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Inside a Deadly Siege: How a String of Failures Led to a Dark Day at the Capitol

A pro-Trump mob storms the Capitol in Washington after a rally where the president spoke, urging them on, Jan. 6, 2021. Poor planning among a constellation of government agencies and a restive crowd encouraged by President Trump set the stage for the unthinkable. (Jason Andrew/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — Huddled in a command center on Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington and her aides saw a photograph of bloodstains on the temporary grandstands at the Capitol, a makeshift structure built for the inauguration of a new president in two weeks.

The enormity of the deadly failure sank in.

Rioters had broken through the thin police line on the Capitol steps and were descending on hundreds of lawmakers conducting the ceremonial, quadrennial act of certifying the presidential vote — and the mayor and her aides were not able to stop the attack.

Bowser and her police chief called the Pentagon, asking for additional D.C. National Guard troops to be mobilized to support what officials were realizing was inadequate protection at the Capitol. But they were told that the request would first have to come from the Capitol Police.

In a call to Chief Steven Sund of the Capitol Police, they learned that his force was under siege, lawmakers were being rushed to safety, and rioters were overrunning anyone in authority. He kept repeating the same phrase: “The situation is dire.”

Cutting through the cross talk, one person on the call posed a blunt question: “Chief Sund, are you requesting National Guard troops on the grounds of the Capitol?”

There was a pause.

“Yes,” Sund replied, “I am.”

Yet Capitol Police and the city’s Metropolitan Police had rebuffed offers days before for more help from the National Guard beyond a relatively modest contingent to provide traffic control, so no additional troops had been placed on standby. It took just over four hours for them to arrive.

It was just one failure in a dizzying list that day — and during the weeks leading up to it — that resulted in the first occupation of the U.S. Capitol since British troops set the building ablaze during the War of 1812. But the death and destruction this time was caused by Americans, rallying behind the inflammatory language of an American president, who refused to accept the will of more than 81 million other Americans who had voted him out of office.

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