Washington – How a ragtag mob egged on by Donald Trump managed to overpower security and invade the US Congress triggered anger and disbelief in Washington yesterday— and left the Capitol Police chief fighting calls to stand down.
As dust settled on the extraordinary scenes of a besieged seat of power, voices were quickly raised to ask why the 2,300-strong US Capitol Police force so easily gave way to protesters, appearing not to try to arrest them.
And the ease with which they breached security barriers to rampage through the Capitol — terrorising lawmakers and briefly shutting down Congress — laid bare a serious security threat two weeks before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Addressing reporters yesterday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose office was among those vandalised, led calls for Capitol Police chief Steven Sund to resign.
Fellow Democratic Representative Maxine Waters earlier called for an investigation into the security breach, saying she raised concerns at length with Sund days before Wednesday’s protests — called to coincide with the certification by Congress of Biden’s win, and intended by Trump to be “wild.”
Branding the extreme right-wing fringe among Trump’s backers as “terrorists,” Waters said she had been assured they would not be allowed anywhere near the Capitol.
“What the hell?” she tweeted.
But police officials pushed back, saying they lacked intelligence on the plans of the protesters — who like Trump claim without evidence that the November election was fraudulent.
“The USCP had a robust plan established to address anticipated First Amendment activities,” said Sund, referring to protests protected by the US constitution’s guarantee of free speech.
“But make no mistake — these mass riots were not First Amendment activities; they were criminal riotous behaviour.”
The unique structure of policing in Washington, the US capital with broad swathes of federal government properties but also a city unto itself, fed into the disastrous attack on Congress.
The Capitol Police control the area around the Congress, and the city’s larger, better-trained force can’t go there unless asked.
The siege of the Capitol building was well underway when they were called in at about 1pm Wednesday, said metropolitan Washington police chief Robert Contee.
“Things were already pretty bad at that point,” he told a press conference yesterday.
Contee said that they arrested several armed protesters, found two pipe bombs at Democratic and Republican party offices, and a truck loaded with Molotov cocktails.
The city government also controls local National Guard forces which had been called up to help with the demonstrations.
But Mayor Muriel Bowser said the Capitol never asked for their help.
“The Capitol Police and the leadership at the Capitol, they did not make the decision to call in guard support. I cannot order the army, National Guard to the United States Capitol grounds.”
The breach was embarrassingly easy and clearly dangerous.
Capitol Police had their weapons drawn at several points but didn’t stop the breach. At one point, however, one officer fired his weapon at the demonstrators, hitting and killing a woman.
Michigan kidnap plot
Among the crowd of Trump fans were a number of members of the Proud Boys and other armed militia groups known nationwide to be a threat.
Some were from Michigan, where last summer a similar pro-Trump group heavily armed with assault rifles, invaded the Michigan state capitol to protest Covid-19 controls.
In October the FBI arrested 13 in a plot to kidnap and possibly execute Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a critic of Trump.
And the FBI has called right-wing extremists the biggest threat of domestic terrorism.
But over the past year, Trump’s government has focused its federal law enforcement efforts on the left-wing Black Lives Matter and Antifa movements, which have been mostly tied to limited crimes of property damage.
Biden pointedly accused authorities Thursday of treating the pro-Trump mob more leniently than anti-racism demonstrators who were forcibly dispersed by police in Washington last year — calling it “unacceptable.”
Contee admitted they didn’t know what the pro-Trump protesters had planned.
“There was no intelligence that suggested there would be a breach of the US Capitol,” he said.
Lawmakers blasted broader government preparedness.
“It was well known that extremist groups, some of whom desire to foment civil war, were planning violence,” said Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
“Nearly 20 years after 9/11, we still clearly have massive gaps in the Federal government’s terrorism preparedness and response capabilities,” he said.
Bowser meanwhile questioned why the Trump administration brought in thousands of federal law enforcement officials to confront Black Lives Matter protesters in the summer, but had little ready for Wednesday’s violence.
She said the city was moving immediately to erect a “no-scale” fence in a very broad perimeter around the Capitol, the site of Biden’s inauguration on January 20.
She also extended the city-wide state of emergency through that date and called up 6,200 national guard troops from Washington and neighbouring states for that day, far more than normal for an inauguration. — AFP