WASHINGTON — A few weeks before the election, President Trump dodged a question about whether he would support a peaceful transition of power should he lose.
“Well, we’ll have to see what happens,” he said.
One decisive electoral loss and one failed insurrection later, the Capitol has been transformed into a fortress, guarded by thousands of troops, surrounded by miles of razor-wire-topped fences, and monitored by drones and buzzing helicopters.
The “peaceful transition of power” will now happen under the watchful gaze of up to 25,000 National Guardsmen who have been deployed to Washington, several times more troops than are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That’s a lot of muscle to ensure the most basic facet of democracy occurs.
“It’s a wartime atmosphere,” presidential historian Julian Zelizer wrote in an e-mail, adding that parallels exist to inaugurations around World War II and in 2005, the first after the Sept. 11 attacks. “But in many ways this seems even more intense. The combination of a pandemic and an actual attack on government on Jan. 6 has heightened the fears.”
And unlike those wartime inaugurations, this time, the fear is of threats internal. Four extremist groups, including white supremacist organizations, may target the Capitol, lawmakers were told in a briefing last week. “We are seeing an extensive amount of concerning online chatter,” FBI Director Chris Wray said. National Guard officials said they were conducting extra screening of troops deployed inside the security bubble to ensure none posed a threat to President-elect Joe Biden.
There are some signs that the shock-and-awe military response may be working to deter those threats. Rumors of an armed protest at the Capitol on Sunday did not materialize, and it’s no wonder. Even with credentials, it’s difficult — and confusing — to get anywhere close to the building. The maze of barriers and road closures expands deep into Washington, with tactical vehicles and armed soldiers standing sentry all around the city, blocking cars and pedestrians from reaching where the inauguration will take place on Wednesday.
A secure “green zone” limited to local vehicle traffic surrounds a “red zone” closer to the Capitol, where only authorized vehicles and people are allowed. The allusion to Baghdad’s militarized zone has not gone unnoticed among locals.
“When they started talking about green zone, red zone, everyone thinks about Baghdad,” said Virginia resident Robert Shapiro, 57, who was checking out one of the secured entrances on Monday.
The National Mall, which stretches like a giant green bowling alley for more than two miles from the steps of the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, is now behind a police line. That meant residents on Monday weren’t able to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. statue on the federal holiday commemorating his birth. It also means Biden and Kamala Harris will look out and see only a sea of flags, instead of thousands of cheering Americans on Wednesday.
A combination of pandemic restrictions and the significantly heightened security measures have scaled down the usually elaborate inauguration week to a bare-bones swearing-in ceremony and inaugural address on a socially-distanced platform. Security concerns forced Biden to shelve his idea of riding to Washington on Amtrak, as a nod to his years commuting by train from Delaware as a senator.
“This isn’t a normal year,” Maju Varghese, executive director of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, explained at a Georgetown Institute of Politics event last week.
The tense atmosphere has some lawmakers, who are among the only people allowed to attend the inauguration in person, taking extra security precautions.
Representative Stephen Lynch of South Boston is leaning toward not taking his wife to the proceedings, even though she is a big fan of Biden and has loved attending past inaugurations.
“In the event something happens, I’d have to find my wife in the crowd and get her out of there,” Lynch said. “The likelihood of violence is not something I want to expose my wife to.”
Representative Norma Torres of California told Axios she planned to wear a tactical vest and was urging her colleagues to do the same.
Representative Jake Auchincloss, a freshman from Newton, said he plans to attend with his wife as “a statement that we will not be cowed by a mob of white supremacists.” The stepped-up security is “sadly necessary” at the moment, Auchincloss said, but he hoped it would not become permanent.
“We don’t want it to feel like a fortress,” he said of the Capitol. “We don’t want a green zone in Washington, D.C., in the long term.”
But no one seems to know what Washington security will look like in a post-Jan. 6 world. Some reporters (including this one) are stocking up on gear that would protect them in a riot, so they can be better prepared to cover violent protests, should extremists descend upon the city again. And city officials are reminding residents to remain on guard.
“We are going to go back to a new normal,” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said of security in the city after the inauguration. “I think our entire country is going to have to deal with how our intelligence apparatus, security apparatus at every level deal with a very real and present threat to our nation.”
The heavily fortified downtown Monday bore a striking contrast to the relatively sparsely guarded Capitol building on Jan. 6. During the siege, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders begged a neighboring governor to send National Guard troops to secure the besieged building — to no avail.
Now, the troops literally surround the Capitol.
Guardsmen, guns slung over their shoulders, are stationed at the perimeter of the fence that encircles the building. Inside the Capitol Visitors’ Center, which in pre-pandemic times was generally swarmed with tourists, Guardsmen were sleeping or resting on hard, foldable cots, some with their uniform placed over their eyes to block out the fluorescent lighting. Crates of Monster Energy drinks and brightly colored boxes of Dunkin’ doughnuts awaited others outside the nearby Dirksen Senate Office building.
Locals are processing the fact that in a year of sickness and strife, they also won’t be able to watch the inauguration or the ceremonial parade from the Capitol to the White House, generally an open and free event that brings the region together and celebrates the peaceful transfer of power.
“I’m really, really disappointed,” said Christine Suchy, a 53-year-old Arlington, Va., resident who drove to Washington’s Union Station on Monday afternoon to see the militarized zone around the Capitol before authorities shut down the bridges into the city to further tighten security. “To me it’s not about being Democrat or Republican — this is history, right? And it’s sort of taken from us.”