The Department of Homeland Security, FBI, and other federal agencies tasked with thwarting domestic terror plots should have seen Wednesday’s attack on the US Capitol coming for weeks. After all, the president himself was the very public chief organizer of the convergence of his supporters — many of whom are known to embrace right-wing ideologies and conspiracy theories like QAnon — on Capitol Hill.
“Be there, will be wild!” Trump tweeted to his supporter on Dec. 19 — more than two weeks before Congress was set to meet in Wednesday’s joint session to accept certified votes from states’ presidential electors. Many of those who came posted on social media their plans to engage in a “civil war” on Capitol Hill. Some of those who traveled to Washington even posted videos of their harassment of Senator Mitt Romney, the Utah Republican and former governor of Massachusetts, on a flight Tuesday to D.C. from Salt Lake City, which went viral. Even lowly newspaper editorial pages pointed out the possibility of unrest.
Trump, who has falsely insisted that the reelection bid he lost was stolen from him through fraud, even ginned up the crowd of supporters with an in-person address near the White House, directing them to march on the Capitol “because you will never take back our country with weakness.” Carrying Trump signs, Confederate flags, and even gallows to erect outside the building, the mob quickly overtook US Capitol Police, smashing its way into doors and windows in an attack that left four people dead and multiple law enforcement officers injured, sent lawmakers and staff scurrying to safety, and halted the certification process for hours.
Federal officials — armed with their own threat assessments identifying white supremacist and right-wing, anti-government groups as the “most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland,” and with the knowledge of several other terror plots by similar groups against other elected officials — have no excuse for being caught flat-footed by the attack on the federal seat of government in an attempt to subvert the will of American voters. On Thursday, President-elect Joe Biden introduced his nominees to lead the Justice Department, including his attorney general nominee, Merrick Garland; when they take office, tackling right-wing terrorism with the seriousness it deserves has to become a top priority.
The failure to prevent the coup attempt at the Capitol was a prime example of the federal government’s ongoing failure to take seriously the threat posed by far-right extremists and those egged on to join their cause by the president, who has eagerly embraced the same conspiracy theories and rhetoric that fuel them. Even the DHS’s own threat assessment was delayed last fall, according to a whistle-blower complaint, in an effort to avoid clashing with the Trump administration’s political narrative.
Trump’s appeals serve as a recruiting tool for the most violent element of these groups, said Michael German, a former special agent with the FBI, where he specialized in domestic terrorism and covert operations.
“What we’ve seen over the past four years is, through the rhetoric of President Trump and the inaction of law enforcement, these groups have been encouraged to commit public violence,” said German, who is now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security program. “Now the people who are attracted to these public events aren’t people who are just trying to express themselves, but rather very often people who just want to commit violence.”
Federal officials had clear signs of what could materialize. The mob of Trump supporters who stormed the Michigan state Capitol in May, many carrying long guns, Confederate flags, signs with swastikas, and nooses, provided a major clue. “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” Trump tweeted in April in support of anti-government and right-wing groups who assailed Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, over COVID-19 restrictions.
Whitmer, who herself was the subject of a thwarted kidnapping plot by anti-government extremists, called the storming of the State House “some of the worst racism and awful parts of our history in this country.”
Trump also expressed support for Kyle Rittenhouse, the Trump supporter from Illinois who is charged with murder after traveling to a Kenosha, Wis., protest with a firearm and shooting two people dead and wounding a third.
So federal authorities were more than on notice of what would probably happen if those embracing the same type of white nationalist and anti-government ideologies the threat assessment warned about would board airplanes to descend on Washington, D.C. — and specifically the Capitol, where the lawmakers would be in session.
Their inaction demonstrates the need for an overhaul in the way such domestic threats are investigated and prevented.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.