While some Republicans argued President Donald Trump’s unprecedented second impeachment will only inflame divisions, federal officials warned that extremists, after seeing the results of last week’s attack on the US Capitol, are now likely more emboldened to carry out attacks on the January 20 inauguration and throughout 2021.
By Friday, the FBI had received 140,000 digital tips regarding the attack, including photos and video, federal officials had opened 275 criminal investigations, charged roughly 98 individuals, and taken 100 individuals into custody.
“Our posture is aggressive. It’s going to stay that way through the inauguration,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said at a Thursday briefing on inauguration security. He added that the agency was monitoring “extensive” online chatter about further potential armed protests and issued a warning to the men and woman who wreaked havoc on the Capitol.
The insurrection, fueled by Trump’s lies about his definitive election loss, exposed the reach of baseless conspiracy theories that have radicalized Americans to the point that they laid siege to their own Capitol.
The events of that day raise questions about intelligence failures, the military’s lethargic response as panicked lawmakers pleaded by telephone for help, and law enforcement’s potential blind spots or willful ignorance about the dangers posed by white supremacists and right-wing nativists.
Those groups formed a combustible mix with the anti-Semites and QAnon conspiracists rampaging on January 6 to create an existential crisis for the Republican Party, which faces the choice of remaining in thrall to Trump and his more toxic supporters or breaking away.
It creates a challenge for the larger country as well, according to CNN senior political analyst Ron Brownstein, who said the trajectory of Trump’s “white nationalist extremism has been very clear” for the last four years, as are the potential costs to US security if it is left unchecked.
“President Trump has provided an enormous amount of oxygen to this very dangerous ideology,” Brownstein told Jake Tapper on Thursday. “And unless everyone involved, the Justice Department, law enforcement, Congress, is very serious about imposing consequences and taking the threat seriously, this could become a steady drumbeat through the Biden presidency.”
“The question is, can we more broadly send a signal that says we are not going to tolerate and look the other way as this metastasizes,” Brownstein said.
Ideologically motivated violence
Already, thousands of armed pro-Trump extremists are plotting to surround the US Capitol ahead of Biden’s inauguration, according to a lawmaker briefed by security officials Monday.
A joint US government intelligence bulletin said the January 6 attack, meant to disrupt the certification of Biden’s victory, may have given extremists of differing ideological stripes a way to connect. The bulletin warned that the insurrection “is very likely part of an ongoing trend in which (extremists) exploit lawful protests, rallies, and demonstrations, and other gatherings to carry out ideologically motivated violence and criminal activity.”
Multiple defense officials have told CNN that the National Guard and law enforcement expect explosives like pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails to be used in any coming unrest. They are assuming perpetrators will come with high “aggression,” said one senior defense official, who added, “their intentions are very serious.”
Pipe bombs that could have done serious damage were planted outside the Republican and Democratic party headquarters in Washington last week but didn’t go off.
At least two US Capitol Police officers were suspended and at least 10 more are under investigation for allegedly playing some sort of role, CNN reported. Michael Sherwin, the acting US attorney in Washington, DC, confirmed Friday that “we’re seeing indications that law enforcement officers, both former and current, maybe who have been off duty, participating in this riot activity.”
“We don’t care what your profession is, who you are, who you are affiliated with, if you are conducting or engaged in criminal activity, we will charge you and you will be arrested,” Sherwin said.
Part of that hunt is for “several” people possibly involved in the killing of Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, according to two law enforcement officials. On Friday, Steven D’Antuono of the FBI’s Washington Field Office said his investigators are “making progress” on the investigation and are looking at “anyone and everyone” who may be involved. He did not give specifics on the scope of the investigation.
In the days after the attack, court records and news reports also confirmed that current and former US military members participated in the insurrection. The news triggered unprecedented statements from the leaders of major security agencies who felt the need to remind their men and women their loyalty is to the Constitution.
The next day, US Secret Service Director James Murray sent agency employees a message urging them to remember their mission and remain professional during the upcoming inauguration. “We are expected to behave in a non-partisan manner,” his memo said.
“There were those acts of heroism, but next to that, there were also attacks of betrayal,” Democratic Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York said Tuesday on Instagram Live. “And to run in the nation’s Capitol and not know if an officer is there to help you or to harm you is also quite traumatizing.”
“I did not know if I was going to make it to the end of that day alive,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “It is not an exaggeration to say that many, many members of the House were nearly assassinated.”
Many House lawmakers are considering another appalling possibility: that the mob got assistance from some of their colleagues.
“Many of the Members who signed this letter, including those of us who have served in the military and are trained to recognize suspicious activity, as well as various members of our staff, witnessed an extremely high number of outside groups in the complex on Tuesday, January 5,” the letter states.
The groups of six to eight, who wore MAGA apparel, according to Democratic Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania, “could only have gained access to the Capitol Complex from a Member of Congress or a member of their staff,” the letter said.
“I kind of assumed it must be a new member who didn’t know the rules or something,” Scanlon of Pennsylvania, one of the co-signers, told CNN. “There were people who were roaming around in the halls, apparently under the guidance of congressional staff” at a time when tours have been canceled due to Covid.
Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, who is affiliated with the QAnon movement and regularly spreads right-wing conspiracy theories, has also come under scrutiny for tweeting about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s whereabouts as the attack was unfolding.
Later that day, when asked if they are investigating allegations that Capitol Police and lawmakers were involved in the riot, D’Antuono of the FBI’s Washington Field Office said they will “leave no stone unturned” and are “looking at every piece of the puzzle.”
Sherwin, the acting US attorney for Washington, DC, told reporters earlier in the week that “we’re looking at significant felony cases tied to sedition and conspiracy.”
Evidence of planning
Evidence uncovered so far, including weapons and tactics seen on surveillance video, suggests a level of planning, a federal law enforcement official said. And court filings are offering shocking new details.
Prosecutors describe those who took over the Capitol as “insurrectionists” and offer new details about Chansley’s role in the violent siege last week, including that Chansley left a note on the dais where Vice President Pence had stood that morning saying, “It’s only a matter of time, justice is coming.”
Chansley later told the FBI he did not mean the note as a threat but said the vice president was a “child-trafficking traitor.”
Before he was arrested, Chansley also told the FBI he wanted to return to Washington for the inauguration to protest.
Authorities apprehended the man in widely circulated photos carrying a Confederate flag inside Capitol Hill, another who had worn a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt and the Olympic gold medalist swimmer Klete Keller.
Federal officials also charged Peter Stager, a burly bearded man, with beating a DC police officer with a flagpole that had an American flag on it. “Everybody in there is a treasonous traitor,” Stager said in a video obtained by the FBI. “Death is the only remedy for what’s in that building.”
A few arrests suggest the apparent murderous intent of some in the crowd.
One man from Alabama faces 17 criminal counts, largely for possession of multiple weapons, including a shotgun, a rifle, three pistols and 11 Molotov cocktails, as well as ammunition and shotgun shells without registration, according to an indictment.
Also in the truck: the handwritten note with Indiana Rep. Andre Carson’s name and an added observation that he is “one of two Muslims in House of Reps.”
The second man is alleged to have driven from Colorado to Washington, DC, a day before Trump’s rally with more than 2,500 rounds of ammunition and an assault rifle. He is said to have texted acquaintances that he wanted to shoot or run over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and shoot DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, according to court records.
“If I had a more concerning threats case come before me, I don’t remember it,” Magistrate Judge Michael Harvey of the DC District Court said Thursday.
Some lawmakers’ experiences made them worry that the rioters had a level of careful preparation that belies the narrative of a protest that wheeled out of control.
Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat, told CNN that someone removed panic buttons installed throughout her office that had been regularly tested and maintained. An investigation is underway, said Pressley, who said the discovery was “certainly unnerving.”
Carson, whose name was on the note found in the car filled with weaponry and ammunition, is among a growing list of lawmakers critical of law enforcement’s handling of the insurgency.
“It is extremely disturbing to learn from press reports that I was one of several individuals identified in a list of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ targeted for attacks,” Carson said in a statement provided to CNN. “As a former law enforcement officer, it is especially disappointing to see the failure of law enforcement officials, including the U.S. Capitol Police, to notify individuals like myself that we were targeted and at risk from the indicted terrorist and his co-conspirators.”
Investigators will be asking how federal authorities missed so many red flags, why they were so underprepared and slow to react.
The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security failed to issue threat assessments about the potential of violence at the US Capitol ahead of last week’s deadly attack, according to a source familiar with the matter and a senior DHS official. Typically, the FBI and DHS will produce a joint threat assessment for high-profile events and send it to law enforcement officials and relevant stakeholders. But no such report was compiled by either agency for the January 6 certification of Biden’s victory, a controversial event for the President’s followers.
A day before the chaos erupted, an FBI outpost in Virginia issued an internal warning that extremists were coming to Washington prepared to commit violence.
Four federal agencies announced Friday they are opening investigations into their own roles on January 6. The Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice and the Interior Department will all examine their preparations for the events in Washington that day that may have played a part in allowing rioters to breach the Capitol.
These agencies and others are now preparing for rioters to descend on the Capitol again.
The Secret Service is taking the lead on Biden’s inauguration security planning. The National Mall will be closed to the general public on Inauguration Day, according to an official familiar with discussions.
There will be no big screens, no toilets and the public will not be able to get down to the Mall where traditionally thousands gather to watch the new president be sworn in, the official said.
The President-elect and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are still expected to take their oaths of office on the West Front of the US Capitol during a significantly scaled-down event. Biden said this week that his team had been receiving briefings in the wake of the violence and that he was “not afraid of taking the oath outside.”
CNN’s Katelyn Polantz, Christina Carrega, David Shortell, Marshall Cohen, Nicky Robertson, Ellie Kaufman, Geneva Sands, Zachary Cohen, Oren Liebermann, Barbara Starr, Jamie Crawford, Jamie Gangel, Jake Tapper, Alex Marquardt, Jeff Zeleny, Kate Sullivan, Ryan Nobles, Annie Grayer, and Brian Todd contributed to this report.