The federal government has deemed the inauguration a “National Special Security Event,” as far-right groups threaten more armed demonstrations.
WASHINGTON — Law enforcement authorities, responding to threats of violence ahead of the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration, will deploy up to 15,000 National Guard troops to the nation’s capital and form a joint command center to avoid the foul-ups that helped rioters overrun the Capitol last week.
Sixteen groups — some of them armed and most of them hard-line supporters of President Trump — have registered to stage protests in Washington, prompting deep concern among federal officials about an event that has historically been a packed celebration of American democracy. With coronavirus cases soaring and the deadly siege of the Capitol still fresh, the leaders of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia issued a joint statement asking Americans to stay away from the inauguration of Joseph R. Biden Jr. and instead tune in virtually.
Despite the increasing alarm, Mr. Biden’s inaugural committee said he was determined to make an outdoor appearance at the event to call on a divided nation to come together at a time of political and public-health crisis. The inauguration’s theme is “America United.”
Mr. Biden also plans to visit Arlington National Cemetery with three living presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — adding another challenge for federal law enforcement authorities.
“I‘m not afraid of taking the oath outside,” Mr. Biden said Monday.
But the inauguration of the 46th president could echo the first inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, whose procession to the half-built Capitol was surrounded by heavily armed cavalry and infantry troops marching through a city on the brink of civil war.
Complicating the security effort further, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, Chad F. Wolf, who was supposed to coordinate a joint command center, announced on Monday he would be resigning as acting secretary at midnight Monday, just over one week before the inauguration. Pete Gaynor, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will take on the role as acting secretary, Mr. Wolf said in a letter to employees.
“This inauguration is going to look differently than previous inaugurations, I think we all know that,” said Michael Plati, the Secret Service special agent in charge leading security planning for the inauguration, who referred to lessons learned from last Wednesday.
About 6,000 National Guard troops from six states have already arrived in Washington, Gen. Daniel Hokanson, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, said Monday; by this weekend, that number is expected to have grown to 10,000.
At the same time, Defense Department officials have expressed concern that some of the protesters who stormed the Capitol are former military. While the Defense Department has not announced a specific search for deployed National Guard troops with sympathies for the pro-Trump protesters, officials said they are reviewing photos and videos from the protests.
“We do not tolerate extremists in our ranks,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters.
Beyond the Capitol building, the Secret Service is establishing a “healthy, layered buffer” with vehicle checkpoints, metal detectors and additional security screenings to prevent another deadly siege, Mr. Plati said.
“Obviously the Capitol is a significant event,” he said. “We are sensitive to that. We constantly are evaluating our security plans. There’s always lessons that can be learned after an event of that nature.”
To avoid the breakdowns in coordination among law enforcement agencies that left badly outnumbered Capitol Police overwhelmed last week, Mr. Plati said the Secret Service would be working out of a “multiagency coordination center” with other law enforcement leaders to make quick decisions about the movements of any protesters and make additional deployments.
“We’re going to create a bubble that is safe and secure,” Mr. Plati said.
With far-right extremists continuing to plot on online platforms, one senior Pentagon official called the security situation “unprecedented.”
Another Defense Department official said that law enforcement agencies were planning for any number of possible events, some of them horrific. Worst-case scenarios include snipers targeting inauguration dignitaries, “suicide-type aircraft” entering Washington’s restricted airspace, and even remote-powered drones attacking the crowd. The officials said they were particularly worried about multiple active-shooter situations flaring up simultaneously.
Defense Department officials have not made a final decision on whether National Guard troops will be armed; but even if they are initially unarmed, the troops will not be far away from their weaponry, the officials said. Troops will be equipped with at least defensive riot gear, like helmets.
“We want our individuals to have the right to self-defense,” General Hokanson said during a news briefing. “If senior leadership determines that that’s the right posture to be in, then that is something we will do.” All of the troops coming to Washington, he said, are bringing their guns with them.
Concerns are not limited to Jan. 20.
Fliers circulated in encrypted WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram groups over the weekend calling for an “armed march on Capitol Hill and all state capitols” at noon Jan. 17. The fliers, which include the instruction to “come armed at your personal discretion,” also appeared on the chat sites Gab and Parler that have attracted far-right voices. Various local militia groups in states from Pennsylvania to Florida to Michigan have posted calls on those platforms for their members to come out in force.
Another group, “Let America Hear Us, Roar For Trump,” has requested a permit from the National Park Service for a demonstration of at least 300 people in downtown Washington. The Park Service on Monday shut down tours of the Washington Monument through Jan. 24, citing “credible threats to visitors and park resources.”
Far right extremists groups continue to plot online. Nearly 400 people had joined a private group online dedicated to what is being billed as the “Million Militia March,” an event scheduled to take place in Washington on Jan. 20. Commenters have debated bringing baseball bats and body armor. The F.B.I. has notified local law enforcement of the potential for armed protests at all 50 state capitals, which are being organized and promoted by far-right extremist groups such as the Boogaloo movement.
Mayor Muriel Bowser of the District of Columbia has asked the Park Service to stop issuing permits for public gatherings through the inaugeration. Mike Litterst, a Park Service spokesman, said the Interior secretary, whose department includes the national parks, planned to discuss plans the matter with Ms. Bowser on Monday afternoon.
Ms. Bowser also sent a letter dated on Saturday to the Department of Homeland Security requesting a disaster declaration, which would free federal funding for the inauguration. Janet Montesi, a spokeswoman for FEMA, said in a statement the request is currently under review.
“This is necessary because the inauguration poses several unprecedented challenges that exceed the scope of our traditional planning processes: the Covid-19 pandemic and of course the domestic terror attack on the United States Capitol,” Ms. Bowser said during a news briefing.
“If I’m scared of anything, it’s for our democracy because we have very extreme factions in our country that are armed and dangerous,” Ms. Bowser told reporters.
Mr. Plati said the inauguration was being designated a “National Special Security Event,” putting the Secret Service at the lead with the support of dozens of federal agencies. Security experts have said such a designation, which established a clear coordinator for a mass event and a chain of command, would have helped prevent the riots last week.
“Literally the secretary of homeland security can tell the Defense Department they are requiring this assistance and support,” said W. Ralph Basham, a former director of the Secret Service and the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the George W. Bush administration.
Mr. Basham said this time, security officials should not hesitate to use hard-line tactics against any group that gets out of line, even if its members are supportive of Mr. Trump. He echoed concerns over a double standard employed by police against the Trump loyalists last week compared to those protesting racist policing this summer.
“I heard somebody say law and order for the blacks and protect and serve for the whites. You can’t have that. You can’t have that,” Mr. Basham said. “You have to administer justice equally across the board.”
General Hokanson, for his part, pushed back against complaints from Gov. Larry Hogan, Repubican of Maryland, that the Pentagon was slow to respond to his request that Maryland National Guard troops be deployed last Wednesday. General Hokanson insisted that Defense officials responded to the Hogan request Wednesday afternoon, and the first of the Maryland troops were not ready until 11 p.m. that night, with the bulk of them not deployed until 9 a.m. the next morning.
Reporting was contributed by Sheera Frenkel from Oakland, Calif., and Eric Schmitt, Michael Crowley and Hailey Fuchs from Washington.