The Road to Jan 6 Final

Capitol Riot Investigators Search for Donald Trump Smoking Gun

In this daily series, Newsweek explores the steps that led to the January 6 Capitol Riot.

When is a special event not special? When federal government bureaucrats get involved, parsing every letter of the word to conclude that special is normal.

On December 28, House leaders met to discuss security for the upcoming January 6 Joint Session of Congress. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), a member of the Congressional Democratic leadership, asked whether sufficient resources were being planned.

That day, the U.S. Park Police, the law enforcement entity responsible for the National Mall and the Ellipse, reported in an internal briefing that "hotel booking and reservation requests have shown a significant increase for 6 January through the immediate DC area," and they noted that "many members of the far-right group 'Proud Boys' plan on being in Washington on this date."

"There is some concern that individuals may display more aggressive and desperate behavior as they interpret 6 January as their final opportunity to act on their grievances," the Park Police said.

The U.S. Capitol Police also received tips that social media postings from Donald Trump supporters were saying that protestors were going to be armed, and that people were organizing. To "stock the Capitol" on January 6.

Donald Trump 2020 Presidential Campaign January 6
Capitol riot inquiries focused on finding a Donald Trump smoking gun rather than confront the government's long list of excuses and failures. President Trump arrives at the "Stop The Steal" Rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

The FBI reported, in an eGuardian report of suspicious activity, that individuals were planning to engage in civil disobedience such as blocking major transportation routes leading into the District.

There have been "multiple calls by individuals for attendees to participate in these events while armed," the FBI said. "Some social media posts have gone as far as to state that protestors outnumber law enforcement and that law enforcement would be easily overcome."

"Formal information coordination ... accelerated during the week of December 28," Jeffrey A. Rosen, former Acting United States Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General, told Congress later. The FBI's Washington Field Office, he said, set up a regular command post to share information with the Capitol Police, federal law enforcement agencies, and local police organizations in order to coordinate among local and federal law enforcement.

The warning signs of arms and an assault on the Capitol were growing, and "information coordination" was beginning, but there was no formal mechanism with regard to who was in charge. The irony is that there is a specific federal government designation, called National Security Special Events (NSSE), that creates set procedures for a joint threat assessment, enhanced coordination, antiterrorism planning and restricted access. Used for gatherings of national significance, most are pre-designated: Republican and Democratic conventions, the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, presidential inaugurations and the State of the Union address.

The Government Accounting Office examined why the Joint Session of Congress was never designated an NSSE, and the explanations would be comic if they weren't quite so tragic. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the responsible federal organization overseeing NSSEs, told the GAO that "the non-permitted protest and subsequent attack on the Capitol would not meet the definition of a special event." It proceeded to blame every other government agency, including the District government, for not requesting such a designation.

The DHS list of excuses:

  • No governor requested that the event be so designated, the standard procedure, even though the DC mayor is not a governor.
  • The designation of any special event requires "adequate time" in order for the Secret Service (the designated lead federal agency) to "effectively collaborate."
  • The U.S. Capitol Police was the lead federal law enforcement agency and was responsible, not them.
  • Though another federal agency could have made a request for a NSSE designation, no such request was made.
  • Other 2020 pro-Trump rallies had not been designated.
  • The NSSE designation "is a lengthy process and not something achieved in only a few days or weeks."
  • Finally, homeland security said that public safety organizations could have adapted security postures "without the need to designate an event an NSSE."

When the GAO submitted a draft of their report to DHS, the department "non-concurred" on the recommendation that it needed to have a more flexible system to respond to dynamic circumstances. "These factors—context, current environment, and emerging threats—are evaluated when determining whether to designate an event as an NSSE," the department said, along with the excuses. It wasn't, in short, the Department's responsibility.

Then came the various rejoinders.

  • The DC Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency said they did not initiate a request because they did not think they had the authority to request an NSSE for an event on federal property.
  • The Secret Service said the Joint Session did not normally meet the criteria for an NSSE designation "because it was considered routine congressional business, rather than a special event."
  • The Park Police said the event was a "First Amendment demonstration."
  • The Park Police said the permit holders did not state that they anticipated that the crowd at the Ellipse would move to another location.
  • The Capitol police said they did not play any role in turning January 6 into an NSSE because they are part of the Legislative Branch and not the Executive and thought that DHS or another federal agency would initiate the request.

In other words: January 6, more important and threatening than any previous State of the Union address or political convention, was not "special," was not "national security," and indeed was not even an "event."

Moreover, there was a tangle jurisdictions and further bureaucratic impediments. The U.S. Secret Service (USSS) was focused on President Donald Trump's security for his appearance at the Stop the Steal rally. And, after the attack, they were concerned about the safety of Vice President Mike Pence and the two other presidential successors—Nancy Pelosi and Charles Grassley.

The Park Police was responsible for the Ellipse and the National Mall, not Capitol Hill.

And, of course, the Department of Homeland Security was responsible for everything, and nothing.

It was the worst of 9/11-like excuses. And yet Congressional inquiries a year later were still looking for a Donald Trump smoking gun rather than reforming the federal agencies that they actually have some control over.

Donald Trump 2020 Presidential Campaign January 6
Donald Trump supporters gather for the "Stop the Steal" rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images