Despite weeks of planning between federal and local police agencies ahead of Wednesday’s Trump rally – including tracking social media – officials said that going into Wednesday they had no intelligence indicating there was a threat the US Capitol could be overrun.
It would turn out to be a catastrophic failure after an angry mob overwhelmed police and stormed into the Capitol building, ransacking lawmakers’ offices, injuring dozens of officers and stealing electronics and documents that could possibly include sensitive national security information. Five people died during the riots, including a woman shot by US Capitol Police and a police officer.
During conference calls that included federal agencies and the city’s police ahead of the rally, federal law enforcement officials say the US Capitol Police assured counterparts they had the situation under control—they knew how to deal with large demonstrations at the Capitol, in large part because the complex was already being prepared for Inauguration Day, one of the most secure events in the city, according to sources familiar with the matter.
Federal and local officials said Thursday they did not have intelligence suggesting any violent mob was preparing to attack the Capitol, even as demonstrators were publicly saying on social media they were not planning a typical protest.
Despite weeks of preparations, “obviously, what happened no one anticipated,” Michael Sherwin, acting US Attorney for the District of Columbia, told reporters in a telephone press conference Thursday. “Things could have been done better.”
Of course, there were reports of violence when Trump’s backers had come to town last month, and the FBI was monitoring everything from social media to the hotels where some of the rioters were staying. One sign of the preparations came in the days before the rally, when, acting on the FBI’s intelligence information, Washington’s Metropolitan Police arrested Enrique Tarrio, leader of the Proud Boys, after he left the airport en route to his hotel.
He was charged for his role in destroying a Black Lives Matter banner at a previous Proud Boys march in Washington, and prosecutors later added charges for carrying two extended ammunition magazines that are illegal in the city. As part of his release, a local judge told him to leave town and to stay away from Wednesday’s rally.
Police were caught flat-footed the next day. DC Police Chief Robert Contee told reporters Thursday there was no intelligence that suggested there would be a breach of the US Capitol on January 6. Three DHS sources, who usually receive such reports, were unaware of a threat assessment being shared from the DHS intelligence office ahead of Wednesday’s siege.
Several federal executive branch agencies had teams on standby ready to assist Capitol Police. And they weren’t aware the Capitol Police weren’t in any position to be able to prevent the insurrection at the Capitol that led to some of the most secure areas of the building to be overrun by rioters.
The call for help from the Capitol Police came as protesters, apparently riled up from speeches during a rally near the White House, began converging at barricades outside the Capitol. It was too late.
Serious questions about being caught off guard
The ransacking of the Capitol has sparked serious questions across Washington about how the US Capitol was caught so off guard – putting in danger lawmakers as well as Vice President Mike Pence – and why law enforcement treated President Donald Trump’s supporters differently than the Black Lives Matter protests that occurred last year. The episode has quickly led to recriminations on Capitol Hill – with Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund planning to resign next week – and vows to investigate the incident from Republicans and Democrats alike.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House Sergeant at Arms, Paul Irving, was submitting his resignation, while Senate Sergeant at Arms, Michael Stenger, submitted his resignation late Thursday, according to a statement by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Part of the planning for the Trump rally took into account criticism that federal and local police, and the US National Guard received for handling of summer protests, federal and local officials say.
This included a heavy-handed response to protesters near Lafayette Park, who were cleared to make way for a Trump photo op walk to St. John’s Church across from the White House. The visible police and National Guard presence for the Trump rally was notably less aggressive than during summer protests.
A Homeland Security law enforcement source said the “most glaring and obvious speck in our eye is when you contrast it to similar demonstrations that did not always go well and the response,” referring to the heavy-handed response DHS had in Portland and Washington, DC this past summer.
Coordinated by Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, federal executive branch agencies had more than 500 officers and agents close by and ready to help, a Justice Department spokesman said.
“We had what I believe were sufficient federal resources for this,” Sherwin said, adding, “I cannot speak for the Capitol Police.”
Sund issued a statement Thursday saying that Capitol Police “had a robust plan established to address anticipated First Amendment activities.”
“But make no mistake – these mass riots were not First Amendment activities; they were criminal riotous behavior,” Sund said, adding that the rioters “actively” attacked officers and were “determined to enter into the Capitol Building by causing great damage.”
But police chiefs across the country who plan for major protests, sometimes with other agencies, make contingency plans for how to respond when something goes wrong – for when a First Amendment protest turns into violence, which Wednesday’s rioters said all along it would be.
One of the complications of the capital is that the Capitol Police reports to Congress and is separate from the Executive Branch agencies, including the FBI and Secret Service, which don’t have jurisdiction on the Capitol grounds unless requested by the Capitol Police.
Former Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer told CNN that Washington, DC, police have responsibility for the entire city, while Capitol police cover the area that includes the Capitol and House and Senate office buildings.
“What’s kind of been worked out is, everyone tends to their business until we need each other,” Gainer said. “There’s some concurrent jurisdictions, some separate.”
In practice, the different agencies do their own work until they’re needed. There was a time when Metro Police couldn’t give field sobriety tests so Capitol Police would respond to DUI traffic stops, Gainer said.
Call for help came too late
Sherwin said the first indication of trouble was when crowds began breaching entrances on the east front of the Capitol building.
Federal officials had been asked for help – first with bomb threats in multiple locations, and then to the Capitol itself – but they said by the time they were asked to respond to the chaos at the Capitol, it was too late for them to intervene and stop the building from being breached.
“They have jurisdiction. And the minute they asked for support, we sent it,” Acting Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli said on Fox News. “And by the way, they asked for support before violence began. So that was not a pure reaction. There was some planning to it. But it was just too close to when everything began to heat up. And they were outnumbered and overwhelmed. I mean, that’s why you see pictures like that. It’s pure, it’s just numbers.”
Multiple federal law enforcement agencies deployed emergency response teams near the Capitol on Wednesday that were eventually deployed to respond to the unfolding rioters that had breached the Capitol building.
The Metropolitan Police Department, DC’s local police force, said there was a call for help from Capitol Police at 1 p.m. Both the FBI and the Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms Bureau had teams near the Capitol, and after they received a call for help, more than 300 agents and officers were deployed to the Capitol, sources told CNN.
But less than 90 minutes later, the Capitol was under siege as rioters entered into some of the most secure parts of the building, including the Senate chamber and Pelosi’s office.
The Homeland Security law enforcement official said both ICE and CBP had quick response teams available if needed for any protests or breach of headquarters locations. Those teams were on standby, the official said, but there was no request for DHS assets to go to the Capitol beyond a limited number of Secret Service and Federal Protection Service officers.
The FBI response included SWAT teams and other special agents who were deployed to assist US Capitol Police to clear the Capitol grounds, as well as a Hostage Rescue Team. The FBI also has evidence response teams on site collecting evidence and bomb technicians to respond to pipe bombs at buildings that house the Republican and Democratic National Committees.
A team of The ATF’s explosive specialists responded to bomb threats in Washington, DC. A short time later, they received the call for help from Capitol Police and ATF’s special response team and agents from Baltimore and Washington deployed to the Capitol to assist clearing the rioters.
Congressional leaders quickly got on the phone with acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy in the early moments of the riots, while lawmakers were being evacuated from the House and Senate chambers, Schumer said Thursday. The call was tense, a source said, with lawmakers demanding answers about why there wasn’t better protection.
“The question is why weren’t they there in advance, and then why didn’t they get there ASAP. All of that needs to looking into,” Schumer told reporters.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan Thursday said that he was on the phone with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who pleaded with him to send the Maryland National Guard to help. But Hogan said the Maryland Guard was told multiple times “we don’t have authorization” and waited an hour and a half before he finally received a call from Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy to deploy to the Capitol.
Hogan said that McCarthy asked him, “‘Can you come as soon as possible?’ Yeah, we’ve been waiting. We’re ready.”
CNN reported on Wednesday that it was Pence, not Trump, who helped to facilitate members of the DC National Guard deploying to the Capitol, and Trump initially resisted deploying the National Guard.
Clearing the Capitol
After lawmakers, aides and reporters had been evacuated to safety, it was the FBI and ATF teams that ultimately cleared the Capitol building, and not Capitol police, sources tell CNN.
The two agencies each went from one end of the Capitol, room-to-room, meeting in the middle to clear the building and allow Congress to return to the House and Senate chambers to finish certifying President-elect Joe Biden’s win, sources said.
Around 7 p.m., as the Capitol complex was being cleared, federal law enforcement agencies held another call with Pence and House and Senate leaders. Capitol Police were not included in the call, according to one source, and the tone was quite different than the earlier call as the situation was still unfolding.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf was up late into the night in Qatar monitoring events as they unfolded on Capitol Hill Wednesday, according to a DHS official familiar with his trip. In light of the siege on the Capitol, Wolf arranged to return to the US as quickly as possible, the official said, following visits to Cyprus, Bahrain and Qatar this week.
ICE Homeland Security Investigations personnel, who were deployed to support Federal Protective Service last year to protect the agency’s buildings amid protests, were not sent out to the Capitol Wednesday, and stayed at ICE headquarters as they did during the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, though they were on standby to assist, according to two officials. Federal Protective Service, meanwhile, requested assistance from US Customs and Border Protection to protect federal facilities and property.
“There are many questions lingering about the attack on the US Capitol and it will take time to discover the answers,” said FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor in an internal message to the workforce Thursday, which was obtained by CNN. FEMA staff, Gaynor said, worked overnight to “support efforts to ensure continuity of government operations.”
This story has been updated to reflect a Capitol Hill police officer has died.
CNN’s Peter Nickeas contributed to this report.