WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is reviewing a police request to keep National Guard troops patrolling the U.S. Capitol for another 60 days following evidence of a “possible plot” by a militia group to storm the building again, two months after Trump supporters smashed through windows and doors in an insurrection meant to halt the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory.
There were no signs of disturbance Thursday at the heavily secured building, with Capitol Police and Guardsmen on duty and the streets and grounds around the building closed off with an imposing razor-wire-topped fence erected after the Jan. 6 riot. There was also no evidence of a large group heading to Washington despite the warning.
Still, the threat distressed law enforcement officials, who are grappling with how best to secure the Capitol after a dismal showing in January, when rioters sent lawmakers fleeing the iconic building in a stunning siege broadcast around the world. Five people died in the riot, including a U.S. Capitol Police officer and a woman shot by police.
Several investigations are underway into security and intelligence failures, and lawmakers have asked for a long-term plan for when the Guard eventually withdraws. Right now, there are about 5,200 remaining in D.C., the last of the roughly 26,000 who were brought in for President Biden’s inauguration, which went off with no problems.
Members of both parties have complained that the fence encircling the Capitol seals off access to constituents and the general public, projecting an image at odds with the seat of American democracy.
The most recent threat appeared to be connected to a far-right conspiracy theory, mainly promoted by supporters of QAnon, that former President Donald Trump would rise again to power on March 4 and that thousands would come to Washington to try to remove Democrats from office. March 4 was the original presidential inauguration day until 1933, when it was moved to Jan. 20.
But Trump was miles away in Florida. In Washington, on one of the warmest days in weeks, the National Mall was almost deserted, save for joggers, journalists, and a handful of tourists trying to take photos of the Capitol dome through the fencing.
The House had been expected to have a light schedule but called off its session, staying in late Wednesday to wrap up its work in part because of the threat. The Senate remained in session Thursday on Biden’s big COVID-19 relief bill.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., dismissed the “silliness” of the alleged plot to restore Trump.
Still, she said with “the threat of all the president’s men out there, we have to ensure, with our security, that we are safe enough to do our job, but not impeding” Congress.
Online chatter identified by authorities included discussions among members of the Three Percenters, an anti-government militia group, concerning possible plots against the Capitol on Thursday, according to two law enforcement officials who were not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. Members of the Three Percenters were among the extremists who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.
But federal agents found no significant increases in the number of hotel rooms being rented in Washington, or in flights to the area, car rental reservations or buses being chartered. Online chatter about the day on extremist sites was declining.
U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, was briefed by law enforcement about the possible threat and said lawmakers were braced for whatever might come.
“We have the razor wire, we have the National Guard. We didn’t have that January 6. So I feel very confident in the security,” he said.
But those measures aren’t permanent. The Pentagon was reviewing a request by Capitol Police to extend the National Guard deployment for 60 days. About 5,200 National Guard members remain in D.C., the remainder of the roughly 26,000 who were brought in for President Biden’s inauguration in January, which went off with no problems.
Some states have threatened to pull their Guardsmen amid reports that some troops had been made to take rest breaks in parking garages or served spoiled food. Other Guardsmen have said they have been given good meals with accommodations for those on vegan or halal diets.
In Michigan, which sent 1,000 troops, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she did “not have any intention of agreeing to an extension of this deployment.”
Capitol police and other federal law enforcement agencies took heavy criticism from Congress in contentious hearings this week on their handling of the Jan. 6 riot. Police were ill-prepared for the mass of Trump supporters, some in tactical gear and armed, and it took hours for National Guard reinforcements to come. Maj. Gen. William Walker, the commanding general of the District of Columbia National Guard, said more than three hours passed during the afternoon of the riot before he received word just after 5 p.m. that his troops could deploy.
Meanwhile, Trump continues to promote lies that the election was stolen from him through mass voter fraud, even though such claims have been rejected by judges and Trump’s former attorney general. He repeatedly told those lies on social media and in a charged speech on Jan. 6 in which he implored thousands of supporters to “fight like hell.” Many of those supporters eventually walked to the Capitol grounds and overran officers to breach the building.
Trump was impeached by the House on a charge of incitement of insurrection but was acquitted by the Senate. So far, about 300 people have been charged with federal crimes for their roles in the riot.
Trump’s election rhetoric continues to be echoed by many national and local Republicans posting online messages about voter fraud and questioning the legitimacy of Biden’s victory.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki cited “a years-long trend of false narratives fueling violence.”
“On the specifics of today’s threats, the FBI and DHS have warned that the threat of domestic violent extremism, particularly racially motivated and anti-government extremists, did not begin or end on January 6 and we have been vigilant day in and day out,” she said Thursday.
Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo, Alan Fram, Mary Clare Jalonick, Colleen Long, and Lisa Mascaro in Washington, and Amanda Seitz in Chicago contributed to this report.