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Former President Donald Trump’s upcoming Senate impeachment trial poses a security concern that federal law enforcement officials told lawmakers last week requires as many as 5,000 National Guard troops to remain in Washington through mid-March, according to four people familiar with the matter.
The contingency force will help protect the Capitol from what was described as “impeachment security concerns,” including the possibility of mass demonstrations coinciding with the Senate’s trial, which is slated to begin the week of Feb. 8.
Despite the threat, the citizen soldiers on the ground say they have been given little information about the extension and wonder why they are being forced to endure combat-like conditions in the nation’s capital without a clear mission.
“Quite frankly this is not a ‘combat zone,’ so combat conditions shouldn’t apply,” said one Guard member on the ground in D.C. who has deployed twice to Afghanistan.
Several National Guard units have seen their deployments extended involuntarily, though a majority of Guardsmen remaining in Washington will do so on a volunteer basis. Around 7,000 troops will continue to provide riot security through the beginning of February, with that number decreasing slightly to 5,000 by the time Trump’s impeachment trial begins.
“We are not going to allow any surprises again,” said one Guard member, referring to the widespread lack of preparedness for the insurrection on Jan. 6.
There is also some concern over potential unrest surrounding March 4, the date some QAnon conspiracy theorists believe Trump will be inaugurated for the second time.
A Capitol Police spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
National Guard troops were deployed to the capital city in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol, when supporters of Trump stormed the building while Congress was certifying President Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory. The House impeached Trump a week later, charging him with “willful incitement of insurrection.”
By Inauguration Day, around 25,000 troops were in Washington, where unprecedented security measures were put into place to prevent similar attacks.
Now, thousands of Guard members will remain in Washington far longer than they initially expected when they packed their suitcases for what they believed to be a short-term mission on Jan. 6. The rank-and-file have so far been given no official justifications, threat reports or any explanation for the extended mission, said two Guard members — nor have they seen any violence thus far.
“There is no defined situation, or mission statement. … This is very unusual for any military mission,” said one member, who has deployed twice to Afghanistan. “We are usually given a situation, with defined mission perimeters, and at least a tentative plan on how to execute those objectives.”
“Some don’t even know how long they’ll be here,” said another Guard member.
A fourth Guard member confirmed that the troops had not been told of any specific threat, rather that federal authorities were concerned about the potential for continued unrest. Far-right militias remain the biggest cause for concern, he said.
Morale is low among the troops, who described having to stand guard for hours at a time in full gear with limited access to food and water, waiting for hours to be transported to and from their hotels, and very little sleep. Many are washing socks and cold-weather undergarments in hotel bathroom sinks because they do not have access to laundry facilities.
Some have been forced to purchase their own food out of pocket to supplement the sparse meals they have been provided, which do not provide enough calories to sustain the long days. Even meals ready to eat are hard to come by due to logistical and transportation issues.
“Even if they do arrive all on time, the calories are just not there for the amount of work we put in and time we're spending on our feet, in the cold, in full gear,” one Guard member said.
The vast majority of Guard members are not full-time soldiers and also hold civilian jobs. Many are law enforcement officers, firefighters and small business employees with families struggling to juggle bills and child care during the pandemic. For many, the D.C. deployment means losing weeks of higher pay in their civilian jobs.
One of the Guard members, who has deployed to the Middle East, described “extremely austere conditions” and compared the D.C. mission to “invasion operations.”
“We essentially invaded and occupied a city,” the person said. “It was certainly an experience I didn’t think I’d have in an American city, much less the capital.”
Trump has not commented publicly since leaving office four days ago, but he has been assembling his defense team for the upcoming trial. If the former president urges his supporters to protest on his behalf, it could seriously strain law enforcement resources. Already, officials have set up a perimeter around the Capitol using 10-foot barricades with razor wire.
The renewed security concerns come amid intensifying tensions between Capitol Police and the National Guard. Last week, Capitol Police officials forced troops to vacate congressional office buildings, where they were taking rest breaks during their shifts that often last 12 or 14 hours. POLITICO first reported that approximately 5,000 troops were packed into a parking garage on the Senate side of the Capitol, with temperatures dropping as the sun went down.
The move prompted outrage from lawmakers from both parties, many of whom intervened with Capitol Police officials. The Guardsmen were eventually allowed back inside.
Moreover, the National Guard has struggled to contain Covid-19, with no clear testing regime and some troops being forced to break their quarantines. At least 200 Guardsmen have tested positive for Covid-19, and several hundred additional troops are in quarantine due to exposure.
The compounding troubles for the National Guard have caused lawmakers to step in to mediate the myriad disputes within the federal bureaucracy. Members of both parties had already been calling for investigations of the security failures on Jan. 6, when pro-Trump rioters overran officers from the Capitol and D.C. police departments.