As House lawmakers held a historic impeachment vote on Wednesday, they did so not with members of the general public in the viewing galleries above but instead with National Guard troops patrolling the nearby hallways of the Capitol building.
The scene — which came just one week after hundreds of rioters attacked the building in a bid to preserve Donald Trump’s hold on the presidency — for many was a jarring militarization of the center of American democracy.
But, lawmakers said, it was also a necessary precaution given the previous violence and ongoing threats to the Capitol complex.
“The attack on the Capitol was a violent insurrection that resulted in the spilling of American blood,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said in response to reporters’ questions about the military security presence. “Officers were brutally beaten. The attackers wanted to assassinate Nancy Pelosi, hang Mike Pence, and hunt down sitting members of Congress.
“That’s insurrection. That’s sedition. That’s lawlessness. That’s terror. It should not and will not be tolerated. And that’s why extraordinary security measures have been taken.”
Five people died in the Jan. 6 assault, including Capitol Hill police officer Brian Sicknick, a former New Jersey Air National Guard member who was injured and killed by rioters.
Pentagon and White House officials received significant criticism after the attack for the slow deployment of Guard troops to respond to the violence, which followed a large pro-Trump rally on the National Mall.
This week, in preparation of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, thousands of Guard members were mobilized to provide security support around Washington, D.C. Law enforcement officials sped up that work in recent days, after the announcement of a second impeachment vote against Trump (this time for inciting the Jan. 6 violence) and following new threats against the members of Congress.
Air National Guard Senior Master Sgt. Craig Clapper, spokesman for the District of Columbia National Guard, said that by Wednesday morning, about 6,600 guardsmen were stationed inside or nearby congressional buildings.
Pictures circulated throughout social media on Wednesday of uniformed members stationed beside stately statutes and sleeping on marble floors between assignments. Cafeterias usually packed with staffers in suits instead boasted lines of troops in uniform.
The Capitol Visitors Center, typically packed with tourists, served as a distribution point for weapons and riot shields.
“It’s hard to believe we’ve come to this,” Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Mich., wrote on Twitter. “I’m grateful for the National Guard keeping our democracy and all those who work in the Capitol safe on this solemn day.”
Images of guardsmen sleeping in Capitol hallways prompted a flood of queries from members of the public about donations to help support the troops. Officials from the National Guard Bureau late Wednesday clarified that the guardsmen were “in a designated rest area between shifts” and have “appropriate lodging for when they are off-duty.”
During one moment between shifts, Republican Florida Rep. Brian Mast — an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan — gave a short tour and history lesson of the Capitol rotunda to a group of about 30 guardsmen.
The number of Guard personnel in Washington, D.C., is expected to rise to 15,000 by the start of next week. That puts more than three times as many troops in America’s capital than in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.