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Pentagon put significant restrictions on D.C. Guard ahead of pro-Trump protests

Missy Ryan and Paul Sonne
Washington Post

This story originally appeared in The Washington Post.

Washington — The Pentagon placed significant restrictions on the District of Columbia Guard ahead of pro-Trump protests this week, putting the District’s military force in a back-seat role ahead of events that resulted in an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

In memos issued on Jan. 4 and 5, the Pentagon prohibited the District’s guardsmen from receiving ammunition or riot gear, interacting with protesters unless necessary for self-defense, sharing equipment with local law enforcement or using Guard surveillance and air assets without the defense secretary’s explicit sign-off, according to officials familiar with the orders.

A man takes a photo of broken windows near the Rotunda in the early morning hours of Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021, after protesters stormed the Capitol in Washington, on Wednesday.

The District Guard was also told it would be allowed to deploy a Quick Reaction Force only as a measure of last resort, the officials said.

The need for higher-level approval appeared to have slowed the military response when the Capitol Police, the law enforcement force that reports to Congress and protects the House and the Senate, requested backup from 200 troops during a call with top Pentagon officials early afternoon Wednesday, according to officials familiar with the call.

The Capitol Police hadn’t asked for Guard backup in anticipation of the protests, which President Donald Trump supported to stop congressional certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. Guard units arrived roughly 2.5 hours after the chief of the Capitol Police made the emergency request, even though a Quick Reaction Force had been put on standby outside the city limits, one of the officials said, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations.

The Defense Department was able to restrict the District Guard because the military force answers to the president rather than the mayor, as the District is not a state. The president’s power over the District Guard is typically delegated to the defense secretary, then the Army secretary, who makes command decisions.

Officials said the restrictions on the District Guard were put in place in part because city and Pentagon leadership didn’t want a large military presence after Trump ordered a mass military response to racial justice protests in the nation’s capital this summer, prompting a public outcry when military helicopters flew low over protesters, surveillance assets hovered above the city and residents were left with a sense that the District was being occupied or was under siege.

A U.S. defense official said the military always issues memos outlining the parameters of any mission. The restrictions added ahead of Wednesday’s events made sense, the official said, given that District Mayor Muriel Bowser requested the deployment of only a small contingent of some 340 guardsmen, primarily to control traffic and monitor metro stations.

The official said that when the mission changed on Wednesday afternoon, the Pentagon provided more forces than were requested, bringing in Guard units from outside states and loosening the restrictions.

But the initial restrictions and the unique command structure of the District Guard may have made it more difficult for authorities to quickly send the guardsmen to aid Capitol Police.

The District Guard is housed in the Armory about 10 minutes’ drive from the Capitol.

The delay in response prompted panicked lawmakers to call high-up officials at the Pentagon and in nearby states asking for military force to be sent to Capitol Hill. The governors of Maryland and Virginia expressed concern Wednesday about what they described as a delay in reaction by the Defense Department.

On Thursday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said he received a call from House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who said he was in a secure location with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer.

“I was actually on the phone with Leader Hoyer who was pleading with us to send the guard,” Hogan said. “He was yelling across the room to Schumer and they were back and forth saying we do have the authorization and I’m saying, ‘I’m telling you we do not have the authorization.’ “

Hogan said Maj. Gen. Timothy Gowen, the adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard, was repeatedly rebuffed by the Pentagon.

“The General . . . kept running it up the flagpole, and we don’t have authorization,” he said.

Ninety minutes later, Hogan said, he received a call “out of the blue, not from the Secretary of Defense, not through what would be normal channels,” but from Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, who asked if the Maryland guardsmen could “come as soon as possible.”

“It was like, yeah, we’re waiting, we’re ready,” said Hogan, who had already sent 200 state police troopers at Bowser’s request.

There were also suggestions that city authorities were frustrated with a holdup at the Pentagon.