The Capitol Will Face Its Biggest Security Test Since Jan. 6 On Saturday

Sep 16, 2021
Originally published on September 20, 2021 8:02 am

Updated September 16, 2021 at 10:38 AM ET

With a far-right rally planned for Washington, D.C., on Saturday, the Capitol will face its first large-scale security test since the Jan. 6 attack on the seat of American democracy.

Much has changed since the deadly insurrection attempt by supporters of former President Donald Trump: Three new officials oversee Capitol security, Congress has ramped up its oversight, and the law enforcement agency at the center of it all is in the midst of a transformation that follows intense turmoil.

While a top FBI official recently said there's no credible information suggesting violence is planned for Saturday's rally, congressional leaders say U.S. Capitol Police will be ready for whatever comes their way.

"I believe they're well equipped to handle what may or may not occur," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters earlier this week.

It's a sentiment that has also been echoed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., following a closed-door security briefing with Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger and others. Congress is not slated to be in session this weekend.

Demonstrators plan to protest the ongoing criminal cases tied to individuals charged after the siege. The rally is called "Justice For J6," a reference to the date that Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in an attempt to stop certification of President Biden's election victory. A group leading the plans for Saturday, known as Look Ahead America, says it's planning a peaceful protest at Union Square Plaza near the Capitol Reflecting Pool at noon.

The Capitol fence returns for now

Among the security plans, the Capitol perimeter fencing has returned and will be taken down soon after the demonstration, if conditions allow, Manger said. The previous fencing was removed in July, about six months after it was installed following the riot.

Also, Capitol Police have asked the National Guard to be on standby.

"The USCP has asked the Department of Defense for the ability to receive National Guard support should the need arise on September 18," U.S. Capitol Police said in a statement.

There have been continued security threats at the Capitol since January, including a vehicular attack in April that killed Capitol Police Officer Billy Evans and two separate incidents in the past month that were defused by police.

Look Ahead America is insisting that this gathering will not be a threat. "The purpose of these peaceful protests is for patriotic Americans to educate their state legislators on the power they have to give instructions to their state's federal legislators," the group said in a statement.

They added that they have composed a draft resolution to inform members of "the tyrannical and inhumane treatment" of the "political prisoners who have been targeted by the Department of Justice and the FBI."

Organizer Matt Braynard, a Trump supporter, told NPR that the event is permitted and he expects about 700 people to attend.

Officials are watching the event closely

Earlier this week, FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate told guests at a conference just outside Washington, D.C., that the bureau has no specific credible threat information about potential violence.

Several Congress members have said that in light of Saturday's rally, they continue to support peaceful protests and hope that is what transpires this weekend.

"If this is a peaceful, First Amendment opportunity, then that's great. I support those folks who make their voices heard in a peaceful way," said Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., a member of the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack.

But he also noted, "January 6 was not that. And so associating themselves with that day — that was not about peaceful protests. It's one of the things that's deeply disturbing and one of the reasons why we're keeping such a close eye on activity Saturday."

Aguilar joined a chorus of members who echoed confidence in the Capitol's new security efforts.

Capitol security has entirely new leadership

Congressional leaders have installed new top protocol officers in each chamber since the siege. Retired Army Gen. William Walker, who led the D.C. National Guard on Jan. 6, is now the House sergeant at arms. Retired Army Lt. Gen. Karen Gibson is his counterpart in the Senate.

"The sergeant at arms, the Capitol Police are in charge of security. I think they've learned a lot of lessons," said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who sits on the Senate Rules Committee that oversees the police agency. "We've heard a lot of testimony, and I'm sure they have everything under control. I have full faith in them."

Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, the ranking Republican for the Senate Rules Committee, also expressed confidence after a separate meeting with Manger.

He told reporters that he was "hopeful" about "the steps that they've taken to be sure that they have the right kind of backup from neighboring agencies."

Blunt added that the longtime police chief's credentials, previously heading up departments in nearby Fairfax County, Va., and Montgomery County, Md., have prepared him for this moment. Manger was installed in his new role in July after a nationwide search.

A vocal critic of perimeter fencing at the Capitol, Blunt endorsed the idea of putting the barrier up temporarily for Saturday's event.

"The test of how quickly it gets up and gets down may be a better thing to look at than to continue to talk about a permanent fence around the Capitol," he said.

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A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The U.S. Capitol will face a large-scale security test tomorrow. It's the first since the January 6 attack by supporters of former President Trump. A far-right rally is planned in Washington, D.C. That rally is in support of people charged over the insurrection. The deadly siege in January was a security failure on a number of levels, but a lot has changed since then. NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales is reporting on this. The Capitol Police have been in turmoil over what happened in January, Claudia. What are we hearing from them and members of Congress heading into this weekend?

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: We're hearing confidence. The new Capitol Police chief, Tom Manger, briefed congressional leaders and promised more transparency and intelligence sharing. Here's Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell talking to reporters earlier this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: I believe that they're well equipped to handle what may or may not occur.

GRISALES: So this is part of an overall theme. Let's take a listen to others I heard from in recent days, starting with West Virginia GOP Senator Shelley Moore Capito.

SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO: Well, I think - you know, the sergeant-at-arms, the Capitol Police, are in charge of security. I think they've learned a lot of lessons. We've heard a lot of testimony. And I'm sure they have everything under control. I have full faith in them.

GRISALES: Capito sits on the Senate Rules Committee that oversees Capitol Police, and she's among several members of Congress professing newfound confidence in the agency and new security efforts.

PETE AGUILAR: We are in a better security posture today than we have been.

GRISALES: That's California Democrat Pete Aguilar talking about improvements for Capitol Police.

AGUILAR: We trust that they are very mindful that the public is going to be paying attention and ensure that we protect the Capitol.

GRISALES: And while a top FBI official has said there is no evidence that violence is expected tomorrow and Congress is not in session, Capitol Police now have fencing in place, and they say the National Guard will be on standby. It's those kind of details that have members like Aguilar at ease.

AGUILAR: You know, a higher degree of dialogue and more detailed, you know, specifics on what we are prepared for and what our plan is.

GRISALES: Aguilar sits on the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 attack and has a special interest in tomorrow's event. The rally is being led by Look Ahead America, which calls those charged in the deadly siege political prisoners. Members say preparations by law enforcement are key even if it is not needed on Saturday.

ADAM KINZINGER: I typically think that if you overreact upfront, you prevent bad things from happening.

GRISALES: That's Illinois Republican Adam Kinzinger, another member of the Select Committee investigating the riot. He says Saturday is a reminder that the committee has an important mission ahead to ultimately share a comprehensive report of what led to the January 6 attack.

KINZINGER: They have a right to be out there so long as it stays peaceful. But we really need to begin to push back against this kind of - I call it fetishizing of overthrowing the government.

GRISALES: Kinzinger is a military veteran, and he does not understand why some have been excited by the idea of an attempt to overthrow the government.

KINZINGER: Unless it's just people that have never seen combat themselves and like playing dress up and think somehow this will alleviate their boredom, it's really dangerous.

MARTINEZ: And we have NPR's Claudia Grisales with us now. So Kinzinger is raising some pretty serious alarms there. What's the dynamic among the broader House GOP caucus?

GRISALES: A split remains there. Kinzinger and Wyoming's Liz Cheney, they're the only Republicans on this House select panel, and much of their caucus is boycotting their efforts. Kinzinger says over the last eight months, there's been this concerted effort to downplay January 6. So he says it just reinvigorates their mission. But we should note that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy recently told Politico that no GOP members are expected at the event tomorrow.

MARTINEZ: So do you think what happens tomorrow to impact the congressional investigation on January 6?

GRISALES: Well, both Aguilar and Kinzinger said it raises the importance of what this panel is doing and how it needs to get it right. For example, Kinzinger said no matter how many people show up tomorrow, it still represents a fraction of the people who still believe that January 6 was justified and even a peaceful event. And Aguilar emphasized that their work will show that January 6 is not a day to be celebrated, which we may see some off tomorrow, but rather to draw lessons from so that it never happens again.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Claudia Grisales, thanks a lot.

GRISALES: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.