In the early afternoon of January 6, as insurgents forced themselves past one police line then another, as thousands gathered around the Capitol, and as the small number of Capitol Police fell under assault from seditionists attacking them with flag poles, fire extinguishers, and bear spray, calls went out for help. Metro D.C. Police responded rapidly, and a small group of those officers held a critical stand off with hundreds of insurgents in a tunnel beneath the building. But efforts to get the D.C. National Guard involved were stalled for hours.
Much of the frustration has been focused on a phone call between then Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund and Pentagon officials. Over the last two weeks, military leaders have been forced to admit that the brother of disgraced Trump supporter Michael Flynn was on that call. And they’ve allowed that there was pushback to Sund over the “visuals” of sending guard forces in, even as the insurgency was bashing in the window of the Capitol and spreading inside.
Now the leader of the D.C. National Guard is raising a big red flag that the delays in deployment came because Pentagon officials made an unprecedented move to restrict his ability to respond to an emergency request. And like everything else around Jan. 6 … it’s messy.
As The Washington Post reports, local National Guard commanders usually have the authority to act on their own when an emergency situation occurs. They don’t need to seek approval from someone higher up the chain when it comes to responding to a situation where there’s a significant threat to life or property and a need to move quickly.
But in a Tuesday interview, D.C. National Guard Commander William Walker told the Post that the Pentagon changed the rules for deployment in D.C. so that he could not send troops in response to a “panicked phone call from the Capitol Police chief warning that rioters were about to enter the U.S. Capitol.” Sund apparently called Walker about 25 minutes before the first insurgents entered the Capitol to warn him that a request for National Guard forces was “imminent.” But Sund was then forced to move make that request to the Pentagon, and a delay of over three hours resulted before the authorization to move actually reached Walker. Even the 40-man rapid response unit that had been assembled to move to critical areas on that day was kept on the sidelines.
However, the restrictions that Walker faced were apparently not applied immediately before the Trump rally. Instead they were put in place over the summer, after guard helicopters were used to buzz Black Lives Matter protests. These actions, and aggressive deployment of thousands of National Guard forces during the protests following the police murder of George Floyd, raised concerns at the Pentagon. In most states, those concerns didn’t translate into significant changes, but in D.C. the guard is controlled through a process that can already be confusing. The Pentagon responded by taking away much of Walker’s autonomy.
Former secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy told the Post that, “After June, the authorities were pulled back up to the secretary of defense’s office. Any time we would employ troops and guardsmen in the city, you had to go through a rigorous process.”
Months later, those restrictions were apparently still in place, and they obviously concerned Walker, who complained that he lacked the authority to respond to “protect property, life, and in my case, federal functions—federal property and life.” On the other hand, it’s not clear to what extent Walker was involved in problems such as the inappropriate use of helicopters to intimidate protesters and other events over the summer.
Walker and McCarthy are set to deliver closed door testimony before the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday as part of an ongoing inquiry into events on January 6. It seems clear that they’re bringing with them conflicting positions: Walker complaining that his ability to act was constrained by unpresented orders to clear even emergency response with the Pentagon; McCarthy stating that the reason for the restrictions was that local guard officials took inappropriate and aggressive acts against protesters in the summer.
Both men may be right. But what’s also true is that the Pentagon had eight months to resolve the issue in a way that provided for the D.C. National Guard to take action that was both appropriate and effective. In that mission, everyone failed.