Last Thursday was not Donald Trump’s triumphant return to power after all.
While this won’t surprise most people, it likely came as a shock to many QAnon followers. According to that movement’s expediently evolving lore, March 4 — the date on which U.S. presidents were inaugurated until the mid-1930s — was when Mr. Trump was to reclaim the presidency and resume his epic battle against Satan-worshiping, baby-eating Democrats and deep-state monsters.
This drivel is absurd. It is also alarming. Violent extremists, obsessed with the symbolism of March 4, were for weeks nattering about a possible attack on Congress, according to law enforcement officials.
On March 2, the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security issued a joint intelligence bulletin to law enforcement agencies, warning that militia extremists might be plotting to overrun the Capitol complex and “remove Democratic lawmakers.” The details of the possible plot were hazy, but the threat unnerved enough people that House leaders canceled Thursday’s session. The voting schedule was condensed, and lawmakers left town early for the weekend.
Although March 4 came and went without a bloody coup attempt — that is, without another bloody coup attempt — damage was still done. Lawmakers abandoned their workplace out of fear of politically motivated violence. This not only disrupted the people’s business. It also sent a dangerous signal that Congress can be intimidated — that the state of American government is fragile.
Of course the safety of lawmakers and other Capitol Hill workers must be a priority. But allowing the government to be held hostage by political extremists is unacceptable.
The current security threat is not expected to dissipate any time soon. If anything, the intelligence community has cautioned that the Jan. 6 siege of the Capitol may have emboldened extremists. Having sacked the Capitol, the lunatic fringe is now dreaming of a bigger, bloodier encore.
March 4 was just one target. The acting chief of the Capitol Police, Yogananda Pittman, recently warned that extremists have been talking about possibly blowing up the Capitol during President Biden’s first address to a joint meeting of Congress, which has not yet been scheduled, with an eye toward killing “as many members as possible.”
Also in discussion around the QAnon water cooler is that Mr. Trump will be reinstalled on March 20, with the help of the U.S. military. Indeed, the F.B.I. and Homeland Security bulletin cited an increased risk from violent domestic extremists for all of 2021.
In the wake of Jan. 6, enhanced protections were put in place around Capitol Hill. There is an increased police presence along with thousands of National Guard troops. Last week, Chief Pittman requested that the Guard presence, originally set to expire Friday, be extended 60 days. (The Pentagon has yet to issue a final decision.) Inside the Capitol building, additional metal detectors have been installed. The grounds are ringed by security fencing. Lawmakers from both parties have complained that “the people’s house” now has the grim vibe of an armed camp — or a low-security prison.
But these safeguards failed to keep the House operating in the face of last week’s threat, despite it being somewhat nebulous. Law enforcement officials emphasized that the extremists’ chatter about March 4 was nowhere near as intense or detailed as that surrounding the Jan. 6 attack. Some officials characterized the threat as “aspirational.” The Senate, notably, opted to stick around and keep working on the Covid relief bill.
A longer-term, more sustainable approach is clearly needed.
On Monday, lawmakers were briefed on the findings of the security assessment that the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, requested in the wake of Jan. 6. Russel Honoré, a retired Army lieutenant general who led the task force, recommended a variety of permanent enhancements. These include beefing up the Capitol Police force, in terms of increased staffing, improved training, enhanced authority for its leadership and a new emphasis on intelligence work; creating a quick-reaction force to be on call 24-7 to handle imminent threats; installing a retractable fencing system; and adding protections for rank-and-file members of Congress at home and while they are traveling and back in their districts.
Congress can now start haggling over which measures to adopt. Don’t look for the process to be silky smooth. Republicans, many of them desperate to downplay the Jan. 6 tragedy, are already attacking General Honoré as biased. The general has not been shy about criticizing lawmakers and others he regards as having fed the postelection chaos, and he has suggested that some Capitol Police officers may have been complicit in allowing rioters into the building.
Representative Matt Gaetz, the Florida delegation’s mini-Trump, is in full froth. “Pelosi hired a bigot to hunt MAGA,” he charged last month. Last Tuesday, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter to the speaker, arguing that General Honoré’s criticism of the police and lawmakers was “disqualifying.” On Thursday, Tucker Carlson told viewers: “Honoré is an unhinged partisan extremist. He’s nuttier than anyone affiliated with QAnon.”
Trump toadies should not be allowed to turn this issue into a partisan game. Steps must be taken to safeguard the seat of government. Going forward, lawmakers cannot be seen as bowing to political thugs, their work upended whenever there is a semi-credible threat. That is not the American way.