Nearly seven weeks after the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the people tasked with protecting the building on Jan. 6 testified for the first time about the failures that allowed a pro-Trump mob to overrun the seat of American government in an unprecedented disruption of democracy.
But nearly every answer they gave about what happened that day just raised more questions.
Over the course of four hours, the former chief of the U.S. Capitol Police, and the former security heads of the House and Senate, largely pointed the finger at each other—or blamed others not present at the hearing—and, above all, minimized their own failures.
Senators, meanwhile, struggled to make use of a golden opportunity for fact-finding, arriving at key questions late and leaving others untouched, while several—including those who amplified the election fraud claims that brought rioters to the Capitol to begin with—partook in the time-honored tradition of committee-room grandstanding. One, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), used the bulk of his time to read an account of Jan. 6 from a right-wing conspiracist that raised the discredited theory that Trump supporters were not responsible for the violence.
By the end of the hearing, the Democrats running the show proclaimed it had been a “constructive” exercise that “shed new light” on what happened on Jan. 6.
Some genuinely new information did surface: For example, Steven Sund, the former Capitol Police chief, said he had just learned that on Jan. 5, the force was sent an FBI report warning of violence around Trump’s rally—but that the report “didn’t make it” to his desk. Asked how authorities missed the other signs of brewing violence, authorities simply testified that the intelligence community hadn’t sufficiently warned them about it.
If nothing else, the first marquee hearing probing the Capitol attack made clear that obtaining the full picture of how and why Jan. 6 happened the way it did will be a difficult task. But the futility of questioning this particular set of witnesses—all seeking to protect their reputations and deflect blame—became clear early in Tuesday’s hearing, as senators sought to establish a timeline for who requested help and when on Jan. 6.
As the mob began breaching the Capitol perimeter, Sund said that he called Paul Irving, then the House sergeant-at-arms, at 1:09 p.m. to request they call in the National Guard. He alleged Irving told him that he was concerned about the “optics” of having Guard troops present and rebuffed him.
Irving countered by saying he had no recollection of Sund calling him at that time, saying he was on the House floor overseeing the Electoral College certification process. He added it was “categorically false” that he would mention optics concerns in determining safety protocol at the Capitol.
Under oath, both men stuck to their stories. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) attempted to sort it out but concluded, “Whatever happened here doesn't seem to me to be in agreement with various timeframes.” Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) then asked that they both turn over their call records for investigation.
The witnesses could agree, however, that they all were not put in a position to succeed on Jan. 6 by intelligence agencies—who they alleged underestimated the threat, despite the open-source evidence and news reporting that strongly indicated that right-wing extremists were planning ambitious and violent acts in Washington on Jan. 6.
“Although it appears that there were numerous participants from multiple states planning this attack, the entire intelligence community seems to have missed it,” claimed Sund. “Without the intelligence to properly prepare, the USCP was significantly outnumbered and left to defend the Capitol against an extremely violent mob.”
Robert Contee, the acting chief of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department and the fourth witness, also said that the FBI memo was sent out on Jan. 5 “in the form of an email.”
The witnesses also expressed frustration that the National Guard was so slow to mobilize. Contee, whose officers arrived at an overrun Capitol to support the separate Capitol Police force, repeatedly said he was shocked at the Pentagon’s reluctance to mobilize the National Guard. When he asked, recalled Contee, “in response there was not an immediate yes,” and said Army officials countered by asking him about the “optics” of the situation.
“I was able to quickly deploy MPD and issue directives to them while they were in the field, and I was honestly shocked that the National Guard could not—or would not—do the same,” Contee added.
The back-and-forth between Sund and Irving revealed, at the very least, the complicated process in place for requesting military assistance at the Capitol. No one person is responsible for security at the complex; instead, a secretive four-person board is, and its very existence slowed down the response on Jan. 6. Blunt called the structure “totally unworkable” for crises like the Capitol insurrection.
The agencies blamed by the witnesses will get a chance to offer their version of events next week, when the FBI and the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security have been invited to testify in front of the same joint panel of the Senate Rules and Homeland Security Committees.
But on Tuesday, senators largely shied from questions that the then-chiefs of the Capitol Police and D.C. Police would have been well-positioned to answer. Only Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA) noted, late in the proceeding, that only 52 rioters were immediately arrested out of the hundreds who breached the Capitol, attacked police officers and media, and vandalized the complex. He drew a comparison to the militarized posture of the complex during the Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020. “Can you tell us how the Capitol preparations on January 6 differ from the protests over the summer?” Padilla asked Sund.
“It doesn't matter the message of the person,” responded Sund. “We develop our information, we develop our intel and we base a response plan on that.” He added that USCP officers only arrested six Black Lives Matter protesters, but many more were arrested around the city.
No senator asked witnesses about another critical matter: the extent to which law enforcement, if at all, aided any of the insurrectionists. A USCP spokesperson said last week that six officers on the force have been suspended with pay due to their actions on Jan. 6, and another 29 are under investigation. Lawmakers, such as Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), have said they witnessed police officers taking selfies with rioters and giving them directions.
Those questions are likely to become fodder for an investigative body sketched out by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), modeled after the 9/11 Commission, to investigate the insurrection. That effort might also be best-suited to ultimately confirm the disputed timeline of Jan. 6 and fully reveal the failures.
For the time being, however, the three Capitol Hill authorities—all of whom resigned after Jan. 6— seemed to caution lawmakers not to overreact too much by proposing reforms to the Capitol’s security protocol following the deadly riot. The very brief opening statement from Michael Stenger, the former Senate sergeant-at-arms, said “we have to be careful of returning to a time when possibility rather than probability drives security planning."
In his written opening statement, Sund said “the USCP did not fail” and that the force “accomplished its mission” on Jan. 6, placing the responsibility for the carnage on the alleged intelligence failures.
Under questioning from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Sund’s defiance wilted somewhat. Klobuchar noted that the authorities had enough intelligence to know they had to make additional preparations for Jan. 6. “If the information was enough to get you to do that, why didn't we take some additional steps?” she asked. “Why didn't you and others involved be better prepared to confront the violence?”
Sund responded with the repeated declaration that they “expanded the perimeter” of the building—the one that was quickly breached by the mob. When Klobuchar pointed out that clearly was not enough, Sund said, “that is now hindsight being what it is.”