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In Wake Of Insurrection, Lawmakers Call For Removal Of Top Capitol Security Officials

Fencing is placed around the exterior of the Capitol grounds the day after a violent throng of pro-Trump rioters spent hours running rampant through the Capitol. Lawmakers from both parties are criticizing the response by the U.S. Capitol Police.
John Minchillo
Fencing is placed around the exterior of the Capitol grounds the day after a violent throng of pro-Trump rioters spent hours running rampant through the Capitol. Lawmakers from both parties are criticizing the response by the U.S. Capitol Police.

A day after an insurrection that overtook the U.S. Capitol, top lawmakers called for the removal of several top Capitol security chiefs as members from both parties sounded alarms and said a full and complete security review was already underway.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D- Calif., called for the ousting of U.S. Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund. Pelosi had noted that Sund had yet to reach out since Wednesday's attack on the Capitol.

"There was a failure of leadership at the top of the Capitol Police," Pelosi told reporters.

In a statement Thursday, Sund defended his agency's actions. But Pelosi said his office was notified that she would call for his removal.

Pelosi also said House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving, the chamber's top protocol officer, who helps direct security plans, will be submitting his resignation as well.

Moments earlier, the incoming Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, called for the firing of Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Stenger if he doesn't resign first.

"If Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Stenger hasn't vacated the position by then, I will fire him as soon as Democrats have a majority in the Senate," said Schumer — who is due to take over as majority leader after Democrats won both Senate seats in Georgia's runoff elections this week — in a statement to reporters. He noted that the current majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, appointed Stenger, saying, "He did a terrible, terrible job."

While many lawmakers prefaced their concerns by applauding the bravery of the U.S. Capitol Police and others, they also said the hourslong attack should never happen again.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina agreed with Schumer that Stenger should resign. Graham said that there was better protection in place during Black Lives Matter marches and that Wednesday could have been much worse.

"Anyone in charge of defending the Capitol failed their duties. If they would have been in the military, they would have been relieved of their commands and most likely court-martialed," said Graham. "So the first thing that has to happen is to hold those accountable for failing to defend the nation's Capit0l while the Congress was in session."

Graham also called for a joint task force to be assembled to identify every individual who breached the Capitol, occupied chambers, destroyed property and entered offices.

In a statement Thursday finally recounting arrests and some other details from the attack, Sund said he pointed to challenges in defending an "open environment," especially when it comes to First Amendment activities.

He also called the actions of his officers "heroic."

"The violent attack on the U.S. Capitol was unlike any I have ever experienced in my 30 years in law enforcement here in Washington, D.C.," Sund said. "Maintaining public safety in an open environment — specifically for First Amendment activities — has long been a challenge. The USCP had a robust plan established to address anticipated First Amendment activities."

McConnell, the top Senate Republican, on Thursday stopped short of calling for firings or removal of officials. Instead, he said while the ultimate blame lies with the "unhinged criminals" who broke into the Capitol, this doesn't preclude Congress from addressing its "shocking failures" in security.

"Yesterday represented a massive failure of institutions, protocols, and planning that are supposed to protect the first branch of our federal government," said McConnell, who will soon become the chamber's minority leader, in a statement. "A painstaking investigation and thorough review must now take place and significant changes must follow."

McConnell's concerns echoed those heard throughout the ranks of congressional leaders and rank-and-file members in the aftermath of the insurrection, which paralyzed the nation's Capitol. More than 50 law enforcement officers were injured and four civilians died, including one woman shot by a Capitol Police officer.

The security breakdown came in the form of pro-Trump extremists who stormed the Capitol complex and stopped the counting of electoral votes to confirm President-elect Joe Biden's win. It's now expected to become a centerpiece of debate in the coming weeks, especially ahead of Biden's inauguration on Jan. 20.

"You can be assured that somebody is going to be held responsible for this," Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who heads up the appropriations subpanel that oversees Capitol Police funding, told reporters in a call Thursday. "We're going to review what the plans were and what exactly happened, and then I will assure every American that the appropriate people will be held accountable. Because this was an embarrassment and it was unacceptable."

Ryan joined House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., in a statement denouncing the failed "coup attempt" instigated, they say, by President Trump. However, Ryan and DeLauro said the Capitol's security breach raises serious questions about what law enforcement did and what should have been done differently.

Both said their panels would "robustly" investigate Wednesday's events, including holding hearings to directly question leaders about what went wrong. The U.S. Capitol Police, which employs more than 2,000 workers, including police officers and civilians, received $516 million in funding for the current fiscal year.

Ryan told reporters that the entire available Capitol Police force, which estimates close to 1,400 to 1,500 officers, as well as roughly 1,000 officers from Washington, D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department, were on the scene at the Capitol at the time of the incursion. He said the extremist mob was violent, swinging lead pipes and other weapons at officers, leaving 15 officers in the hospital, including one in critical condition.

"I'm livid about the whole thing because I had conversations with the sergeant-at-arms and the chief of the Capitol Police and assurance that every precaution was being taken," Ryan said. "We were told nobody was going to be anywhere close to the Capitol."

Ryan said he was told the initial assessment was that violence was not anticipated by law enforcement, despite explicit calls for violence in the days leading up to the event. He said rank-and-file offers did the best they could in circumstances where they were overrun, without backup and support. Ryan noted that Capitol Police held protesters off for more than hour before the incursion.

"This has kind of broken the veil of protection in the Capitol," Ryan said. "This was basically domestic terrorism at one of the great shrines of our democracy."

Five House committee chairs released a letter Thursday evening to FBI Director Chris Wray demanding an "immediate and urgent briefing" on the agency's efforts to investigate the attack.

Wray released a statement earlier on Thursday saying the FBI had "deployed our full investigative resources" and was coordinating with other law enforcement agencies. "Our agents and analysts have been hard at work through the night gathering evidence, sharing intelligence, and working with federal prosecutors to bring charges." The FBI set up a tip line for information or images of those involved.

The House Democratic lawmakers noted that the upcoming swearing-in of Biden made the probe urgent.

"Given the incendiary environment caused and exacerbated by President Trump's rhetoric, along with the upcoming inauguration of President-Elect Joe Biden, it is imperative that the FBI leverage all available assets and resources to ensure that the perpetrators of this domestic terrorist attack and those who incited and conspired with them are brought to justice, and that this domestic terrorist group is disrupted from further actions against our government," wrote House Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney, Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler, Homeland Security Chair Bennie Thompson, Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff, Armed Services Chair Adam Smith and Rep. Stephen Lynch.

NPR producer Barbara Sprunt contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.
Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.