Politics

Congress Tries to Suss Out Who Is Telling the Truth About the Capitol Riot Failures

Amy Klobuchar holds her mask in place while sitting behind the dais.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar presides over the hearing Tuesday on law enforcement responses to the Capitol riot. Pool/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the Senate Rules and Homeland Security committees held their first hearing on the Jan. 6 insurrection. Four key law enforcement officials testified as senators tried to suss out just how badly law enforcement agencies had failed in responding to the mob that stormed the Capitol to stop Congress from counting the Electoral College results.

The hearing was—for the most part—an epic performance of bureaucratic buck-passing by officials who blamed one another for the lack of preparedness and inadequate response to the Capitol riot. The testimony revealed critical disputes over when the National Guard was called to support the undermanned Capitol Police, why they weren’t requested in advance, and why it took so many hours for them to finally arrive at the scene and help put down the insurrection. The chairwoman of the hearing, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, promised an additional hearing next week looking into the role executive branch officials played in that process. Tuesday’s hearing, however, made all too clear the urgent need for a full commission with subpoena power to investigate the entirety of what went wrong that day, as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has called for, rather than through piecemeal Senate hearings.

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The main conflict of Tuesday’s hearing was between former Chief of the U.S. Capitol Police Steven Sund and former House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving, who had competing recollections about who requested National Guard support when and what the response was. (Both officials resigned after the attack.) During an emergency, the House and Senate sergeant-at-arms, as well as the Capitol Police chief, must all agree as a Capitol Police Board to make an emergency declaration to call in the National Guard. Sund insisted that he called Irving at 1:09 p.m. on the day of the attack to request National Guard support and did not receive agreement from Irving and former Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Stenger to ask the Pentagon for that help until a full hour later. He also said that he was advised that Irving “needed to run it up the chain of command,” indicating Irving needed approval from Pelosi. Irving insisted that he had no recollection or phone record of that 1:09 p.m. call, that when he and Sund did speak at around 1:30 p.m. there was no official request for the National Guard, and that he never said anything about needing to run it up the chain of command.

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The conflict came out in multiple exchanges but was most dramatic (and confusing) in this round of questioning by Senate Rules Committee ranking member Sen. Roy Blunt.

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You can see the two men stick to very different stories. Here’s the critical part of the exchange:

Blunt: Why would it take an hour to approve National Guard assistance on your part in that moment of crisis?

Irving: From my recollection, I did not receive a request for approval of National Guard until shortly after 2 p.m. when I was in Michael Stenger’s office.

Blunt: Chief Sund, do you know when you asked for National Guard assistance? Was it 1:09 or was it 2 p.m.?

Sund: It was 1:09, sir.

Blunt: Who did you ask for assistance at 1:09?

Sund: It was from Mr. Irving, I believe he was in the company of Mr. Stenger at the time as well.

Blunt: And Mr. Irving why would you not remember that?

Irving: I have no recollection of a conversation with Chief Sund. At that time I was on the floor during the Electoral College session and my conversation with Chief Sund in that timeframe was shortly before 1:30, when I recall he was describing conditions outside as deteriorating, he may in fact be submitting a request, and I carried that forward and that was as much as I can tell you. I have no phone record of a call with Chief Sund.

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This was not the only conflict between Sund and Irving on Tuesday. They each had different recollections of a Jan. 4 conversation over whether to call the National Guard in advance of Jan. 6. Sund remembered asking for Irving’s agreement to request the National Guard to support his Capitol Police and Irving saying that he did not want to preemptively request the National Guard because of the “optics” of having armed service members guarding the Capitol. Irving said that any use of the word optics was “mischaracterized,” that the discussion was entirely about safety concerns, and that the group agreed collectively to request 125 National Guard members be placed on “standby” in case additional support was needed. Ultimately, 125 unarmed guardsmen were made available to help with traffic control.

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It wasn’t until 2:10 p.m. the day of the attack that the group of Irving, Sund, and Stenger requested backup from D.C. National Guard Gen. William Walker. By then it was too late, as the armed rioters had already breached the Capitol, but there would be an additional hourslong delay for Walker to get approval from higher-ups in the Pentagon to send support.

Indeed, acting Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee and Sund both testified that they were astonished by the lack of immediate support when the request for help was finally made during a phone call with Pentagon officials.

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“At 2:22 p.m. a call was convened with—among others—myself, leadership of the U.S. Capitol Police, the National Guard, and the Department of the Army. I was surprised at the reluctance to immediately send the National Guard to the Capitol Grounds,” Contee said.

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Sund further testified that Lt. Gen. Walter Piatt was hesitant about creating the “visual of the National Guard standing a line with the Capitol in the background,” instead suggesting more Capitol Police officers be pulled from other posts to help out, which Sund said was not an option given the urgency of the situation. According to Sund, Piatt said he would not support the request but would run it up the chain of command. “The first 150 members of the National Guard were not sworn in on Capitol grounds until 5:40 p.m.,” Sund testified, “four and a half hours after I first requested them and three and a half hours after my request was approved by the Capitol Police Board.”

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In previous statements to the press, Piatt has denied that he or any DOD officials blocked a request for support. The timeline seems to indicate something else, though, and it would be valuable to have Piatt testify under oath as to his own recollection as both Contee and Sund have done—and to find out who above Piatt in the chain of command may or may not have slowed approval of the National Guard activation on Jan. 6.

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All of these questions will probably be further explored in a hearing scheduled for next week with Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI officials, the details of which Klobuchar said she would announce on Wednesday morning.

Even with this hearing and next week’s, though, it is very clear we still have much to learn about who knew what and when on the day of the Jan. 6 attack, who failed to act, and ultimately why. It’s also clear that the piecemeal nature of these Senate hearings—where it’s basically impossible to sort through the sort of conflicting testimony we saw on Tuesday—is inadequate. The best way to get those answers is going to have to be an independent commission with subpoena power.

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