Nancy getting nervous?
As the National Guard’s deployment to the Capitol enters its second month with no solid end yet in sight, politicians are beginning to question whether the troops are overstaying their welcome.
Pentagon officials have pointed to unspecified threats in justifying their approval to keep about 5,000 Guardsmen at the Capitol through at least mid-March.
Local politicians, while agreeing with the need for the current deployment, have expressed concerns about the security on Capitol Hill becoming permanent, cutting off access around the neighborhood residents have traditionally enjoyed.
Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress have begun openly questioning whether intelligence exists to justify keeping the Guardsmen in D.C., accusing Democrats of using the Guard for show.
“I sit on the Intelligence Committee, but I’m aware of no specific, credible threat reporting — as distinguished from aspirational, uncoordinated bluster on the internet — that justifies this continued troop presence,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) wrote in an op-ed for Fox News this week. “Thus, I believe the rest of these soldiers should also go home to their families and civilian jobs.”
Guardsmen from around the country started pouring into the Capitol at the beginning of January after rioters supporting former President Trump attacked the building and U.S. security agencies warned of threats for further violence leading up to President Biden’s inauguration.
At the height of the deployment, about 26,000 Guardsmen were on hand patrolling Capitol Hill armed with M4 semi-automatic rifles, taking breaks in the halls of the Capitol building, setting up razor wire-topped fencing and parking military vehicles to block off the National Mall and large swaths of downtown D.C.
The inauguration was ultimately incident free, and the Guard has now drawn down to about 7,000 members.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Guardsmen at the Capitol on Friday to thank them for being there and ask if there was anything they needed, telling them “the Department of Defense is behind you.”
“I recognize this is not easy duty, but it’s important duty,” Austin told troops. “The lawmakers that work in those buildings behind you there, they’re really, really grateful and happy. They don’t get a chance to tell you that personally every day, but trust me, they tell me that, how grateful they are.”
At the request of the Capitol Police, about 5,000 are staying through at least mid-March, with Guard leaders expressing that sentiment to their troops.
Army Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, California’s adjutant general, said Friday that officials have told the 286 soldiers sent to D.C. from their state “to expect to be on mission no later than the 14th of March.”
Meanwhile, acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman this week recommended that security measures, including the fencing and unspecified “back-up” security forces stationed in “close proximity” to the building, become permanent.
The suggestion drew swift backlash from across the political spectrum, including from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D).
“Based on conversations with federal partners, there are some potentially volatile events upcoming that will require extra security. Fencing and the presence of troops will be a part of that,” Bowser tweeted.
“But we will not accept extra troops or permanent fencing as a long-term fixture in DC,” she added.
But Republicans are increasingly questioning what threats are keeping the National Guard in D.C. now.
Eleven Republicans, led by Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), sent a letter to acting Army Secretary John Whitley this week requesting a briefing on intelligence on threats to the Capitol complex.
“As you know better than anyone, our National Guard men and women are deployed on short notice and pulled away from their families and jobs,” they wrote. “The National Guard should be used as an option of last resort.”
In justifying the continued deployment, Whitley told reporters there are “several upcoming events” the FBI is concerned about but deferred to the bureau for specifics.
“It’s certainly the policy of the Department of Defense that we believe that military forces should be used as a last resort,” Whitley said. “We faced an unprecedented crisis over the last three weeks, and our United States military, particularly the National Guard, responded in an exemplary manner. And we will always do that, if there’s a need, for the security of our nation.”
The Department of Homeland Security also issued a terrorism bulletin this week warning of threats from domestic extremists persisting beyond the inauguration.
“Information suggests that some ideologically-motivated violent extremists with objections to the exercise of governmental authority and the presidential transition, as well as other perceived grievances fueled by false narratives, could continue to mobilize to incite or commit violence,” the bulletin said.
Among the upcoming events that could become a lightning rod is Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate, set to start Feb. 9. Adherents to the QAnon conspiracy theory are also pushing bogus claims Trump will be sworn in again March 4, the original date of presidential inaugurations before the 20th Amendment moved it to Jan. 20.
The National Guard deployment started to take on a more partisan tinge after some Guardsmen were forced to rest during their shift in a parking garage instead of inside the Capitol complex like they had been.
The Guardsmen were quickly moved back into the building after pictures of them cramped in the garage circulated online and lawmakers in both parties expressed outrage. But several Republican governors then made a point of announcing they were bringing their troops home.
Several other Republican governors, including in Montana, New Hampshire, Texas, Alaska, Arizona and Tennessee, also announced they were recalling their Guards.
In his Fox News op-ed, Cotton, who over the summer called for deploying active-duty troops to quell racial justice protests, also said Democrats “overreacted” with the initial scale of the deployment in order to “portray President Donald Trump’s 74 million voters as ‘domestic terrorists.’ ”
Even before deploying the Capitol, the National Guard has been stretched thin over the past year as it was called upon for helping respond to the COVID-19 crisis, supporting local law enforcement during racial justice protests, responding to hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters, and bolstering cyber defenses and local poll workers during the elections.
Adding to the tensions, Guard soldiers themselves are becoming susceptible to COVID-19 while in the nation’s capital.
Guard officials told reporters on Friday that roughly 2 to 3 percent of the Guardsmen deployed to the Capitol since Jan. 5 have contracted the virus.
They were not able to give a concrete number of positive cases as it is “fluid over time as soldiers depart and arrive in the area due to the dynamic nature of the mission,” said Maj. Gen. Jerry Fenwick, director of the National Guard Bureau’s Office of the Joint Surgeon.
Democratic governors, meanwhile, have increased their deployments to the Capitol to fill in gaps as other troops leave.
“The U.S. Department of Defense has asked Illinois to assist federal and local agencies in this continued effort, and Maj. Gen. [Rich] Neely and I are ready to ensure that the state of Illinois continues its proud legacy of protecting our democracy,” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) said in a statement announcing his activation of about 500 Guardsmen for the Capitol mission.
“Ultimately, we must root out the dark forces of racism, white supremacy and disinformation that have created this moment, but until we do that, our extraordinary troops will deploy with honor.”
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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) also deployed another 542 Guardsmen to D.C., saying “our federal government is facing a host of challenges unlike any in modern history, and it needs to be able to conduct its business safely for the sake of all Americans.”
Army Maj. Gen. Paul Rogers, Michigan’s adjutant general, told reporters Friday that states aren’t forced to respond to all requests from governors given how stretched they may be. He said leaders have “full discretion to give that feedback to the Guard Bureau” and said the Guard is seen as a nationwide network meant to fill in gaps when needed.
“If one state can’t quite do it,” Rogers said, “another state will step up and fulfill that obligation.”