The Road to Jan 6 Final

Donald Trump's Refusal to Concede Fueled the 'Emerging Domestic Threats'

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

At 8:42 a.m. on December 11, the first-known intelligence of any sort relating to a potential problem on January 6 was exchanged within the U.S. government. John Donahue, head of U.S. Capitol Police (USCP) Intelligence and Inter-Agency Coordination Division wrote to a subordinate asking for a preliminary assessment of the scheduled Joint Session of Congress.

Donohue, who's considered an expert on right-wing extremism, anticipated a challenge to the electoral vote from a few members of Congress, according to a post-January 6 Congressional investigation. No rally had yet been publicly announced for that day, but Donahue thought the combination of Donald Trump's refusal to concede the election and his evident support by over 100 members of the House in overturning the results, together with planned protests, elevated the event's importance.

Donahue's boss—Sean Gallagher, Deputy Chief of the Protective Services Bureau—then wrote to his boss Yogananda Pittman, Assistant Chief of Police for Protective and Intelligence Operations, and then to Pittman's boss, head of the Capitol Police Steven Sund, saying that the Joint Session "will bring some demonstrations, with the potential for some issues on the House floor."

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Donald Trump's refusal to concede fueled the "emerging domestic threats" and increased the likelihood that January 6 would be a flashpoint for his supporters. The president in the Oval Office in Washington, DC on December 7, 2020. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Sund responded that he was considering a "significant deployment." Donahue's division had already prepared an intelligence assessment for the November 14 protests in Washington saying that various extremist groups were expected to attend the events and that there was a likelihood of violence. And it had prepared another assessment for the upcoming "MAGA II" event in Washington that was scheduled for the following day (December 12), saying the same.

But whatever wariness had surfaced on December 11 seemed to go nowhere. The MAGA I and II events didn't prove very threatening. There were few arrests and only sporadic incidents of violence, no injuries to officers, and the Metropolitan Police Department seemed to handle things fine. If anything, the lesson drawn from both events was that the greatest threat was protestors and counter-protestors clashing—not a threat to the USCP or the Capitol Building itself.

"As we prepared for the third protest [January 6]," USCP chief Sund later said, "we understood that the focus of the protests would be the Capitol itself, and not the Supreme Court as in the previous two demonstrations, and that we could expect the crowd to be somewhat different in size and risk." The threat was still not understood. Subsequent intelligence assessments would be written, but none of them built upon the basic December 11 concern, the USCP rating the likelihood of violence at very low.

Is the Capitol Police ultimately to blame? USCP is not a formal intelligence gathering organization, relying for most things on Executive Branch agencies for information. (USCP is part of the Legislative branch.)

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Capitol Police and other agencies drastically underestimated the chances of violence. Donald Trump supporters protest the outcome of the 2020 presidential election at Freedom Plaza on December 12, 2020 in Washington, DC. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

So while an intelligence division might sound grand, Donahue's division had all of 14 assigned analysts at the time, including the director. There was a Threat Assessment Section and an Intelligence Operations Section within the Protective Service Bureau. But in total, there were fewer than 70 people assigned to all three, and their main focus was the security of members of Congress, particularly in their travel and in their home states. This generated a considerable workload. One factor: from 2017 to 2020, according to USCP numbers, there had been a 118 percent increase in total threats, with the overwhelming majority of suspects residing outside of the Washington DC metropolitan area.

In reality, other than its own checking of social media and news reports, and other than the tips and threats phoned in or mailed to members, the overall USCP received any classified intelligence assessments from federal partners: the FBI, Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security. The Capitol Security Review report (March 5, 2021) stated: "Only a handful of people in the USCP have significant intelligence training. The understaffed Intelligence and Interagency Coordination Division (IICD) lacks the experience, knowledge, and processes to provide intelligence support against emerging domestic threats."

The Security Review, the U.S. Capitol Police Inspector General, and the joint report of the Senate Rules and Administration and Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committees all came to the same conclusion about the USCP's "intelligence" entities, that they failed to properly analyze either the information in their possession or the protests that took place on November 14 and December 12.

"USCP failed to disseminate relevant information obtained from outside sources, lacked consensus on the interpretation of threat analyses, and disseminated conflicting intelligence information regarding planned events for January 6, 2021," Inspector General Michael A. Bolton told the Senate Committees. It was all more of a surprise given their first detection that something might go awry.

After Donahue's December 11 message, the intelligence division engaged a commercial company to monitor social media to detect any threats to the Capitol. But befitting the focus of the USCP, the key words asked to be monitored were "Joint Session of Congress" and not anything about extremists. What happened to that social media monitoring effort, and what platforms were being monitored, remains a mystery.