Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer captured the outrage of many citizens when he declared the Capitol riot last month to be the Pearl Harbor of this generation that “will live forever in infamy.” It was certainly infamous, but some doubt whether the two events are comparable, given the 2,400 Americans killed in the 1941 attack that forced our entry into World War Two. Schumer’s analogy may be more apt than he might wish, however. Part of Pearl Harbor’s tragedy was that the United States had ample warning and failed to take precautions. That failure was largely covered up during the war, lost in the anger directed at the Japanese.
History may show that, due to a lack of preparation, the Capitol riot indeed was a new Pearl Harbor. Many Americans are familiar with the negligence of Pearl Harbor’s military leaders after being warned to expect an attack. Aircraft were parked wingtip to wingtip, no torpedo nets were deployed, and “Battleship Row” was so jammed that it would be hard for a dive-bomber to miss a target.
Moreover, this was actually the third such attack. On Feb. 7, 1932, United States Admiral Harry Yarnell carried out virtually the same attack to demonstrate Pearl Harbor’s vulnerability, using aircraft carriers, radio silence, radar evasion and the same basic routes — even attacking on a Sunday, when he knew the Navy would be most off-guard. (The one group that paid attention was the Japanese War College, which studied Yarnell’s plan.) Another mock carrier attack in 1938 produced similar results.
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Like the prior “Pearl Harbors,” the Capitol has long trained for large protests and possible breaches. Indeed, law enforcement was on edge due to violent protests in Washington the previous summer, including a protest that forced the first family to shelter briefly in the White House bunker. For that reason, as the Capitol riot unfolded, many of us were amazed by the ease and speed of the breach.
Any questions, however, were quickly shoved aside by the second Trump impeachment. Democrats insisted this was an actual insurrection led by Trump. House leaders refused to hold a single hearing before their snap impeachment and refused to call witnesses for weeks before the Senate trial to confirm basic facts on the warnings and preparations leading up to the riot.
More than two months later, few facts are confirmed but they raise troubling questions. Congress was warned repeatedly of possible violence on Jan. 6 by the Trump administration and law enforcement agencies. National Guard troops were offered to the Capitol days beforehand but declined. While large numbers of protesters were expected, Capitol Police deployed a ridiculously small force, with roughly 1,800 officers facing more than 8,000 rioters. District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser reportedly limited a Guard presence before the protests to help with traffic and crowd control.
We also have contradictions on the record. Resigned Capitol Police chief Steven Sund said he requested Guard troops six times but was denied the support. He said House sergeant at arms Paul Irving felt such troops would pose bad “optics.” In demanding Sund’s resignation on Jan. 6, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said he “hasn’t called us since this happened” — but Sund insists he personally briefed her twice on Jan. 6. And there are accounts of a critical delay in a request for additional support during the riot, as police waited for approval from congressional officials.
Sund and Senate sergeant at arms Michael Stenger were forced to resign with other officials. They may be the Capitol riot’s versions of Admiral Husband Kimmel and Lieutenant General Walter Short, the commanders tagged with the Pearl Harbor disaster despite rumors that powerful figures in Washington shared the responsibility. (In 1999, the Senate voted to clear their names in the 1941 calamity.)
Pelosi has added to concerns over transparency and accountability with her selection of retired General Russel Honoré to lead an investigation of Capitol security. She acted without consulting others — and few Republicans would have supported her choice, since Honoré is a longtime critic of Trump and various Republicans. He appeared immediately to reach conclusions on responsibility for the attack that paralleled Pelosi’s views.
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In an interview two days after the attack, without any facts to support his conclusions, Honoré declared on MSNBC that “I think once this all gets uncovered, it was complicit actions by Capitol Police” and “people need to go to jail.” He condemned Sund as “complicit along with the sergeant-at-arms in the House and the Senate.” Responding to calls to expel Sen. Josh Hawley and others for allegedly supporting the riot, Honoré tweeted: “This little peace [sic] of shit with his @Yale law degree should be run out of DC and Disbarred ASAP @HawleyMO @tedcruz aaa hats [sic]. These @Yale and @Harvard law grads is high order white privilege.”
This from the man who Pelosi appointed to give an unbiased, nonpartisan review. Of course, for many Americans, any inquiry may seem unnecessary. The second Trump impeachment drilled home a narrative that the riot was primarily the fault of one man, Donald Trump, and by implication not the fault of others. Pelosi told MSNBC’s Joy Reid that Trump should be charged as “an accessory” to murder “because he instigated that insurrection that caused those deaths and this destruction.”
If framing scandals in Washington is an art form, then Pelosi is our resident Rembrandt. Of course, history has shown that truth and responsibility are rarely unequivocal or exclusive. None of this would relieve Trump of his own responsibility on January 6th. I previously condemned Trump’s speech and his reckless role in this riot. However, there is ample evidence to suggest that the vulnerabilities exposed on Jan. 6 may have been due to Congress itself. So Schumer may be right that Jan. 6 is a date that will live infamy — but few in Washington seem too eager to confirm the full list of the infamous.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law with George Washington University. He was called by House Republicans as a witness in the impeachment hearings for Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, and has also consulted Senate Republicans on the legal precedents of impeachment in advance of the latest trial. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.