House scraps work schedule amid security threat

House scraps work schedule amid security threat

Top House Democrats are abruptly wrapping up all work on Wednesday and sending members home — a day earlier than planned — as congressional leaders grapple with another potential threat to the Capitol, nearly two months after deadly riots overtook the complex.

While the extent of the concerns is not yet clear, U.S. Capitol Police have stepped up the security around the Capitol and related office buildings after both federal authorities and the sergeant-at-arms warned of discussions by “militia violent extremists” to seize control of the complex on or around March 4.

March 4 has been touted by some conspiracy theorists as the date that former President Donald Trump will return to power. The date was the inauguration date for presidents before being changed to Jan. 20 in the 1930s.

Inside the Capitol, many lawmakers and aides are skeptical that the groups could inflict real damage, given that the grounds have been heavily fortified in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Razor wire fencing still encloses much of the Capitol Hill area, and members and staffers must enter through checkpoints manned by armed National Guard troops.

Nonetheless, congressional leaders say they will heed the security warnings, with members still shaken from the violence that many of them witnessed two months ago. Some of the security presence, particularly the National Guard, appears to have diminished in recent weeks, though tighter new procedures — such as metal detectors into the House chambers — remain in place.

In a letter to members on Wednesday, the House sergeant-at-arms said the Capitol Police had “received new and concerning information and intelligence” suggesting a new threat to the Capitol from March 4 through March 6 “by a militia group.”

Some lawmakers have said they’re actually more worried about being targeted at the airport or while traveling to and from their districts than being in their offices in the Capitol. Capitol security officials have indicated that they plan to beef up security for lawmakers in transit, recognizing that many have been targeted in recent months when they’re away from the building.

The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security disseminated a joint intelligence bulletin to state and local law enforcement on Tuesday night warning of potential violence at the Capitol on March 4. The document, obtained by POLITICO, said the FBI had learned that a militia group was discussing a plan as of late February to persuade “thousands” to travel to Washington on that date and “take control of the US Capitol and remove Democratic lawmakers.”

The bulletin explained that some domestic violent extremists “motivated by the QAnon conspiracy theory” could be mobilized to action because they believe that Trump will be inaugurated on March 4 or will return to power on May 20 with the help of the U.S. military.

“Continued [domestic violent extremist] perceptions of election fraud and other conspiracy theories associated with the presidential transition may contribute to DVEs mobilizing to violence with little or no warning,” the document warned. Many Trump supporters who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6 were directly motivated by Trump’s repeated claims of a stolen election, and the bulletin said extremists might feel “emboldened” by the successful breach of the building that day.

Trump reiterated his false contention that the election was stolen during a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Sunday, and intelligence officials told a Senate hearing on Wednesday that the perpetuation of the false narrative about the election had contributed to their concerns about future violence. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) urged Trump to directly call off the extremists who support him.

“President Trump has a responsibility to tell them to stand down,” McCaul said on CNN.

FBI Director Chris Wray testified earlier this week that the FBI currently has about 2,000 active domestic terrorism cases open, and characterized far-right extremists as “the most significant domestic terrorism threat” now facing the country.

Acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman last week also told lawmakers of a related threat to the Capitol during the State of the Union address, which has yet to be scheduled. Though she didn’t describe the basis for the threat, she said it entailed “militia groups that were present on Jan. 6” who “have stated their desire that they want to blow up the Capitol and kill as many members as possible.”

The move could make for a late night in the House — the chamber was already expected to vote on Democrats’ sweeping voting rights and anti-corruption bill. Now the chamber will also consider Democrats’ police reform legislation, originally slated for a vote on Thursday. Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, each vote typically lasts 45 minutes to one hour.

Brian Harrell, the former assistant secretary for infrastructure at DHS, said he didn’t anticipate any successful attacks on the Capitol given that it is “currently fortified like a military installation.” But he said “all threats should be taken seriously and investigations launched against those who would call for violence. We continue to see far-right extremist groups that are fueled by misinformation and conspiracy theories quickly become the most dangerous threat to society.”

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