Elephants in the Room

The Military Stayed Out of the Insurrection, but It Isn’t Over Yet

Trump failed because key Republicans backed down and the military stayed out—yet critical questions remain.

U.S. Capitol police officers point their guns at a door broken by pro-Trump extremists during a joint session of Congress in Washington, DC, on Jan. 6.
U.S. Capitol police officers point their guns at a door broken by pro-Trump extremists during a joint session of Congress in Washington, DC, on Jan. 6. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The angry mob that attempted an insurrection in the U.S. Capitol yesterday failed. Congress, presided over by Vice President Mike Pence, reconvened to fulfill its constitutional duty to formalize President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.

To be sure, the insurrectionists succeeded in a number of things. First, they breached the defenses of the Capitol building and put the lives of legislators and staff at risk. Second, they created scenes of chaos that will stain the United States’ reputation for the rest of history. Third, they underscored once again that outgoing President Donald Trump is the least capable leader in a crisis that Americans have had in their lifetimes. The spectacle of a president unwilling to denounce those physically attacking another branch of government is the gravest failure of a failed presidency precisely because what was required of Trump at that moment was so easy. Fourth, the insurrectionists wrecked the political careers of numerous Republicans hoping to challenge Biden in 2024—most prominently, I suspect, that of Trump himself.

But the mob failed in its larger goal of thwarting the constitutional order and handing the presidency back to Trump—or perhaps one should say that they will fail, since there is still a mopping up that need to be completed. First, all those who stepped beyond their right to peaceful protest by crossing police barriers and entering the Capitol Building need to be held accountable in courts of law. Second, those who went further still and prepared explosive devices and other violent mayhem that was thwarted must likewise face justice. Third, whatever conspiracies fomented the insurrection need to be uncovered and prosecuted. Fourth, any attempt to replicate Wednesday’s chaos elsewhere in the country needs to be nipped in the bud with a decisive and preemptive response by law enforcement. And finally, every single Republican must denounce both the criminal actions of the insurrectionists and what drove them: the massive and baseless allegations promoted by Trump and his misguided enablers about the legitimacy of the November elections.

Because this was the closest the United States has come in modern times to a violent takeover of political power, critical questions remain. Two of the most pressing: Why was the protection of the Capitol building and the Joint Session of Congress so inadequate after Trump had been telegraphing a confrontation for many weeks? Was the U.S. Defense Department slow in mobilizing National Guard units to back up the beleaguered Capitol Police—and if so, why?

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Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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