General: 'Optics' led Pentagon to wait hours before sending troops to Capitol on Jan. 6

Crystal Hill
·Reporter
·4 min read

A high-ranking official in the D.C. National Guard detailed the unusually slow response from the Pentagon to approve the deployment of troops during the Jan. 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol, telling senators Wednesday that it was easier to get approval during last summer’s protests against police violence than during the deadly siege.

Maj. Gen. William Walker, the Guard’s commanding general, testified before a joint Senate committee that he had troops ready and waiting for the green light to respond to the Capitol attack, but it took more than three hours to receive approval from the Defense Department.

Walker said he’d received a “frantic call” from then-Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund at 1:49 p.m. ET, informing him that the security perimeter at the Capitol had been breached by hostile rioters.

“Chief Sund, his voice cracking with emotion, indicated that there was a dire emergency on Capitol Hill and requested the immediate assistance of as many Guardsmen as I could muster,” Walker said.

Army Maj. Gen. William Walker, Commanding General of the District of Columbia National Guard speaks during a Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and Senate Committee on Rules and Administration joint hearing Wednesday, March 3, 2021, examining the January 6, attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (Greg Nash/Pool via AP)
Maj. Gen. William Walker testifying on Wednesday. (Greg Nash/Pool via AP)

Walker said he then alerted Army leadership and sought the eventual approval from then-acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller and then-Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy. But the approval didn’t come until 5:08 p.m. — more than three hours later, Walker said. The troops arrived at the Capitol at 5:20 p.m.

Walker testified Wednesday at a joint hearing of the Homeland Security and Rules and Administration committees. He was joined by Jill Sanborn, assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division; Robert Salesses, acting assistant secretary of defense; and Melissa Smislova, the acting intelligence chief at the Department of Homeland Security.

The hearing was the latest attempt by lawmakers to question security officials about the response to the attack, which left five people dead and has resulted in more than 200 arrests. Past hearings have revealed multiple security and communication issues that appeared to leave law enforcement ill equipped to combat the rioters.

Walker testified that he was “frustrated” by a 2:30 p.m. phone call that he and Sund and other security officials were on during the attack. Acting D.C. Metro Police Chief Robert Contee testified in February that Sund was “pleading” for the National Guard to be deployed, but was not met with immediate approval.

“There was not an immediate ‘Yes, the National Guard is responding. Yes, the National Guard is on the way. Yes, the National Guard are being restaged from traffic posts to respond,’” Contee said. “The response was more asking about the plan ... the optics, how this looks with boots on the ground on the Capitol. I was just stunned.”

Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as people try to storm the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021. (Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP) (Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images)
Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as people try to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images)

Walker testified about the same phone call, telling senators that D.C.’s deputy mayor, Contee and the senior leadership of the U.S. Army listened as Sund “passionately pleaded” for D.C. National Guard troops to be deployed quickly.

“The Army senior leaders did not think that it looked good, and that it wouldn’t be 'good optics,'” Walker said. “They further stated that it could further incite the crowd.”

Sund told the Washington Post in January that he remembered Lt. Gen. Walter Piatt, the Army staff director, saying on the call that he didn’t like “the visual of the National Guard standing [on] a police line with the Capitol in the background.” Piatt denied the remarks in a statement to the Post but later said he was told by people who were taking notes on the call that he may have said it.

Under questioning from Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., Walker contrasted the lukewarm response from the Pentagon to the response he received last June, during the protests sparked by the choking death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Walker said he was immediately able to receive approval to deploy the National Guard from the secretary of the Army and defense secretary then, but not on Jan. 6.

When asked by Peters if the issue of optics was brought up last summer, Walker said the topic was never discussed then or at any of the other times the Guard was deployed at the protests. Walker said he thought it was unusual that optics were a factor in the Jan. 6 riot but not in the earlier demonstrations.

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