Telegram, especially since social media site Parler was forced off the Internet when its cloud provider, Amazon, dropped it Monday. They’re sharing diagrams on how to mount an ambush, talking about mobilizing on the days leading up to Inauguration Day and are posting messages exhorting people to “descend on DC” and “stick to your guns,” said Chris Sampson, chief of research at the Terror Asymmetrics Project on Strategy, Tactics and Radical Ideologies, a defense research institute. Sampson said he has flagged some of these posts to intermediaries who get them to the FBI. The migration to Telegram was first reported by NBC.
One pro-Trump group has applied to the National Park Service for a permit to protest in front of the White House. The Park Service, working with the Secret Service, will need to decide whether to reject those permit applications or determine a way for those protesters to be corralled and blocked from threatening the Capitol or White House.
City officials in Washington continued to erect an inauguration perimeter throughout downtown on Tuesday, putting up barriers around the White House, the Mall and the Capitol. People looking to travel inside the perimeter will have to provide proof of essential purpose to be within the inaugural grounds.
“This is similar to previous inaugurations – except the inauguration perimeter will be established and operational for several days,” Susana Castillo, a spokesperson for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s office, said in a text message.
Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesman for the Fairfax County police, said the agency planned to deploy extra officers at Metro stations that would be a primary conduit into the city, and was also beefing up security at courthouses and the county government center out of an abundance of caution.
Guglielmi said that civil disturbance units and helicopter and boat teams would be on alert to provide support to police and the National Guard in the District, and that the department was reviewing how to quickly get into the city in the event roads were blocked.
“You are going to see the entire Northern Virginia region [having] much more communication with D.C. police,” Guglielmi said.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said the District of Columbia could be subject to lockdowns and Metro shutdowns during the days surrounding the presidential inauguration.
The state, he said, will double the number of Maryland National Guard members in the District from 500 to 1,000. Greg Shipley, a spokesman for the Maryland State Police, said the agency has a team of specially trained troopers on standby.
“There are ongoing discussions about securing the nation’s capital,” Hogan said Tuesday at a news conference in Annapolis, “not just the immediate site around the Capitol itself, but the entire city.”
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The Washington Post’s Erin Cox, Matt Zapotosky, Dan Morse, Emily Davies and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.