Politics

D.C. National Guard chief: Pentagon took 3 hours to greenlight troops during Capitol assault

Rebecca Shabad
Share
VIDEO2:4802:48
Why was the National Guard deployment delayed 3 hours on Jan. 6?

WASHINGTON — The commanding general of the District of Columbia National Guard, told members of Congress Wednesday that he had troops ready to deploy immediately to the Capitol on Jan. 6, but it took more than three hours for the Defense Department to give the green light.

The commander, Maj. Gen. William J. Walker, added that military leaders — including the brother of ex-Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn — advised at one point during the afternoon that deploying troops would not be "good optics."

In his opening remarks before two Senate committees, Walker said that he received a "frantic call" from the chief of U.S. Capitol Police, Steven Sund, early that afternoon about the security perimeter of the Capitol being breached.

"Chief Sund, his voice cracking with emotion, indicated there was a dire emergency on Capitol Hill and he requested the immediate assistance of as many available guardsmen," Walker said in his testimony at a joint hearing of two Senate committees: Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and Rules and Administration.

Walker said he alerted the Army's senior leadership about Sund's request immediately after their phone call.

"The approval for Chief Sund's request would eventually come from the acting secretary of defense and be relayed to me by Army senior leaders at 5:08 p.m. — 3 hours and 19 minutes later," he said.

More from NBC: D.C. National Guard commander discusses 'unusual' delay for approval to help during Capitol riot

Walker said that by then, they had already ordered Guard members onto buses to move to the Capitol, and at 5:20 p.m. — less than 20 minutes after the Guard finally received permission to deploy — troops arrived at the building.

VIDEO8:1408:14
The Capitol siege: An hour-by-hour breakdown of how the day unfolded

Walker said "seconds mattered, minutes mattered" as events were unfolding. If he had been given the authorization to deploy the more than 150 troops sooner, he said: "I believe that number could have made a difference. We could have helped extend the perimeter and helped push back the crowd."

Also, unlike on Jan. 6, Walker testified that there was no delay in receiving authorization to deploy troops when the D.C. National Guard's support was requested to handle demonstrations in downtown Washington last summer after the death of George Floyd.

Not 'good optics'

National Guard Troops walk along the East plaza of the U.S. Capitol Building with the dome of the Capitol in the background on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Kent Nishimura | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

After his initial call with Walker, Sund then "passionately pleaded" with Pentagon officials to approve his request for the Guardsmen to come to the Capitol in a call at around 2:30 p.m. with senior Army leaders and the D.C. government and police, Walker said.

"The Army senior leaders said that it did not look good" and would not be "good optics," Walker said, adding, "They further stated that it could incite the crowd."

Walker said he was told then-Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy was meeting with then-acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller and they could not be on the call, but the senior military leaders who were on the call said it was their best advice not to have uniformed Guardsmen on the Capitol grounds.

Walker identified those senior leaders as Gen. Walter Piatt and Lt. Gen. Charles Flynn — the brother of Trump's first national security adviser, who was pardoned by Trump after twice pleading guilty to lying to the FBI during the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign.

More from NBC: Acting Capitol Police chief warns of threats to 'blow up the Capitol' when Biden addresses Congress

Michael Flynn also reportedly advocated declaring martial law as part of an effort to overturn the election and promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory, which was supported by some of the rioters on Jan. 6.

Walker said he "was frustrated" by the military leaders' response. "I was just as stunned as everybody else on the call," he said.

Ultimately, once D.C. National Guard troops arrived that evening, they helped re-establish the security perimeter on the east side of the Capitol to allow for the joint session of Congress resume in counting the Electoral College votes, he said.

DC National Guard troops stand watch at the U.S. Capitol on January 08, 2021 in Washington, DC. Fencing was put up around the building the day before, following the storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters on January 6.
John Moore | Getty Images

The other witnesses at the hearing were Melissa Smislova, who is performing the duties of the undersecretary in the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at the Department of Homeland Security; Jill Sanborn, assistant director of the FBI's counterterrorism division; and Robert Salesses, who is performing the duties of the assistant secretary of defense focused on homeland defense and global security.

Salesses said in his opening remarks that Miller "ordered the full mobilization" of the D.C. National Guard at 3:04 p.m. ET to provide support and McCarthy then directed the Guard personnel to initiate full mobilization.

But Salesses later clarified during questioning from Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., he meant troops were called into the armory, not actually mobilized to the Capitol.

Following a review of the plans for the support mission, the secretary of the Army got approval from the acting defense secretary to deploy at 4:32 p.m. and ordered the D.C. National Guard forces to depart the Armory for the Capitol.

That decision by Miller was not relayed to Walker until 5:08 p.m., more than 30 minutes later, Walker said.

"That's a significant problem for the future," Blunt said about the communication delay.

Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, top Republican on the Homeland Security committee, expressed frustration that he and his colleagues were not receiving testimony from current and former Defense Department officials who made key decisions that day.

The FBI's Sanborn said the bureau has received more than 200,000 digital media tips and more than 30,000 leads at its national threat operations center in its investigation of those involved in the assault.

"With this support, we have identified hundreds of people involved in the attack and arrested more than 300, with more and more arrests every day," she said.

Police release tear gas into a crowd of pro-Trump protesters during clashes at a rally to contest the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results by the U.S. Congress, at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, January 6, 2021.
Shannon Stapleton | Reuters

Smislova, the DHS official, said in her opening remarks that she is "deeply concerned that despite our best efforts, they did not lead to an operational response" to defend the Capitol.

The joint hearing comes a day after FBI Director Christopher Wray failed to offer much information about whether his intelligence analysts missed warning signs before the riot. Wray also repeatedly shot down claims by Republican allies of former President Donald Trump and others that antifa activists participated in the attack.

More from NBC: FBI Director Wray views Capitol riot as 'domestic terrorism'

The two congressional panels held a first hearing last week examining the attack, where they heard testimony from Sund, former Senate Sergeant at Arms Michael Stenger, former House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and acting D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee.

The witnesses told lawmakers that they blamed the Jan. 6 attack on poor intelligence and a slow response from the federal government.

Separately on Wednesday, acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman testified before the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees legislative branch funding at a hearing about her agency's budget.

Pittman testified that threats to members nearly doubled in the first two months of this year compared to the same period last year.

Lawmakers on that subcommittee heard testimony from her last week about the riot, and they will likely use this as another opportunity to question her about what occurred.

Rebecca Shabad is a congressional reporter for NBC News, based in Washington.