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Top Justice Department Officials Were Told There Were “No Credible Threats” Hours Before The Capitol Riot

Other emails obtained by BuzzFeed News show how the DOJ strategized about public messaging leading up to Jan. 6.

Posted on November 19, 2021, at 5:02 p.m. ET

Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Trump supporters gather at the Capitol on Jan. 6 in Washington, DC.

WASHINGTON — On Jan. 6 at 10:43 a.m., three top Justice Department officials received an email with an update on a briefing that morning from the counterterrorism section.

“There are no credible threats as of the 10:00 brief,” a person from the National Security Division whose name is redacted wrote to Richard Donoghue, the acting deputy attorney general; Michael Sherwin, the acting US attorney in Washington; and John Moran, chief of staff to Jeffrey Rosen, the acting attorney general.

By that time, thousands of people had gathered near the White House for a “Stop the Steal” rally. Former president Donald Trump’s supporters had been openly threatening violence online for weeks. The subsequent prosecution of hundreds of people charged with assaulting the Capitol — an attack that unfolded roughly two hours after the 10:43 a.m. email was sent — revealed that a number of them came armed. The night before, an as-yet-unidentified person had placed two pipe bombs at the headquarters of the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee; those devices would be discovered a few hours after the email was sent.

The email was part of a cache of documents obtained by BuzzFeed News through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that fills in more of the timeline of what was going on internally at the Justice Department before, during, and after the Capitol riot. The FBI afterward characterized the attack on the Capitol as an act of domestic terrorism, but the message from that morning showed that counterterrorism officials didn’t consider there to be a threat hours before.

In the immediate aftermath of the Capitol insurrection, BuzzFeed News filed dozens of FOIA requests with multiple government agencies, including the DOJ, in an effort to obtain a wide range of documents that would show how top officials planned for the protests and their response to the violence that ensued. The news organization subsequently filed lawsuits for the records when the agencies indicated they would be unable to respond to the requests in a timely manner.

The latest 106-page collection is heavily redacted. The government withheld vast swaths of information citing privacy, ongoing law enforcement investigations, law enforcement techniques and procedures, and the physical safety of informants. The Justice Department will continue to release records about the insurrection to BuzzFeed News on a rolling, monthly basis.

A Senate report released in June about the attack noted that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security hadn’t considered threats of violence posted online by Trump’s supporters leading up to Jan. 6 to be credible. Senate investigators also found that an FBI situational information report dated Jan. 5 prepared by the bureau’s Norfolk, Virginia, office warning about potential violence was circulated among law enforcement agencies, but didn’t appear to get much attention internally.

The new documents show that a week after the attack, officials at the highest levels of the Justice Department were sharing copies of the five-page Norfolk report. The Washington Post published an article about the document on Jan. 12; one of the lead reporters tweeted a link to it at 12:16 p.m. At 2:40 p.m. an FBI official whose name was redacted emailed a copy of the report to a DOJ public affairs official. That message was forwarded to Donoghue, and Donoghue, who also received a separate email with a copy of the report, sent it to Rosen.

The documents also included messages that senior DOJ officials exchanged in the two days leading up to Jan. 6. These emails reflected a sensitivity around the public optics of any federal officer deployment in Washington and what, if anything, Rosen should say in advance of the expected demonstrations.

On Jan. 5, Rosen exchanged a series of emails with senior DOJ officials about drafting a statement from him “for Jan. 6.” The drafts included in these messages are redacted, but one official in Rosen’s office wrote that the “tone” was “generally consistent” with statements that former attorney general Bill Barr had released denouncing violence that was part of some protests last year against police brutality. That day, Moran also emailed Patrick Philbin in the White House counsel’s office to share that they were drafting a statement for Rosen.

“We wanted to share for WHCO’s awareness. And of course, if you have any thoughts we would welcome them,” Moran wrote. Philbin’s response is redacted.

People across the Justice Department at that time were discussing how to handle messaging around federal law enforcement deployments to Washington. The previous summer, DOJ came under intense public scrutiny — and faced an inspector general investigation — when federal officers were deployed in Portland, Oregon, and Washington, DC, to respond to protests.

On Jan. 4, a spokesperson for the federal Bureau of Prisons messaged a DOJ public affairs official that BOP was assembling officers in Washington “in case” they were needed, and included a draft response about that to any “potential” questions from reporters. The draft statement was redacted. The BOP official noted with a smiley face emoji in a later message that he hadn’t received any media inquiries so far.

The next morning, officials with the Justice Department’s Office of Legislative Affairs exchanged emails about the BOP officers being deployed to Washington and discussed being “prepared for Hill inquiries” once the public learned about it.

On the afternoon of Jan. 5, Rosen exchanged emails with a public affairs official about how to respond to a letter that DC Mayor Muriel Bowser had written to Rosen — and tweeted out — stating that the city wasn’t asking for more federal law enforcement and discouraging more deployments without local consultation. Most of the contents of those emails are redacted. That evening and into the next morning, top officials also discussed a request by the House Intelligence Committee for information about how federal law enforcement and the Department of Defense were planning for Jan. 6.

Hours after the riot, the records show public affairs officials at the departments of Justice and Defense and a person from Homeland Security whose name was redacted had a strong negative reaction to a tweet that paraphrased former senator Claire McCaskill criticizing the lack of briefing from law enforcement after the insurrection.

“This is crazy. I was on a phone call with the AG, Deputy AG, DOD Secretary, Vice President Pence, Senate leader McConnell, minority leader McCarthy, Sen. Schumer, and House Speaker Pelosi tonight at 7:20 and we briefed them all on this and told them that we cleared their chambers and they could go back in and restart their sessions,” Justice Department spokesperson Marc Raimondi wrote in an 11:29 p.m. message about the tweet.

“As far as I’m aware, our teams did everything by the book and we shouldn’t let anyone besmirch them,” the Homeland Security official responded.

The Justice Department also released call logs that reveal who Rosen and Donoghue spoke with on Jan. 6, including numerous calls with White House counsel Pat Cipollone and other White House officials. The Justice Department notes that it was unable to authenticate the identities of the callers associated with the phone numbers.



  • Picture of Zoe Tillman

    Zoe Tillman is a senior legal reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.

    Contact Zoe Tillman at zoe.tillman@buzzfeed.com.

    Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.

  • Picture of Jason Leopold

    Jason Leopold is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He is a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for international reporting, recipient of the IRE 2016 FOI award and a 2016 Newseum Institute National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame inductee.

    Contact Jason Leopold at jason.leopold@buzzfeed.com.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.