On the afternoon of Jan. 6, as thousands of Donald Trump supporters pushed through four different barriers and overwhelmed the small number of police on the steps of the Capitol, a desperate call went out to the Pentagon. On that call, then Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund made a request for immediate assistance by National Guard forces. According to Sund, an Army official did not like “the visual of the National Guard standing a police line with the Capitol in the background." The final outcome of that call appears to have been confusion, and it was over three hours before the use of the guard was actually authorized. Three hours during which violent insurgents occupied the Capitol, searched for congressional hostages, damaged public property, stole material from officers, and smeared literal excrement on the halls. Three hours in which numerous police were injured.
On Wednesday, after two weeks of denial, Army officials admitted that one of those on the call was the brother of radical Trump supporter Michael Flynn. On Thursday, Army officials changed course and admitted that Sund’s statement about shooting down assistance over concern about “optics” might be true. It represented another shift in a narrative that’s been changing since Jan. 6, and serves once again to highlight the broken system of police and military cooperation in D.C.
Since the insurgency, Sund has resigned his position and leadership of the Capitol Police has changed hands, but it doesn’t appear to have improved communications between the police and the officials responsible for the deployment of the National Guard. On Thursday evening, at least 5,000 National Guard forces were pushed out of the Senate office building and forced to reposition in a nearby parking garage that lacked heat and had absolutely minimal facilities. That move appears to have come on the orders of Capitol Police—and it’s not hard to believe that it may have been influenced by what police saw as a slow decision to deploy the guard when they were desperately needed.
As CNN reports, the “shifting accounts” from the military are likely to generate calls for further investigation. Which they should. In a call to reporters on Thursday, Lt. Gen. Walter Piatt admitted that “he may have expressed concern” about deploying guard forces in the Capitol. It was unclear if Flynn’s brother, deputy chief of staff of the Army Gen. Charles Flynn, spoke on the call.
There are certainly reasons to be concerned about placing regular military forces in the streets of any American city, and several officials—both civilian and military—pushed back when Trump tried to deploy active duty Army and Marine units during protests over the summer. There was no doubt at the time that Trump was making coordination between military and civilian officials more difficult. Eventually, the National Guard from multiple states was deployed in force against BLM protests, along with forces cobbled together by William Barr that ranged from Bureau of Prisons riot control units to members of the U.S. Marshal Service. The use of these highly irregular forces only made the situation even more confusing, and things only got worse in the final months as Trump scoured the Pentagon, replacing experienced officials with Trump-loyalists.
Between the Capitol Police, Metro D.C. Police, D.C. National Guard, and National Guard units of neighboring states, there is certainly sufficient force to deal with any foreseeable emergency. What there is not, is a good system of communication and cooperation. The biggest reason for this is that Washington, D.C. is not a state. This generates a confusing set of overlapping responsibilities and devolves the authority for calling out National Guard forces onto military officials in a way that doesn’t happen elsewhere. The final deployment of forces on Jan. 6 appears to have happened only after Mike Pence was looped in—and Trump deliberately left out.
It’s absolutely necessary that the House and Senate investigate events on Jan. 6 and determine where this mucked-up system failed. But the answer to the problem isn’t in more layers of communication. It’s in making D.C. a state. Then a single phone call from Gov. Bowser can summon the Douglass National Guard. Just as it should.