Lawmakers and law enforcement officials are growing concerned about the possibility of violence and unrest on Capitol Hill as two key dates approach next month: a right-wing rally in support of the jailed January 6 rioters and the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Those fresh fears come as the community is still reeling from a recent bomb scare near the complex involving a man critical of Democrats, including President Joe Biden. The event ended without incident, but still sent a chill through Capitol Hill and provided law enforcement yet another example of the risks of a toxic political climate.
Now, as security preparations ramp up for a “Justice for J6” rally planned for September 18 on the Capitol grounds, serious discussions are underway about reinstalling the temporary fencing around the Capitol’s perimeter, according to multiple sources familiar with the planning.
Some members of Congress are also amplifying their warnings that far-right conspiracy theories, extremist online rhetoric and the GOP’s continued embrace of former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election could lead to more politically motivated attacks that could impact Capitol Hill and beyond.
“You don’t get an insurrection on January 6 and all threats of violence go away. In fact, the fear is that future planning will produce other violent acts,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean, a Pennsylvania Democrat.
“I’m most concerned for my staff … and I also worry for the Capitol Police,” she added. “They are strained, they have been heroic and they saved all of our lives at great peril to themselves.”
Capitol Hill has been deeply shaken and scarred by the deadly insurrection and another incident earlier this year when someone rammed a car into a police barricade, killing one officer and injuring another. The charged environment has led lawmakers to invest in body armor and security systems, while the US Capitol Police is in the process of opening field offices in cities around the country. Members and even police officers who defended the Capitol on January 6 have faced death threats.
Last week’s bomb scare offered another grim reminder of the types of threats facing the community.
“This is exactly what we have been warning about,” a federal law enforcement source told CNN shortly after the incident.
No one was harmed during the five-hour standoff and police said the suspect, Floyd Roseberry, did not possess a real bomb.
The law enforcement source added that some people with underlying behavioral health issues who spend too much time on the internet may be susceptible to disinformation narratives — especially alarming when some of that content is propelled by public officials.
“We have to take it really seriously. There are a lot of really disturbed people out there. … It’s scary,” said Rep. Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat who was trapped in the House chamber while rioters breached the building on January 6. “And unfortunately, there are not enough people in legitimate roles of authority on the Republican side to say that it’s all nonsense.”
“The mistake of January 6 cannot be repeated,” he added.
‘It’s a scary week’
Law enforcement in Washington are steeling themselves against possible unrest at a rally planned for September 18, referred to as “Justice for J6,” that aims to support the insurrectionists charged in the riot.
The event, organized by a former Trump campaign staffer, has sparked security concerns on Capitol Hill, and some precautionary measures will be in place. However, it’s unclear how many protesters plan to attend. The rally also is taking place on a Saturday and the House will be on recess, meaning that far fewer lawmakers or staff will be around.
A law enforcement source tells CNN that the Metropolitan Police Department will be fully activated, which includes canceling days off for sworn officers and putting Civil Disturbance Units on standby. The source also said the department will monitor open source information — like online chatter and travel bookings — to gauge the potential crowds.
Another source told CNN there are serious considerations of resurrecting the temporary fencing surrounding the Capitol complex, which was put in place after the riot. US Capitol Police declined to comment on security plans for September 18.
Republicans are pushing back against the idea of fortifying the Capitol with a barrier again, saying it’s not the most efficient way to protect the grounds. Some Democrats, too, had wrestled with keeping the “People’s House” closed off to the public when the fence was first erected.
“This fence is not a quick reaction tool. … It takes days to assemble and remove, costs taxpayers millions, requires additional USCP resources that are already strained and makes campus access more difficult for staff,” said Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee.
“Democrats should stop playing political games with the select committee and start working with us to implement permanent solutions we know are needed to secure the Capitol,” Davis added.
According to a memo sent to members of the Capitol Police, the group organizing the rally is known to attract the attention of far-right extremists, and it said that “it’s not unreasonable to plan for violent altercations.” However, the memo notes that past similar demonstrations didn’t result in any violence.
The memo says that around 300 people have told event organizers they may attend. Social media chatter about the event has been mixed, with some concerning posts catching the eye of intelligence analysts.
Federal law enforcement nationwide has warned that one of the biggest threats remains lone wolf-style attacks.
It’s unclear if any members of Congress will show up to the event, as some did for the pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6. The organizer of the September 18 event has not yet released a speaker lineup.
But several lawmakers on the far right — including Reps. Louie Gohmert of Texas, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Matt Gaetz of Florida and Paul Gosar of Arizona — have tried to rally public support for the jailed insurrectionists, referring to them as “political prisoners.”
“I’m not sure I’ll be able to make [the rally], but we know that there were people that were arrested for January 6 activities, and they have been so badly mistreated,” Gohmert said. “So we haven’t given up.”
Adding to the security fears that week, the rally will take place seven days after the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which some lawmakers are even more worried about after the Biden administration’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan and the deadly attack on the Kabul airport.
The Department of Homeland Security issued a new terrorism bulletin this month highlighting the heightened risks surrounding the 9/11 anniversary and warning the public about increasingly complex and volatile threats facing the country.
“It’s a scary week,” said one former intelligence officer. “It’s a week from hell for DHS, for the ATF, for the FBI, for DOD and for the intelligence community.”
The Capitol ‘is always a target’
The Capitol and members of Congress have long been targets of political violence. In 2017, a gunman shot up a baseball field where Republican lawmakers were practicing for a charity game. But after last week’s bomb scare, those who work and live on Capitol Hill are even more on edge.
“This is always a target, under any circumstance,” said veteran Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican. “But obviously, anything like we had last week heightens the worry.”
Added Rep. Mikie Sherrill, a New Jersey Democrat and US Navy helicopter pilot: “I don’t think this is a renewed threat, I think this is a continuation of the outbreak of violence we saw on January 6.”
Nearly seven months after the insurrection, Congress passed an aid package designed to bolster security at the Capitol complex. That legislation included new funding for law enforcement and security upgrades for the building, such as hardening windows and doors and installing new security cameras.
But Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat who was a House impeachment manager during Trump’s trial this year and now serves on the January 6 select committee tasked with investigating the riot, said that more work needs to be done to address the root causes of political violence.
“An important part of the work of the January 6 select committee is to figure out how to deal with this huge security threat of domestic violent extremism,” Raskin said. “We’ve already made huge investments in trying to fortify the Capitol and protect ourselves. But fundamentally, we’ve got to deal with this pervasive threat.”