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Why the January 6th Mob Wasn’t Stopped in Time

Transcripts reveal where the bottlenecks were.
January 11, 2023
Why the January 6th Mob Wasn’t Stopped in Time
(Composite by Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

The House January 6th Committee did an excellent job in its final report of proving that former President Donald Trump incited the insurrectionist mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol. What the report did not do is make any concentrated attempt to explain why the vast law enforcement and national security apparatus based in Washington failed to stop the attack.

While Trump deserves ultimate blame for the attack, many others deserve a share as well for not having prevented the attack and for the fact that it went on as long as it did. In order to prevent something similar from happening again, it’s important to study January 6th not only through a political lens but also as a massive law enforcement and security failure. After all, it is shocking how easy it was for random Trump rallygoers, who mobilized on foot as part of a widely publicized event that was broadcast live by national news media, to breach the Capitol—thought to be one of the most protected buildings in one of the most policed cities in the country—and throw Congress into complete and total disarray. How could this have happened?

Separate House, Senate, and inspector general investigations have probed this question to varying degrees. Many insights lie in a trove of the January 6th Committee’s work left on the cutting room floor: transcripts from various law enforcement and national security officials. And some officials, such as former Capitol Hill Police Chief Steve Sund, have reflected on these questions in interviews and books.

It will surprise no one to hear that many of these witnesses have been primarily concerned with defending their own performance. But when their testimony is read together, a pattern emerges. There is consensus, if not perfect consistency, about the lapses on January 6th.

The main takeaway: The January 6th security lag—the fact that it took more than three hours for the National Guard to arrive on Capitol Hill and secure the grounds—can largely be attributed to three factors: Washington bureaucracy, a backlash to the militarized response to Lafayette Square in June 2020, and concerns over how Trump might use the military for his political purposes.

The Bureaucratic Mess

Policing in Washington, D.C. is a bureaucratic pretzel. Here’s how Sund, in his book Courage Under Fire, explains how various agencies and jurisdictions butt up against each other in a way that is unique to the District:

Pennsylvania Avenue NW is one of the major roadways in Washington and is literally a straight line from the US Capitol, in the center of the city, to the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The 900 block of Pennsylvania Avenue sits almost directly between the two. On the south side of the block is the headquarters for the United States Department of Justice, and on the north is the headquarters of the FBI. The DOJ is under federal jurisdiction, protected by its own security force and the Federal Protective Service. The sidewalk outside the DOJ Building belongs to the National Park Service and is under the jurisdiction of the US Park Police (USPP). Pennsylvania Avenue itself is MPD [D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department] jurisdiction. The north sidewalk is USPP jurisdiction, and the FBI building is protected by the FBI Police. In a single block, you can traverse five police jurisdictions just by crossing the street! And beyond that, at one end of that long Pennsylvania Avenue, you have the US Secret Service at the White House, and at the opposite end, you have the USCP [United States Capitol Police].

Accordingly, although the Capitol Police has sole jurisdiction over the Capitol and was in charge of securing the building and grounds on January 6th, Sund, who had been chief of the Capitol Police for eighteen months at that point, had very little power to make unilateral decisions.

The Capitol Police, meanwhile, is wrapped up in a bureaucracy of its own. It is overseen by a board that votes on major security calls. The Capitol Police chief is an ex officio member of the board but does not vote on board decisions and, practically speaking, reports to the board. The other board members are the Senate sergeant at arms, the House sergeant at arms, and the architect of the Capitol—three politically appointed positions.

In the run-up to January 6th, Chief Sund told the House and Senate sergeants at arms, Michael Stenger and Paul Irving, that he wanted the National Guard to staff the perimeter of the Capitol complex. But Stenger and Irving were reluctant to do so. Irving testified to the Jan. 6th Committee that “the intelligence really didn’t speak for anything that we felt would justify the need” for the Guard.

Like Irving, Stenger did not approve Sund’s request. “Without their support, there was no way I could get the National Guard,” Sund writes.

Admittedly, Sund didn’t have the necessary intelligence at his disposal to make the case. He believed—and he was not alone in believing—that the January 6th protest would be similar to “Stop the Steal” protests that Trump supporters held in Washington in November and December 2020. There was violence during those protests, but it was mainly limited to the streets. Officials who ought to have been stepping up security preparations appeared to worry less about an attack on federal buildings than about the possibility of vehicles ramming protesters, as seen in Charlottesville in 2017 and Waukesha in 2021.

Sund describes the attack as a “colossal USCP intelligence failure, plain and simple.” But why? Why didn’t he and the other members of the Capitol Police Board have the information they needed to better judge the threat? Let’s turn to that question next.

The January 6th Intelligence Failure

Many of the warnings about January 6th were in plain sight and available online. The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, which the Capitol Police mostly rely upon for intelligence gathering, were monitoring the situation. But those officials, according to a Senate investigation, did not find online posts calling for violence at the Capitol to be credible.

No formal threat assessment or joint intelligence bulletin specific to the joint session of Congress was ever issued.

Some under-the-radar flagging did take place, and you can see it summarized in the final report of the Jan. 6th Committee—although it comes off more as CYA than any true alert that officials could use to make decisions. For instance, the day before January 6th, the FBI’s field office in Norfolk, Virginia circulated an alert to law enforcement agencies warning of online discussions about potential violence on January 6th. The alert quotes an “online thread” saying the following:

Be Ready to Fight. Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in, and blood from their BLM and Pantifa [sic] slave soldiers being spilled. Get violent . . . stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest. Go there ready for war. We get our President or we die. NOTHING else will achieve this goal.

The alert from the FBI field office is not particularly helpful in assessing whether the threat is credible; it doesn’t even reveal where the “online thread” could be found.

The Capitol Police’s own intelligence unit also had information about threats on the joint session and the Capitol complex. One December 21 report contained a map of the Capitol campus and other information that had been published on (a site created after the pro-Trump subreddit “the_donald” was banned from Reddit). The report quoted comments from the site that “promote confronting members of Congress and carrying firearms during the protest,” including the following:

  • “Exactly, forget the tunnels. Get into Capitol Building, stand outside congress. Be in the room next to them. They won’t have time [to] run if they play dumb.”
  •  “Deploy Capitol Police to restrict movement. Anyone going armed needs to be mentally prepared to draw down on LEOs. Let them shoot first, but make sure they know what happens if they do.”
  • “If they don’t show up, we enter the Capitol as the Third Continental Congress and certify the Trump Electors.”
  • “Bring guns. It’s now or never.”
  • “If a million patriots who [show] up bristling with AR’s, just how brave do you think they’ll be when it comes to enforcing their unconstitutional laws? Don’t cuck out. This is do or die. Bring your guns.”
  • “Surround every building with a tunnel entrance/exit. They better dig a tunnel all the way to China if they want to escape.”

This report was distributed to Capitol Police command staff, but like the alert from the FBI field office, it did not depict the threat as credible. In fact, it pointedly states on the first page that the comments from included no “specific threats or specific plans of action.”

One reason the intelligence gathering and analysis was so choppy and passive may be that intelligence officials were worried about the First Amendment implications of monitoring the speech of U.S. citizens. Senate investigators related that, “FBI and DHS officials stressed the difficulty in discerning constitutionally protected free speech versus actionable, credible threats of violence.”

Jill Sanborn, then–assistant director of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, characterized these types of threats as “information off the Internet, unattributable to a specific person.” She also said:

Under our authorities, because being mindful of the First Amendment and our dual-headed mission to uphold the Constitution, we cannot collect First Amendment-protected activities without sort of the next step, which is the intent. And so we would have to have an already predicated investigation that allowed us access to those comms and/or a lead or a tip or a report from a community citizen or a fellow law enforcement partner for us to gather that information.

So valid constitutional concerns may have contributed to keeping actionable intelligence about January 6th out of the hands of the officials who could have used it to make plans.

The Backlash to Trump’s Lafayette Square Crackdown

Constitutional concerns also may have contributed to an initial skittishness about taking action against the rally-turned-mob. Depositions from national security officials show they were deeply apprehensive about the use of military force against U.S. citizens, especially following the events of June 1, 2020. That was the day President Trump, furious that Black Lives Matter protests were causing a commotion so close to the White House, ordered a national crackdown on the movement, causing further chaos and eliciting widespread criticism.

Standing in the Rose Garden that day, Trump called upon governors to use the National Guard to “dominate the streets” or else he would “deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.” He also announced enforcement actions specific to Washington, D.C., including a 7 p.m. curfew set to come into effect that evening.

Protesters didn’t need to wait that long to feel the effects. As Trump spoke, unidentifiable law enforcement figures forcefully cleared the area around the White House using harsh riot-control tactics such as tear gas and rubber pellets. Then, flanked by a coterie that included his secretary of defense, Mark Esper, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, Trump marched across Lafayette Square to have photos taken of himself awkwardly holding a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, which had been vandalized by protesters.

Trump’s apparent order to violently clear the square so he could reach the church—it would be over a year before it was reported that the Park Police had made earlier plans to clear the square without knowing of Trump’s plan for the photo op—and his call for a military response to that summer’s civil unrest caused a fierce backlash, including from former diplomats and military leaders. Adding to the confusion, many different agencies with different proximate jurisdictions nearby had descended on protesters in the square: Secret Service personnel, members of the Park Police, officers from D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department, and National Guard troops were intermingled and all but indistinguishable. That evening, low-flying Army helicopters blew tropical storm–strength winds over protesters violating the new curfew. Many complained about the use of tear gas, and for days it was unknown who used it—Metropolitan Police, it turned out—and the confusion allowed Trump defenders to deny that tear gas was used at all.

In the aftermath of the Lafayette Square crackdown, Defense Secretary Esper sought to downplay concerns that Trump could continue militarizing the streets. He told the press two days after the incident that “I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.” Gen. Milley reportedly got into a “heated discussion” with Trump on the day of the crackdown over using active-duty soldiers to quash protests, and a few days later, he apologized for participating in Trump’s photo op. Trump fired Esper by tweet after the 2020 election; it was reported that he had originally intended to fire him in June following Esper’s statements in opposition to the use of the act.

The Insurrection Act came up again in December 2020, when election-denial hysteria was at a rolling boil: Trump’s former national security advisor, General Michael Flynn, floated the possibility of using the military to seize voting machines. This prompted Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy to release a terse statement: “There is no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of an American election.”

Trump did not like that, either.

Esper’s replacement, Acting Secretary Christopher Miller, told the Jan. 6th Committee that Trump White House aide John McEntee reached out to him “on behalf of the President” to push back. McEntee wanted Miller to tell McCarthy that Trump was “not going to invoke the Insurrection Act, but that doesn’t mean that he couldn’t.”

Miller told the committee that he was “cognizant of the fears promulgated by many about the prior use of the military in the June 2020 response to protests near the White House and fears that the president would invoke the Insurrection Act to politicize the military in an anti-democratic manner.”

“No such thing was going to occur on my watch.”

Defending the Military—and Then Failing to Deploy It

Given calls by people like Flynn to seize voting machines, observers had very good reason to worry about what Trump might try to do in the weeks before Joe Biden’s inauguration.

On January 3, 2021, all ten living former defense secretaries wrote a joint op-ed in the Washington Post that argued,“Efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory.” The former secretaries also warned, “Civilian and military officials who direct or carry out such measures would be accountable, including potentially facing criminal penalties, for the grave consequences of their actions on our republic.”

Thanks to the Jan. 6th Committee, we know that Trump was contemplating something troublingly similar to what the former defense secretaries warned about: using American soldiers in the manner of a Praetorian Guard for his own protection and that of his supporters during the rally being planned for January 6th.

The committee unearthed an email sent by Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, on January 5 that noted the D.C. National Guard (DCNG) would be on hand to “protect pro Trump people.” The committee also noted that, while planning for his January 6th rally, Trump “floated the idea of having 10,000 National Guardsmen deployed to protect him and his supporters from any supposed threats by leftwing counter-protesters.” Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller also remembered Trump mentioning the possibility of using “10,000 troops” in a brief conversation.

Rally organizer Katrina Pierson recalled that during a planning meeting two days before the rally, Trump requested that the National Guard be called in preemptively:

I think it was [Trump staffer] Max [Miller] who said something to the effect of, Well, we should only call in the Guard if we expect a problem. And then the President says, no, we should call in the Guard so that there aren’t—so that there isn’t a problem. You know, we need to make sure people are protected. And he said . . . you know, I want to call in 10,000 National Guard. And then I opened my folder and wrote down 10,000 National Guard, closed my folder again.

After the meeting, Max Miller texted Pierson, “Just glad we killed the national guard and a procession”—the idea that Trump would march down Pennsylvania Avenue with the rallygoers and those thousands of National Guard troops. But while many people, including people on his own staff, worried about what Trump might do with the military on January 6th, very few people seemed concerned about what could happen if the troops never came at all.

Trump had authority to deploy the National Guard on January 6th, but he never did. Via executive orders dating back to 1949, authority to activate the DCNG has been delegated to the secretary of defense, whose office further delegates to the secretary of the Army.

In early January 2021, the commander of the DCNG, Maj. Gen. William Walker, requested a National Guard presence in Washington for January 6th but encountered what he called “tremendous resistance” from Army officials, especially Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy. A major concern from the military side was “about being too close, military uniforms too close to the Capitol.”

Walker said he was given “explicit direction: No guardsmen can be at this street, no guardsmen can be at that street, I don’t want any guardsmen near the Capitol.” This struck him as odd, seeing as the DCNG was originally created to “protect the Capitol,” a mission it has continued to uphold to the present day. (Indeed, as he pointed out in his testimony, the DCNG shoulder insignia is the Capitol dome.)

Walker also remembered Lafayette Square and the willingness to deploy the National Guard against Black Lives Matter protesters there—a marked contrast with the military’s reluctance to make similar measures available seven months later when Trump supporters were coming to town.

He testified:

I cannot help but separate—I think about in the summer when they constantly were calling me, and the very next morning they were all in my office. And they stayed there day after day after day. . . . you know, everybody knew what was going to happen. Now it’s decision time . . . Now you see the Capitol is being breached. . . . The Secretary of the Army doesn’t call me. The Secretary of Defense doesn’t call me. I’m trying to get through to the Secretary of the Army, and I’m unsuccessful. So [the] only thing I can attribute that to is decision avoidance, or decision paralysis, or not wanting to do it.

When pressed further, Walker said:

So l’m African American. Child of the sixties. I think it would have been a vastly different response if those were African Americans trying to breach the Capitol. As a career law enforcement officer, part-time soldier, last five years full time, but a law enforcement officer my entire career, the law enforcement response would have been different.

Command Chain Confusion

The military leadership’s overall reluctance to deploy forces became an even more confusing obstacle to the DCNG’s January 6th response because of issues in the chain of command. In a memo dated January 4, 2021, Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller forbade the DCNG from deploying riot control agents and using certain other tactics on January 5 and 6, 2021. The memo stated that without Miller’s “personal authorization,” the National Guard was not permitted:

    • To be issued weapons, ammunition, bayonets, batons, or ballistic protection equipment such as helmets and body armor.
    • To interact physically with protesters, except when necessary in self-defense or defense of others. . . .
    • To employ any riot control agents.
    • To share equipment with law enforcement agencies.
    • To use Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) assets or to conduct ISR or Incident, Awareness, and Assessment activities.
    • To employ helicopters or any other air assets.
    • To conduct searches, seizures, arrests, or other similar direct law enforcement activity.
    • To seek support from any non-DCNG National Guard units.

Speaking to the Jan. 6th Committee, Miller characterized the memo as “standard,” “typical,” and “boilerplate,” noting that the prohibition of the use of helicopters was a direct response to their “misutilization” the previous June following the Lafayette Square crackdown.

Walker and Sund point to the January restrictions outlined in Miller’s memo as a major reason for the Guard’s delay in getting to the Capitol on January 6th, mainly because it proved confusing and difficult for Walker to get affirmative approval from Miller or McCarthy to deploy the DCNG as the attack unfolded.

Walker said he was tempted to “just take it upon myself”—and, as we will see shortly, Miller suggested that’s what Walker should have done. But apart from his soldierly unwillingness to break the chain of command, Walker trusted “the lawyers who made it real clear to me that I could not do it; that I shouldn’t do it.” He said:

There were soldiers, Army and Air saying, ‘Sir, why aren’t we out there? I mean, you can see it on TV’—every television in the [DC] Armory [headquarters of the DCNG], and so, that was a struggle as well. . . . And we were sued over the summer by a lot of people. So, l’m thinking, ‘Well, are the soldiers protected if they’re going on me saying go?’ And lawyers . . . four of them, you’ll get nine opinions. So l didn’t really know what to do. But they kind of convinced me, wait for authorization. . . You know, well, that piece of paper that I know would have been used against me if I just went on and did it.

Sund writes in his book:

To fully grasp the absurdity of the situation, picture the National Guard soldiers with all their riot gear, only blocks away, having to drive around the Capitol while my officers were still battling there, not being allowed to assist, only to return to the Armory to be relieved—all while the Pentagon was sending security details to protect the military leaders’ homes and while the military leaders in the Pentagon were watching the attack play out on national television. [Emphasis in original.]

So when the moment of crisis arrived, the Capitol Police were desperate for help, the National Guard wanted to help, and yet they were kept apart.

The Missing Strategic Framework

Apart from the uncertainty about what Guard resources were permissible to deploy for people close to the action, the lack of a framework for action beyond traffic control caused further delays. Defense officials say they needed time to plan DCNG’s response. As Army Secretary McCarthy told the January 6th committee:

We didn’t know what mission they were being asked to perform. . . . they need to understand what’s going to be asked of them. They’re going to be there all night. What are, you know, the conditions you’re going to face? What are we asking them to do? What is the intent that we want to achieve with this operation? How are you going to communicate? How are we going to get resupplies to you?

Miller similarly testified:

I would like nothing better in the world than to be the hero of this horrendous experience and to have the military come in like the cavalry and save the day, but I’m sorry. It’s just not—it’s not a movie. It’s not a Netflix series. It’s not how the military works, and to have to move across a dense urban environment, re-mission, re-equip, and get up to speed, this happened remarkably fast in terms of how the military works to re-mission and get a force out there. So I don’t know—there’s a lot of confusion within the Army. You see it. I see it. I don’t know.

But at the same time, Miller blamed Walker for the delay: “If you’re the person on the ground in the Army, and you realize that there’s something unpredictable or unexpected and you have the ability to influence it, the culture, the training, the education, the expectation of you, the American people, is that you will execute, and do what you can, even if it costs you your job.”

That last part, about how Walker should have acted without regard for whether he would be fired for doing so, is a sticking point in Miller’s testimony. Notwithstanding his own January 4 memo prohibiting DCNG engagement with protesters without his explicit approval, Miller asked why Walker didn’t send his available Guardsmen into the fray: “Why didn’t he send them? I’d love to know. . . . I’ve launched QRF [quick reaction forces] without approval more than once, so I don’t know. Beats me.”

Dazed and Confused Civilian Leadership

While the attack unfolded, Army Secretary McCarthy, the link in the chain of command between General Walker and Acting Defense Secretary Miller, spent much of his time talking to members of Congress and the press. He described “people handing me telephones, whether it was the media or Congress. And I had to explain to all of them, no, we’re coming, we’re coming, we’re coming. So that chewed up a great deal of time.”

He was asked to “explain why you thought it was your responsibility to field those calls and not someone else’s?” His reply:

The speaker of the House is on my cell phone; I’m going to take the call. They were obviously very upset, worried about their members. I wanted to give assurance to—not hand this off to one of my military assistants—to let them know we were definitely coming. There obviously was great confusion because it was over various media outlets that was the perception, we weren’t coming.

During the conversation later that afternoon wherein McCarthy claims to have given Walker authorization to deploy—a conversation Walker claims didn’t happen—McCarthy was also, he admitted to the committee, “multitasking” and writing “talking points.”

“The Mayor [of Washington, D.C., Muriel Bowser,] said she wanted to go on TV to communicate to the public, and they had asked me to go with. And I said, you know, I wanted to get my thoughts collected,” McCarthy said. He said one of his aides spoke to Walker, and the moment the conversation ended, McCarthy was under pressure to do P.R. about the crisis, recalling, “We’ve got to get on TV; no one’s been on TV. And it was—it was like, we need to go now, and I had to put my thoughts together in like 2 or 3 minutes.”

Walker said he didn’t get clear approval to deploy his Guardsmen to the Capitol until after 5 p.m.

Lingering Issues and Unresolved Mysteries 

The D.C. National Guard finally arrived on Capitol Hill at 5:20 p.m., over an hour after Trump tweeted a video asking his supporters to “go home”—a message that rioters such as “QAnon Shaman” Jacob Chansley passed around to one another quickly after they received it, dissipating the insurrectionary crowds before the soldiers arrived.

As the Jan. 6th Committee report noted, the belated deployment of the DCNG was “likely” due in part to “miscommunication” among leaders in the Department of Defense, and perhaps to “genuine concerns . . . that President Trump might give an illegal order to use the military in support of his efforts to overturn the election.”

The Capitol’s saving grace that day was D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department, which responded without hesitation to the calls for help from the Capitol Police. Without the MPD’s intervention, the insurrection likely would have been much worse.

Recognizing the trouble the Capitol Police faced in getting assistance from the National Guard, in late 2021 Congress passed and President Biden signed into law the Capitol Police Emergency Assistance Act. The law allows the chief of the Capitol Police to request the DCNG or federal law enforcement agencies in the case of an emergency without prior approval of the Capitol Police Board. (The law does allow the board to revoke assistance in consultation with House and Senate leadership.)

In its final report, the Jan. 6th Committee recommends, among other things,:

  • that there be more oversight of and funding for the Capitol Police;
  • that federal agencies with intelligence and security missions should adopt “whole-of-government” strategies to combat violent activity by extremist groups while respecting First Amendment rights;
  • that intelligence-sharing protocols be reviewed to ensure that information is shared “on a timely basis to combat the threat of violent activity targeting legislative institutions, government operations, and minority groups”; and
  • that the joint session of Congress held every four years on January 6 be declared a National Special Security Event, which would task the Secret Service with leading security operations that day, as it does during presidential inaugurations and State of the Union addresses.

Would any of these intelligence- and security-related measures stop another January 6th–style mob from occupying the Capitol again? Maybe. But there remain other problems—problems of bureaucratic entanglement; of competing, partially overlapping jurisdictions; and of multiple chains of command with different purviews of authority to respond to events in Washington, D.C.

There are also still-unsolved mysteries. Pipe bombs were planted outside the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee the morning of January 6. To this day, no one knows who made or placed them. The FBI is seeking tips, offering a reward as high as $500,000 for information leading to the arrest of a suspect.

A final point: The January 6th insurrection proved that, even twenty years after 9/11 and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate a national security response in the event of a major emergency, the United States Capitol remains a soft target—and not necessarily for lack of manpower or funding. Our national security apparatus is only as good as the political appointees who run it, and many of them provided a gross disservice to the men and women in uniform on the ground that day.

Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter is an author, a former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz, and a former speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint. She was formerly a Bulwark political columnist.