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Politics & Policy

Congress Needs to Know, but Won’t Find Out, What Happened with Capitol Security on January 6

Protesters scale a wall as they storm the U.S. Capitol Building during clashes with Capitol police at a rally to contest the certification of the 2020 presidential election results in Washington, D.C., January 6, 2021. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

In my column this morning, I waded back into January 6. Meanwhile, congressional investigators are pressing ahead with their (inherently and deliberately partisan) probe into what happened and have subpoenaed several Trump administration witnesses. As I have written before, there is no particular need to investigate Donald Trump’s culpability for the riot — we can conclude that adequately from the public record — and there are problems with investigating the rioters themselves while criminal prosecutions are ongoing. But it is imperative for Congress to investigate how the Capitol’s security was so easily overcome.

Christopher Miller, the acting secretary of defense in the waning months of Donald Trump’s term, gave Vanity Fair reporter Adam Ciralsky access to follow him and his two chief deputies in the aftermath of January 6. Ciralsky’s story opens with this tidbit:

On the evening of January 5 . . . the acting secretary of defense, Christopher Miller, was at the White House with his chief of staff, Kash Patel. They were meeting with President Trump on “an Iran issue,” Miller told me. But then the conversation switched gears. The president, Miller recalled, asked how many troops the Pentagon planned to turn out the following day. “We’re like, ‘We’re going to provide any National Guard support that the District requests,’” Miller responded. “And [Trump] goes, ‘You’re going to need 10,000 people.’ No, I’m not talking bulls**t. He said that. And we’re like, ‘Maybe. But you know, someone’s going to have to ask for it.’” At that point Miller remembered the president telling him, “‘You do what you need to do. You do what you need to do.’ He said, ‘You’re going to need 10,000.’ That’s what he said. Swear to God.” . . . I asked the acting SECDEF why Trump threw out such a big number. “The president’s sometimes hyperbolic, as you’ve noticed. There were gonna be a million people in the street, I think was his expectation.” Miller maintained that initial reports on the anticipated crowd size were all over the map—anywhere from 5,000 to 40,000. “Park Police—everybody’s so hesitant to give numbers. So I think that was what was driving the president.”

If you credit that account — more on that in a moment — it is an exonerating fact for Trump in two ways. One, it contradicts the notion in some quarters that Trump intended for the January 6 demonstrators to seize the Capitol by force. Had he planned on that, he would not have tipped off his defense secretary that such a large troop presence would be required. (Of course, my own view was always that Trump was morally and politically responsible for the riot through his recklessness, not because he actually wanted the Capitol taken by a mob. That is Miller’s view as well.) Two, as the article continues, Miller and Patel — the latter, proudly a Trump loyalist, one of the people subpoenaed — insist that they had all the authority that was needed from the president to actively protect the Capitol:

To hear Patel tell it, they were on autopilot for most of the day: “We had talked to [the president] in person the day before, on the phone the day before, and two days before that. We were given clear instructions. We had all our authorizations. We didn’t need to talk to the president. I was talking to [Trump’s chief of staff, Mark] Meadows, nonstop that day.” . . . “The D.C. mayor finally said, ‘Okay, I need more,’” Kash Patel would tell me. “Then the Capitol police—a federal agency and the Secret Service made the request. We can support them under Title 10, Title 32 authorities for [the] National Guard. So [they] collectively started making requests, and we did it. And then we just went to work.” What did Miller think of the criticism that the Pentagon had dragged its feet in sending in the cavalry? He bristled. “Oh, that is complete horses**t. I gotta tell you, I cannot wait to go to the Hill and have those conversations with senators and representatives.” . . . Miller and Patel both insisted, in separate conversations, that they neither tried nor needed to contact the president on January 6; they had already gotten approval to deploy forces.

Trump being Trump, he went beyond Miller’s account and claimed after the fact that he had requested 10,000 troops and been denied by Nancy Pelosi. If Miller is accurate, this is not a wholesale fabrication but a Trumpian exaggeration from a grain of truth to a story with vaguely similar facts but a whole different conclusion.

The reality is that we do not know the full story of how the federal executive and legislative branches and the District of Columbia government responded. That is why it is important for Congress to get this on the record. But given who is running the congressional probe and how it is being conducted, there is little reason to believe we will end up with the truth.

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