Guardsmen lament their helplessness during Capitol riot

As pro-Trump rioters besieged the Capitol complex last week, leading to five deaths and scores of injuries, hundreds of members of the D.C. National Guard — with easy access to body armor, shields and helmets — sat on the sidelines around the city, unable to act.

In conversations with POLITICO on Monday, five of the National Guardsmen on duty last week expressed frustration and disbelief with how the events unfolded, emphasizing that they were ready and willing to support the Capitol Police before they were overwhelmed by a mob armed with metal pipes, fire extinguishers, and American flags.

One of the Guardsmen said the tragic irony of the situation was not lost on them. “It was bizarre watching live streams of your country being [be]sieged — especially when in a unit called ‘Capital Guardians’ — and having to sit there just mere blocks away from the Capitol and being told to watch traffic instead,” he said, adding that it was particularly frustrating seeing law enforcement units from outside D.C., the Montgomery County Police, respond to the assault while the Guardsmen were told to stay in place.

Other Guardsmen who have since deployed to the Capitol worry they lack the proper equipment — including weapons and armor — to defend themselves if protests again turn violent in the days leading up to Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Top Pentagon officials have defended their handling of the situation, noting that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and other local and federal officials sought to limit the military’s role in the response ahead of the riots. Other officials have fired right back in press accounts, telling reporters it was the Pentagon, in fact, that was skittish about deploying the military to handle what began as a peaceful protest outside the Capitol only later to evolve into a violent assault inside the halls of Congress.

The first members of the National Guard did not arrive at the Capitol until close to 6 p.m. on Wednesday, according to the Pentagon’s own timeline — well after the mob smashed its way into the House and Senate, killed a police officer, and drove the entire Congress and the vice president into hiding.

To the Guardsman left to protect orange traffic cones and ensure that downtown commuters could get to and from work safely, all the finger-pointing only deepens their frustration, knowing they might have been able to help. They are puzzled, too, at what they see as spin coming from their own chain of command.

Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, told reporters Monday that the 340 Guardsmen who had been initially deployed for traffic control on Wednesday were in uniform as requested, but had to return from their locations around the city to the D.C. Armory to strap on body armor, pick up their riot gear, and receive a briefing on their new mission.

But several of the Guardsmen said they already had access to necessary equipment, including body armor, face shields and helmets, when they were first deployed to Metro stations and checkpoints throughout D.C. before dawn on Wednesday. One Guardsman said leadership explicitly referred to the equipment as “riot gear,” and said it was all they would have needed to respond at the Capitol.

Chief Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman acknowledged that the Guardsmen did have “personal protective gear,” including helmets and body armor, in vehicles nearby, but said they did not have riot gear immediately accessible.

One of the Guardsmen said they were aware of the concern among their superiors about the image of troops in front of the Capitol — and how it might look like the military was being used to stage a coup. But he said the prevailing sentiment among the Guardsmen, as the situation clearly spiraled out of control, was, “Who gives a s--- about optics at this point?”

Another D.C. Guardsman, who was deployed with the Metropolitan Police Department for traffic control on Wednesday, described being far removed from the Capitol in another part of the city, watching videos of the rioters on social media and feeling “infuriated” that the police were not fighting back. If the mob had not been predominantly made up of white Trump supporters, he said, “guns would have gone off earlier.”

The rioters “were mace-ing the police, they were throwing things, someone got hit in the head, someone got beat to death,” said the person, who participated in Black Lives Matter protests this summer. “I’ve been to Black Lives Matter protests on both sides and I’ve never seen that amount of restraint.”

The atmosphere among the soldiers and police that day was initially relaxed, the Guardsman added. The group expected the Trump supporters to “push on the barricade,” “yell and scream,” “throw their temper tantrum” and ultimately just go home. But when he heard over the radio that the mob had breached the Capitol, the Guardsman, who is African American, says he called his wife and urged her to stay at her mom’s house in a D.C. suburb because he didn’t have faith that the authorities would handle the situation.

One Guardsman from outside D.C., whose unit was mobilized after the standoff and entered D.C. on Thursday, recalled yelling at the TV while watching rioters storm the Capitol. Even before the mob breached the building on Wednesday, the Guardsman began packing a suitcase and preparing mentally for an intense deployment, assuming they would be sent in to respond to the chaos.

Instead, the person said, they had to “watch from the sidelines.”

“We train hard to prepare for this stuff, so we were all angry at the situation and not being able to help in the moment,” the person said. “We’re here now, but the damage is done.”

A three-hour delay

Defense officials insist that the notion that there was any delay in deploying the Guard is overblown — or was not their fault.

Once the mob breached the Capitol and requests for additional Guard support began flooding in, Pentagon officials had to quickly sort through the requests and obtain the proper authorizations from the various agencies, including the Capitol Police, to send troops to the Capitol, according to Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy.

By Wednesday evening, hundreds of Guardsmen were on scene at the Capitol. Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller had activated the entire D.C. National Guard and authorized up to 6,200 Guardsmen from across the country to deploy to Washington. He bolstered that number on Monday, authorizing up to 15,000 troops.

The National Guard was not even authorized to head to the scene until the Capitol Police requested support and received approval from the Army secretary. According to a timeline released by the Pentagon on Friday, then-Capitol Police chief Steven Sund did not request additional Guard support from McCarthy until a 2:22 p.m. phone call, and Miller authorized the additional support at 3 p.m.

Sund told The Washington Post on Monday that he requested that the National Guard be put on standby in case the situation got out of control, but was rebuffed by the House and Senate Sergeants-at-Arms Paul Irving and Michael Stenger. By 2:26 p.m. last Wednesday, about 35 minutes after the mob had stormed the Capitol, Sund told the Post, he was begging for backup. The first National Guardsmen didn’t arrive until three hours later.

By then, it was too late.

A city on edge

Five days later, the Guardsmen patrolling a deeply shaken city are still on edge, amid reports of explosive devices found in cars and warnings of extremist groups mobilizing for another round.

The Guardsman from outside D.C., who will be deployed in Washington through the inauguration, noted that there is growing frustration on the ground that so far the troops have not been authorized to wear body armor during daily operations. The main threat right now seems to be a potential “lone wolf-style” terrorist attack, the person said, and many soldiers are concerned that they will become “soft targets” by not wearing body armor, even when there is not an active threat.

Another D.C. Guardsman, who deployed to the Capitol, expressed “shock” at the violence from the pro-Trump supporters on Wednesday. During a Tuesday night rally ahead of the big day, the protesters were peaceful, he recalled, taking pictures with the Guardsmen — but the next day “the whole climate shifted 180 degrees.”

The mood of the crowd had become feral, almost rabid. By the time the person’s unit arrived at the Capitol, as the sun was setting late on Wednesday, some of the rioters yelled at the Guardsmen in an attempt to antagonize them.

“I was more afraid about what would happen to the country,” the African-American Guardsman recalled thinking that day. “I was more afraid about what was going to happen after.”