On Donald Trump’s inauguration day in 2017, I watched dozens of Capitol Police officers in riot gear repeatedly charge young people engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience on a public street many blocks from the Capitol. Members of the National Guard looked on from beside armored vehicles.
The police mobilization that day was enormous, and not only among the Capitol Police. More than three thousand officers from dozens of agencies and five thousand members of the National Guard were on alert in DC. For all that, the worst “violence” happened almost two miles from the ceremonies, when some store windows got smashed up and a handful of garbage cans were set on fire.
The police response to the inauguration was a sharp contrast to the events of January 6, 2021. As we saw on live TV, Trump supporters not only broke into the Capitol during a constitutionally mandated event but came within feet of seizing Vice President Mike Pence, who they were threatening to hang. They entered congressional chambers with guns and zip ties, planning to detain members of Congress; some of them stole Nancy Pelosi’s computer. Short of members of Congress actually getting killed, which by all accounts was a real though unrealized possibility, it’s hard to imagine a greater law enforcement failure.
Perhaps, one might think, this was all a result of an unprecedented but honest error on the part of the Capitol Police and other law enforcement agencies. Especially in light of the FBI’s increasingly aggressive investigation into Donald Trump, it might sound reasonable to say that whatever happened in 2021, security agencies have learned their lesson.
But so far there is no evidence that the FBI’s investigation has anything to do with Trump’s actions on January 6. And even if the FBI does end up prosecuting Trump in connection with the Capitol riot, there are still significant reasons anyone who values basic democracy in the United States can’t afford to trust the national security state.
Police treating worker, liberal, and left-wing protests far more violently than their right-wing counterparts is nothing new. But the extent of the difference in this case is especially disturbing.
First, let’s look at the Capitol Police. While many officers have been lauded by Congress and in the press for brave actions that day, the full picture is far from heroic. Not only did Capitol Police leaders ignore repeated intelligence assessments warning of violence to come on January 6, but rank-and-file officers said they were “discouraged or hesitant” to use force against the mob invading the building. Department leaders also deliberately denied aid to Capitol officers under siege on January 6 and then lied to Congress about it, according to a former high-ranking department official.
While there may not (yet) be enough evidence to prove deliberate malfeasance, the department’s conduct during Trump’s inauguration shows it has the ability to coordinate with other police departments and the tools for aggressive crowd control. Whatever the reason, when it came to a violent right-wing march on Congress four years later, the Capitol Police simply chose not to deploy those tools.
But that’s only part of the story. Amid questions about why the National Guard was not activated to provide backup when it became clear the Capitol Police had significantly underprepared, text messages sent to and from top officials at the Pentagon on January 6 were mysteriously deleted shortly after the riot. So were messages on phones belonging to members of the Secret Service.
The internal Department of Homeland Security watchdog initially ordered the Secret Service to recover the lost text messages, and then, for reasons that are still not clear, retracted that request. Attempts to inform Congress about either the deleted texts or the behind-the-scenes maneuvering to keep them hidden were suppressed. Now, the same DHS official is refusing to cooperate with a congressional investigation into his conduct and preventing subordinates from doing the same.
Perhaps there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for all this. We simply don’t know, because law enforcement has been suppressing evidence that might provide one; if one comes to light, I’ll eat my words. But based on what we do know, it certainly doesn’t look like a competent and evenhanded national security apparatus has learned its lesson and reaffirmed its dedication to constitutional democracy. It looks like a cover-up.
Nor is the problem simply one of negligence at the federal level. At least nineteen current and retired police officers from local departments across the country have been charged with participating in the Capitol riot. And a small but growing organization of sheriffs has tried to seize voting machines. They have also been organizing to investigate and even attempt to charge local election officials on specious claims of fraud. Additionally, they have discussed conducting surveillance on “suspicious” voters.
Given the lack of investigation into the matter, it is far from clear how many people in the relevant law enforcement positions actually wanted or tried to stop Trump’s dubious coup attempt. If another crisis of the same type occurs — and the Right certainly looks like it is planning to create one — even the most well-intentioned police will be hobbled. That’s true because, first, so many of their colleagues are either sympathetic to such blatant power grabs or outright support them. Second, the push will come with a patina of legalism, however thin.
The strategy of a thin legal pretext and physical intimidation is what the Right successfully deployed to seize the presidency from Al Gore and unsuccessfully deployed to try to seize the presidency from Joe Biden. That legal pretext, right-wing activists’ eagerness to use violence, and the very large percentage of cops already predisposed towards Trumpism and reflexively hostile to liberal and progressive protests is a poisonous combination.
The last few years have made clear we can’t trust the institutions of the state alone to safeguard democracy. If the Right’s next attempt at taking power undemocratically fails, it won’t be because of the courts, and it won’t be because of the cops. It will be because of the people.