We came much closer to a political crisis than people want to admit
- Beyond the tragedies that happened at Capitol Hill, there were at least three other massive national security threats that people aren’t understanding fully.
- There was a serious threat to the line of succession, the possibility of foreign intelligence agents mixing among less organized rioters, and the apparent inability or unwillingness to defend the physical structure of the Capitol.
- There needs to be a massive investigation — the most serious type of powerful, targeted government investigations — along the lines of Watergate and the 9/11 Commission.
- The new administration and Congress must leave no stone unturned and ensure that nothing like this can happen again.
- Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist and was previously a reporter for The Washington Post.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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We came much closer on Wednesday to an incredibly serious political crisis than some people want to admit.
I’m not only referring to the temporary disruption of the orderly transfer of power after an insurgent mob stormed and occupied parts of the U.S. Capitol — or even the death of a Capitol Police officer and four other people.
Beyond those tragedies, there were at least three other massive national security threats that need to be understood fully. These include:
- A serious threat to the line of succession to the U.S. presidency.
- The possibility of foreign intelligence agents or other saboteurs mixing among less organized rioters.
- The apparent inability or unwillingness to defend the physical structure of the Capitol.
Arrests and prosecutions are already beginning. Additionally, the incoming administration and Congress should mount a massive investigation of every second leading to the storming of the Capitol and its aftermath.
I’m talking about the most serious type of powerful, targeted government investigations, along the lines of Watergate and the 9/11 Commission.
Credit goes to journalist Luke Russert, whose smart thread on Twitter sparked me to think about this more deeply.
The line of succession
This is crucial, and sadly the most likely to be overlooked, because it involves parsing the law and wading into a political mess. But it’s necessary.
President Trump is still the duly elected commander in chief. But we know that the first, second, and third officials in the line of succession behind him were all in the Capitol at the time of the attack.
At least one rioter is alleged to have killed a Capitol Police officer, and others were photographed carrying zip tie handcuffs, suggesting they might have expected to detain or kidnap people.
As things turned out, if there was such a plan it didn’t work. Vice President Pence reportedly remained in the Senate the whole time, where he would have been protected by the U.S. Secret Service.
Reports are that Congressional leaders — presumably including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate President Pro Tempore Chuck Grassley, who are number two and number three behind Pence — were evacuated during the insurgency to Fort McNair, a nearby military base.
Now, the mere fact that people who might have had those intentions could even enter the building is extremely alarming. But the crisis goes deeper.
Reports are that Secretary of State Pompeo and Secretary of the Treasury Mnuchin, who are fourth and fifth in line for the presidency, were debating during or after the riots whether Pence and the Cabinet should declare Trump unable to perform his duties, and remove him from office under the 25th Amendment.
Imagine: first, second and third in line are being protected from a potential physical attack, while fourth and fifth in line are talking about removing the president — all at either the exact same time or soon afterward.
This is an even deeper concern than some might worry. As I’ve written elsewhere, there’s a legitimate legal debate over whether the Presidential Succession Act is constitutional — and thus whether the line of succession actually has to skip over members of Congress, and go directly from the vice president to the secretary of state.
It’s a real mess, and it comes down to the fact that the Constitution says only an “officer” can be in line to serve as president, while some legal scholars have been laying groundwork to argue that the definition of an executive branch “officer” excludes anyone serving in Congress.
Are they right? I have no idea; it’s never been tested legally. But we can be quite certain that if the act were triggered, political opponents would argue it in court. And the worst possible time for it to be tested would be in the middle of a massive crisis.
Bring it back to Wednesday: Just imagine if something had happened to both Trump and Pence during the riots, and we then wound up with Pelosi and Pompeo each claiming to be the Acting President of the United States.
What do we do then, wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in?
Ask a completely divided and polarized Congress to come up with a solution?
In any crisis, the number-one question is, who’s in charge? And we would not know for certain right away.
So, among the questions this massive investigation should look at are:
(a) Was there any conspiracy among rioters to try to harm or detain anyone?
(b) And maybe even more importantly: How should Congress shore up the law about presidential succession, making it 100 percent clear who assumes the presidency in an emergency?
The possibility of infiltrators
Some of the rioters who stormed the Capitol have been portrayed, both by themselves and in the media, as being like dogs who don’t know what to do with a car once they’ve caught it.
I’m thinking of the people who entered the building but then stayed within the red ropes, taking selfies and looking for a way out.
Certainly they should be identified and prosecuted if they broke laws, but you can pity them — imagining them as gullible people who were lied to by politicians and then swept up by the mob mentality.
Plus, it would be comforting to think the damage was mostly contained to impulsive trespassing, looting and vandalism.
The problem is, we don’t know that at all.
For one thing, bombs were reportedly found in the Capitol. A police officer was killed. And we still have those rioters who were dressed in military style clothing and carrying zip ties and other tactical gear.
Beyond that, we need an exhaustive investigation of every single person who entered the Capitol, to determine if foreign intelligence agents or other bad actors took advantage of the chaos — even if they looked like the gullible types who arguably got caught up naively in an insurrection.
I mean, we’re talking about the seat of government here. Given the stakes, we need to assume that every computer system and network accessible during the riots was compromised, that every document in the building could have been accessed, and that offices could easily have been bugged.
(At least three lawmakers, including Speaker Pelosi and a senator reported that computers or tablets were stolen from their offices during the riot.)
The only way to answer these questions will be a massive, trusted, exhaustive investigation.
Physical security failures
As Russert pointed out, few Capitol Police appear to have fired their weapons.
(Video emerged as I was writing this of at least one exception, when an officer shot and killed Ashli Babbitt, as she and other rioters apparently tried to get past police and break through a barricade to access the House chamber.)
Separately, reports are that the president declined to authorize the National Guard to respond for hours, leaving it ultimately to Pence to do so. Other offers or requests for help from neighboring states and security forces reportedly were turned down or rebuffed.
Look, in normal policing, restraint can be prudent, even preferred. In fact, we’d like to see more of it when dealing with peaceful protests or minor alleged crimes.
And it might have made sense for police to contain some of the rioters but not confront them, especially while the police seem to have been badly outnumbered and possibly outgunned.
Of course, the question of how that situation could have happened should be a focus. How did half of Twitter seem to expect that something like this was coming, but the police in charge of the Capitol weren’t adequately prepared?
Also, there are reports of police trying to give protestors directions to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office, and other reports that off-duty police and military members among the mob might have flashed badges and IDs on their way in.
It would be great to learn that these reports were mistaken, but Congress and the new administration need to tear into every minute detail of the riots and learn the truth.
We need to know if any police, military members, or anyone assigned to the security of the Capitol accommodated the rioters in any way whatsoever. There would have to be consequences for that if it were proven, and just as important, structural changes to make sure it can’t happen again.
We’re living through history right now. Sometimes, it takes a crisis for people to recognize a threat. But we also don’t want to pursue knee-jerk responses — chasing after unconfirmed reports like little kids chasing a soccer ball.
The key is to be exhaustive, decisive, and trustworthy. And, for the new administration and Congress to leave no stone unturned, and ensure that nothing like this can happen again.