Finger-Pointing Over the Riot

Terry Schwadron
5 min readMar 4, 2021

Terry H. Schwadron

Mar. 4, 2021

We seem to be in no danger of running out of fingers to point blame for under-preparedness and poor National Guard response to the insurrection riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 — even as the Department of Homeland Security issued another warning bulletin for a new attack on the Capitol today, closing down today’s House session.

Some extremist groups have warned violence in Washington and elsewhere to continue the campaign to overturn election results in conjunction with the original date for inauguration ceremonies.

Yesterday, it was the turn of federal defense and Homeland officials as part of Congressional review of what happened on Jan. 6 with an eye to prepare better.

So far, there has been no shortage of finger-pointing from those charged with protecting the Capitol, and no hesitation among Republicans on these oversight committee to misdirect or redefine the questions to keep blame away from Donald Trump’s inner circle.

Fix this? We can’t agree on who did what and why.

Spreading Shade, Not Light

Rather than focus on the coordination of the Jan. 6 incident, they have sought to broaden questions to include perceived dangers from left-leaning activists last summer in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The active finger-wagging by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc, has led speculation that the uprising did not involve weaponry and that rioters could have been leftist activists dressing as Trump supporters.

Donald Trump spent three months obsessing about overturning the November election results. As the impeachment trial testimony showed, after exhausting all other appeals, he called for and assembled a rally of thousands of Trump supporters, white supremacists, militia members, QAnon conspiracists and pointed them at the Capitol. He takes no responsibility for inciting what turned into a fatal attack, found enough Republican votes to evade impeachment conviction, and is back at insisting that he should still be president.

At one point this week, Trump said he had suggested that 10,000 National Guardsmen be deployed, but that was not taken either as an order or even taken seriously. Rather, Trump did nothing during the riot to stop it; several hours in, he sent a video suggesting his followers go home with his love.

So far, these hearings have not pinned any direct blame on the Trump team beyond the impeachment testimony.

What we do or don’t know:

— The Capitol police and Washington, D.C. police didn’t really know what they were facing, so they were unprepared for a riot involving thousands swarming the Capitol. A late warning from an FBI office in Norfolk warning of a next-day war on the Capitol never got in the right hands — a warning that was emailed to people inundated with email. No single agency has the responsibility to collect and communicate updated intelligence.

— Once they knew it was an out-of-control riot, the two Capitol sergeants at arms called for help from the National Guard, which finally showed up hours into the riot. No one really owns up to full responsibility for the delays in calling for help, or, indeed, who has the power to call in the Guard.

— Christopher Wray, head of the FBI, says domestic terrorism, the label he used for this insurrection, has been and remains a metastasizing threat to the nation. In what should have been a slap to Republicans, he repeatedly said there was no evidence that Capitol rioters included members of Antifa, Black Lives Matter or other leftist groups in disguise, and the FBI is pursuing criminal charges against at least 235 Trump supporters. The Norfolk message was unverified, raw material, he said, but should have prompted action among Capitol defenders. So, it was a communication and execution problem.

— Maj. Gen. William J. Walker, commanding general of the D.C. National Guard, said he was ready to deploy 150 readied Guardsmen within 20 minutes of a call from the Capitol security around 2 p.m., but was held up by Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy for more than three hours, after 5 p.m., something Acting Washington D.C. police chief Robert Contee had found “stunning.” The Army Secretary has not testified about why or under whose orders did delay occur, but weirdly, Robert Salesses, a senior Defense Department official, said the Pentagon gave initial approval to call in Guardsmen around 3 p.m., and then finally approved deployment at 4:30 p.m., but not communicated to Walker until 5:08 p.m. Separately, Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said defense officials approved a police request for assistance in about 60 minutes of the request.

Among the senior Army leaders hesitant about the “optics” of military-clad defenders at the Capitol was Gen. Charles Flynn, brother of Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s once national security adviser and an instigator of the Jan. 6 rally, and clearly acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller was aware of the Trump campaign to overturn election results. By contrast, Walker testified, there had been no hesitation in deploying National Guardsmen to guard institutions during Black Lives Matter protests in Washington.

Wag, fingers, wag.

Messy Details

Hmmm. A mess, no doubt, with lots more testimony to come, including whether sitting members of Congress aided insurrectionists in touring the Capitol before the riot.

But what emerges here is that while we all watched the chaos of an attack on attack on democracy underway on television, Washington sat on its official procedures and rules, putting the Vice President, members of Congress, staff, journalists and insurrectionists themselves at risk for injury or death.

Worse, delays in deploying the Guard to aid underprepared Capitol police may have been directed. These hearings are a serving as a stepping-stone upwards on the decision tree.

If, as keeps being thrown about, seeking to avoid the poor “optics” was a bad and highly politicized way of looking at the reality on the ground. Ultimately, of course, the question will be whether defenders were held back by ineptitude or by design of those seeking to help Trump in his attempts to challenge the Constitution.

If there is trouble today in Washington, it will come with security fencing around the Capitol, thousands of National Guardsmen still on duty, and Trump on call in Mar-a-Lago. How do you like those optics?