A previously undisclosed document prepared by the Pentagon for internal use reveals dramatic new details about how authorities sought to quell the attack on the Capitol on 6 January and re-establish order – and how such help took agonising hours in coming.
Two hours after the Capitol was breached, as supporters of Donald Trump pummelled police and vandalised the building, Vice-President Mike Pence tried to assert control. In an urgent phone call to the acting defense secretary, he issued a startling demand.
“Clear the Capitol,” Pence said.
The Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, and House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, were making a similarly desperate appeal, asking the army to deploy the national guard.
“We need help,” Schumer said, more than an hour after the Senate chamber had been breached.
At the Pentagon, officials were discussing reports that state capitals were facing violence in what had the makings of a national insurrection.
“We must establish order,” said Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, in a call with Pentagon leaders. But order would not be restored for hours.
The Pentagon document was obtained by the Associated Press. It adds another layer of understanding about the fear and panic while the insurrection played out, lays bare the inaction by Trump, and shows how his refusal to call off his supporters contributed to a slowed response by the military and law enforcement.
It shows that intelligence missteps, tactical errors and bureaucratic delays were eclipsed by the government’s failure to comprehend the scale and intensity of a violent uprising by its own citizens.
With Trump not engaged, it fell to Pentagon officials, a handful of senior White House aides, the leaders of Congress and Pence, holed up in a secure bunker, to attempt to manage the chaos.
Along with hours of sworn testimony, the Pentagon document provides a still incomplete picture about how the insurrection advanced with such swift and lethal force, interrupting the congressional certification of Joe Biden as president and delaying the peaceful transfer of power.
Five people, including a police officer, died as a direct result of the riot. More than 400 people have been charged. Lawmakers, still protected by national guard troops, will hear from the inspector general of the Capitol police this week.
“Any minute that we lost, I need to know why,” Senator Amy Klobuchar, chair of the Senate rules committee, which is investigating the siege, said last month.
The Pentagon document provides a timeline that fills in some gaps.
Just before noon on 6 January, Trump told supporters at a rally near the White House they should march to the Capitol. The crowd was at least 10,000 strong. By 1.15pm, the procession was well on its way. Some immediately became violent, busting through barriers and beating up officers who stood in their way.
At 1.49pm, as violence escalated, the then Capitol police chief, Steven Sund, called Maj Gen William Walker, commander of the DC national guard, to request assistance. Sund’s voice was “cracking with emotion”, Walker later told a Senate committee. Walker immediately called army leaders to inform them of the request.
Twenty minutes later, around 2.10pm, rioters broke through the doors and windows of the Senate. They marched through the halls in search of lawmakers counting electoral votes. Alarms announced a lockdown.
Sund asked for at least 200 guard members “and more if they are available”. But no help was immediately on the way. The Pentagon document details nearly two hours of confusion and chaos as officials attempted to work out a response.
By 4.08pm, as rioters roamed the Capitol yelling for Pence to be hanged, the vice-president called Christopher Miller, the acting defense secretary, to demand answers. The call lasted only a minute. Pence asked for a deadline for securing the building.
Trump broke his silence at 4.17pm, tweeting that his followers should “go home and go in peace”. By about 4.30pm, the military plan was finalized. Reports of state capitals breached turned out to be bogus.
At about 4.40pm, Pelosi and Schumer were again on the phone with Gen Milley and Pentagon leaders. The congressional leadership “accuse[d] the national security apparatus of knowing that protesters planned to conduct an assault on the Capitol”, the Pentagon timeline says.
The call lasted 30 minutes, including a discussion of intelligence failures. It would be another hour before the first 155 national guard members arrived. Dressed in riot gear, they started moving out the rioters. There were few if any arrests.
At 8pm, the Capitol was declared secure.