Jan. 6 Investigation Enters Second Year with Unanswered Questions About the National Guard

U.S. soldiers rest inside the visitors center at the U.S. Capitol
U.S. soldiers rest between shifts inside the visitors center at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 13, 2021. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Matt Hecht)

As the nation marked the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, there was plenty of praise heaped on the National Guard for its help restoring order to the seat of American democracy.

President Joe Biden hailed "the heroism of the Capitol Police, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, the National Guard and other law enforcement officers who answered the call that day" in a Thursday morning speech at the Capitol.

"Outnumbered in the face of the brutal attack, the Capitol Police, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, the National Guard and other brave law enforcement officials saved the rule of law," Biden said.

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But the question remains: Why did it take Army leaders three hours to approve those much-needed Guard reinforcements?

The National Guard's hours-long response time -- and whether anyone in the Trump administration obstructed that response -- remain questions at the top of lawmakers' minds as the House panel investigating the attack prepares to take its work more public a year after the assault.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House committee investigating the attack, told CNN this week he believes the National Guard delay "was, in my opinion, by design."

"When people are breaking into the United States Capitol, it should not take long for reinforcements to arrive," Thompson told the news outlet. "Three hours is just absolutely too long."

Exactly a year ago, supporters of then-President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol while Congress was meeting to certify Biden's win in the 2020 presidential election. Lawmakers and others in the building, including then-Vice President Mike Pence, were forced to stop the counting and hide in safe rooms as the rioters beat police, ransacked congressional offices and shouted, "Hang Mike Pence."

One police officer who clashed with rioters died when he suffered two strokes shortly after the melee. One Trump supporter was shot and killed by police while she tried to climb through a broken window adjacent to the House chamber that lawmakers were still in. Three other rioters died from medical emergencies during the chaos, and four police officers who responded to the attack have since died by suicide.

The D.C. National Guard had placed about 340 troops around the city to help with crowd control at Metro stations and city intersections in anticipation of pro-Trump rallies. But Guardsmen did not arrive at the Capitol until after 5 p.m., when the worst of the attack was already over.

A pair of Senate panels investigated the security failures of Jan. 6 and released a bipartisan report in June, but their probe did not look into root causes for the attack, including Trump's role.

After efforts to create a bipartisan, independent commission to do a more comprehensive investigation into Jan. 6 failed because of Republican opposition, House Democrats created a Select Committee to investigate. House Republican leadership refused to participate in the Select Committee, but Democrats appointed two anti-Trump Republicans to the panel: Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois.

The panel is unwinding a sprawling narrative and probing everything from what preparations government agencies made ahead of Jan. 6, to the funding for rallies that preceded the attack, to what was going on at a hotel in D.C. where Trump allies had set up a "war room" in the hours before the riot, to what Trump himself was doing as footage of the rioters storming the Capitol was broadcast live on TV.

So far, the committee, formally called the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, has interviewed more than 300 witnesses and collected about 35,000 documents -- largely done behind closed doors.

The panel has released some documents that have illuminated its investigation, including part of a Jan. 5 email from Trump's chief of staff, Mark Meadows, in which he said the National Guard would be on hand Jan. 6 to "protect pro Trump people" and promised more would be on standby.

In the months ahead, the committee is planning to do more of its work in public, including holding open hearings to "tell the story" of the attack, as Thompson has described the plan. The committee is also expected to release an interim report over the summer and a final report before November's midterm elections.

Thompson has said the National Guard will be part of the public testimony.

The timeline for the Guard's response has been in dispute since almost immediately after the Capitol was breached.

In March, Maj. Gen. William Walker, who commanded the D.C. National Guard at the time of the attack, testified at a Senate hearing that he received a "frantic" call from the Capitol Police chief pleading for help at 1:49 p.m., but did not receive approval from Army leadership to deploy until 5:08 p.m.

Walker held that he could have deployed a quick reaction force immediately if not for "unusual" restrictions placed on him Jan. 5 requiring higher approval before deploying the force. He also attributed the delay to Pentagon officials' concerns about "optics."

Other Pentagon officials from that time have insisted there was no delay that day and that they moved as fast as they could to develop a clear mission plan to defend the Capitol after only being prepared for traffic control. A Pentagon inspector general report released in November concluded that Pentagon officials "did not delay or obstruct the DoD's response."

The inspector general report also said Walker was first given approval to deploy at 4:35 p.m. and that then-Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy had to call Walker a second time at 5 p.m. to reissue the deployment order. Walker has told The Washington Post and Politico that the alleged first call never happened.

The Pentagon and Capitol Police leadership insist they are coordinating more effectively now than a year ago, and that the Capitol is better defended.

"I have spoke with the Department of Defense and in fact am meeting with them later today to make sure that we have the process down so that if the time ever came that we needed to make that call, everyone would know what the expectations are on both sides of the call," Capitol Police Chief Thomas Manger, who took over the force after the attack, testified at a Senate hearing Wednesday. "My hope is that with the other processes, planning that we put into place, that there's not going to be the need for a panicked call in an emergency."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: A Year Later, a Guardsman Who Responded to the Capitol Riot Recalls Delays and Uncertainty

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