WASHINGTON — The head of the DC National Guard told Congress Wednesday he was “stunned” as senior military leaders refused desperate pleas to send in troops to quell the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol.
Even after the Capitol had been breached, Pentagon officials in the Trump administration held off on sending in reinforcements for three hours and 19 minutes while citing a concern about “optics,” DC National Guard commanding general William Walker told the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.
Walker said that former president Donald Trump’s acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller leveled “unusual” restrictions the day before the riots that required Walker to seek Miller’s permission to move troops or to allow members of a rapid response unit to arm themselves or put on helmets or body armor.
The DC National Guard had 340 troops either deployed or ready to deploy to help DC police handle traffic around the city that day. Walker said he could have had 155 National Guard troops at the Capitol within 20 minutes of getting the order.
Instead, those troops would spend hours waiting for permission to help Capitol Police, who had been hopelessly overwhelmed by rioters.
Walker said he received a “frantic” call from then–Capitol Police chief Steven Sund at 1:49 p.m. to request backup. “Chief Sund, his voice cracking with emotion, indicated there was a dire emergency at the Capitol and he requested the immediate assistance of as many available National Guardsmen that I could muster,” said Walker.
Senior military leaders were then looped into the call. But, according to Walker, senior Defense officials Charles Flynn and Walter Piatt said that “it would not be their best military advice to have uniformed guardsmen on the Capitol.” Walker said they cited concerns about the optics of deploying soldiers to the Capitol, as well as the risk of “inflaming” the crowd.
Walker said this was unlike the racial justice protests last year after the death of George Floyd, during which the National Guard was given immediate approval to aid local law enforcement.
For hours, crowds stormed the Capitol on live TV while National Guard troops waited for permission to deploy. At one point, Walker said he loaded troops onto buses without permission in anticipation that they would be given the OK any minute.
That green light wasn’t given until 5:08 p.m., three hours and 19 minutes after the first desperate call for help came in. Miller, in his role as acting defense secretary, actually gave the order at 4:32 p.m., acting Assistant Defense Secretary Robert Salesses said, but for some reason that direction was not relayed to the National Guard for another half hour. No explanation was given for this delay.
“That’s an issue. There were decisions that were being made, there were communications that needed to take place, and there were actions that needed to happen,” said Salesses.
Once the green light was given, National Guard troops arrived at the Capitol in 18 minutes, said Walker.
Salesses was not on the 1:49 p.m. call with Sund, but said he spoke to Defense officials who were, including Flynn and Piatt, both of whom denied using the word “optics.” Walker insisted he heard that word and those arguments.
“There were people in the room with me on that call who heard what they heard,” he said.
This is not the first time security officials have given contradictory statements about the lapses that allowed the riots to happen.
But one thing that Walker and Salesses both testified to is that acting Defense Secretary Miller wanted DC police, rather than federal troops, to be deployed to rein in the Trump supporters besieging the Capitol.
About 40 minutes after the request for aid came in, at 2:30 p.m., senior Defense officials met to discuss the request. Miller’s first move, at 3:04 p.m., was to authorize the National Guard to reinforce DC police in the city to allow them to focus on the Capitol, according to Salesses. Walker also said the initial focus was on backing up DC police rather than getting directly involved.
Salesses testified that “after reviewing the DC National Guard forces’ missions, equipping, and responsibilities to be performed at the Capitol Complex,” Miller gave the order to send troops to the Capitol at 4:32 p.m. to then–Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy. Salesses did not address why that order was not passed on to the National Guard until 5:08 p.m.