President Joe Biden apologized to the chief of the National Guard Bureau in a phone call on Friday, a day after thousands of troops were abruptly kicked out of the U.S. Capitol complex they had spent the past two weeks protecting. Soldiers were ordered to vacate the facilities and told to take their rest breaks outdoors, where nighttime temperatures were in the low 40s, or in nearby parking garages. Troops were also instructed to set up mobile command centers outside or in hotels.
Scenes of the situation, first reported by Politico, sparked outrage from lawmakers across the aisle — some offered to let troops sleep in their offices — and the decision was apparently reversed late Thursday, when Guard members were ordered to return to the Capitol.
After the president apologized, asking what he could do to fix the situation, First Lady Jill Biden visited Guard members stationed outside the Capitol, thanking them for their service and doling out chocolate-chip cookies. “The National Guard will always hold a special place in the hearts of all the Bidens,” she said, according to the New York Times. Beau Biden, the First Family’s late son, was a major in the Delaware National Guard.
Nearly 26,000 National Guard members streamed into Washington, D.C., to bolster security ahead of Biden’s inauguration, as concerns about potential threats skyrocketed in the aftermath of the deadly siege on January 6. Many of the troops who helped ensure Wednesday’s peaceful transfer of power have already left, but thousands are still pulling 12-hour shifts to protect the Capitol and congressional grounds. Throughout the complex, there were designated rest areas where soldiers could take breaks from their shifts — until Thursday morning, when troops found all of those areas had been cleared out and stripped of their designations, CNN reports.
Guard members told multiple outlets they were not given a reason for the initial relocation. In a statement on Thursday, Captain Edwin Nieves Jr., a D.C. Guard spokesperson, said Capitol Police asked the troops to temporarily move their rest area because “Congress is in session and increased foot traffic and business is being conducted,” but Capitol Police chief Yogananda Pittman contradicted that in a statement Friday, saying “police did not instruct the National Guard to vacate the Capitol Building facilities,” the Washington Post reports.
Nieves also said troops “were temporarily relocated to the Thurgood Marshall Judicial Center garage with heat and restroom facilities,” but soldiers said they had limited access to either. One garage where a group was forced to rest had one bathroom with two stalls for 5,000 soldiers, as well as just one electrical outlet and no internet reception, Politico reports. Soldiers used smartphones for mission planning and maintaining contact with other soldiers, according to the Post.
“I’ve never in my entire career felt like I’ve been booted onto the curb and told, ‘Figure it out on your own,’” one soldier, who said he served in Iraq and Afghanistan, told the Post. These conditions, another soldier said, almost resulted in one of his men getting hit by a car. Both troops are noncommissioned officers in the Maryland National Guard, and they acknowledged harsh quarters are part of the job; however, they said these conditions “unnecessarily hamstring their duties,” the Post reports.
The crowded scenes are particularly alarming during a pandemic, and the spread of COVID-19 was already an issue among Guard members: Hundreds of troops deployed to Washington after the Capitol riot have tested positive for the virus or are quarantining in nearby hotels, Politico reports. One of the Maryland soldiers said he personally knows several troops who have contracted COVID-19 and laughed when asked what coronavirus protocols were in place to combat the spread of the virus among service members, according to the Post. “There’s none,” he said, adding that troops “are on top of each other all day, every day. We’ve given up.”
After Thursday’s events, the governors of Texas, Florida, and New Hampshire, all Republicans, said they had ordered their troops home from Washington. During an interview on Fox & Friends Friday morning, Florida’s Ron DeSantis took aim at Democratic leadership. “They’re soldiers, they’re not Nancy Pelosi’s servants,” he said. The Pentagon said Friday that most of the troops who helped fortify the inauguration, about 19,000 soldiers, were returning to their home states, a five-to-ten-day process that will include coronavirus screenings, the Times reports. Roughly 7,000 troops will remain in Washington through the end of the month to continue protecting against potential threats and to support federal agencies.