WASHINGTON — Two senior Trump administration officials defended their actions during the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol in testimony before Congress on Wednesday, with former acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller standing behind every decision he made that day.
Miller told the House Oversight Committee that he was concerned before the insurrection that sending troops to the building could fan fears of a military coup and cause a repeat of the deadly Kent State shootings.
His testimony, in the latest in a series of congressional hearings centered on the riot, is aimed at rebutting broad criticism that military forces were too slow to arrive even as pro-Trump rioters violently breached the building and stormed inside. The panel's chairwoman, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., made clear at the outset of the hearing that she planned to dive into the hours-long gap between when military support was first requested and when it was received.
"The federal government was unprepared for this insurrection, even though it was planned in plain sight on social media for the world to see," Maloney said. "And despite all the military and law enforcement resources our government can call upon in a crisis, security collapsed in the face of the mob, and reinforcements were delayed for hours as the Capitol was overrun."
Republicans sought immediately to change the focus to the civil unrest that arose from racial justice protests, suggesting that Democrats outraged over the Capitol riot failed to strongly condemn violence last June in the days following George Floyd's death in Minneapolis. A white police officer had pressed his knee against Floyd's neck for 9 1/2 minutes as the Black man said he couldn't breathe and went motionless.
"What is wrong is when individuals take to crime, violence, and mob tactics," said Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, the committee's top Republican. "This was wrong on Jan. 6, and this was wrong last summer when several cities across the country were attacked by rioters."
Miller was joined by former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, who is also testifying for the first time about the Justice Department's role in the run-up to the riot.
Miller said he was determined that the military have only limited involvement, a perspective he says was shaped by criticism of the aggressive response to the civil unrest that roiled American cities months earlier, as well as decades-old episodes that ended in violence, such as the shooting of four Americans at Kent State University by Ohio National Guard members in 1970.
Miller is the most senior Pentagon official to participate in hearings on the riot. The sessions so far have featured finger-pointing about missed intelligence, poor preparations and an inadequate law enforcement response.
The Capitol Police have faced criticism for being badly overmatched, the FBI for failing to share with sufficient urgency intelligence suggesting a possible "war" at the Capitol, and the Defense Department for an hourslong delay in getting support to the complex despite the violent, deadly chaos unfolding on TV.
Rosen told lawmakers that the Justice Department "took appropriate precautions" ahead of the riot by putting tactical and other elite units on standby after local police reports indicated that 10,000 to 30,000 people were expected at rallies and protests.
Miller's testimony amounts to the most thorough explanation of Pentagon actions after months of criticism that it took hours for the National Guard to arrive.
In his prepared remarks, he defended his resistance to a heavy military response as being shaped in part by public "hysteria" about the possibility of a military coup or concerns that the military might be used to help overturn the election results.
Fearful of amplifying those suspicions — as well as the possibility a soldier might be provoked into violence in a way that could be perceived as an attack on First Amendment activities — he says he agreed in the days before the insurrection to deploy soldiers only in areas away from the Capitol.
"No such thing was going to occur on my watch but these concerns, and hysteria about them, nonetheless factored into my decisions regarding the appropriate and limited use of our Armed Forces to support civilian law enforcement during the Electoral College certification," Miller said. "My obligation to the nation was to prevent a constitutional crisis."
Although he says the Defense Department should not play a lead role in domestic law enforcement, he felt it important to initiate planning discussions out of concern about a lack of coordination and information-sharing between other agencies.
Democrats intend to press Miller on why it took so long for the National Guard to arrive despite urgent plans for help. In his prepared testimony, Miller contends that those complaints are unjustified, though he also concedes that the Guard was not rushed to the scene — which he says was intentional.
This was not a video game, he said, where forces can be moved "with a flick of the thumb."
Although the timeline Miller offered generally matches up with that provided by other high-ranking leaders, he notably put himself at odds with William Walker, who as commanding general of the D.C. National Guard testified to what he said were unusual Pentagon restrictions that impeded his response. He also described a more than three-hour delay between when aid was requested aid and when it was received.
Walker has since become the House sergeant-at-arms, in charge of the chamber's security.
In his prepared remarks, Miller said that Walker was given "all the authority he needed to fulfill the mission" and that before Jan. 6 had never expressed any concern about the forces at his disposal. Miller says he authorized the deployment of 340 National Guard personnel, the total amount Walker had said would be necessary.
Miller said he approved the activation of the Guard at 3 p.m. That support did not arrive at the Capitol complex until well after 5 p.m., which Miller says reflected the time-consuming process of coordination and planning.
Miller served as a White House counterterrorism adviser under Trump and replaced Mark Esper, who was fired as defense secretary after the election after being seen by Trump as insufficiently loyal.
The abrupt appointment raised concerns that Miller was in place to be a Trump loyalist. Maloney foreshadowed a focus on Trump at Wednesday's hearing, saying his "inflammatory language provoked and incited the violent mob."
In his opening statement, Miller says he believes Trump "encouraged the protesters" but declined to say if Trump bears responsibility. He recounts a Jan. 5 conversation when Trump, impressed by a crowd of supporters at a rally that day, told him 10,000 troops would be needed the next day.
"The call lasted fewer than thirty seconds and I did not respond substantively, and there was no elaboration. I took his comment to mean that a large force would be required to maintain order the following day," Miller says.