January 6, 2021

IntelBrief: Washington D.C. on Edge as Extremists Descend on the Nation’s Capital

People wearing hats and patches indicating they are part of Oath Keepers attend a rally at Freedom Plaza Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, in Washington, in support of President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Conspiracy theorists and other extremists will descend upon Washington, D.C. today to protest the results of the U.S. presidential election.
  • In online chatrooms, white nationalists, militia members, QAnon adherents and other anti-government actors have all signaled their intent to attend the demonstrations.
  • Efforts to challenge the democratic process in the U.S. further weaken American soft power and can compromise efforts to curb authoritarianism abroad.
  • The lead-up to the inauguration has many observers on edge, with concerns about the prospect of politically-motivated violence taking place.

Conspiracy theorists, violent anti-government and racially and ethnically motivated actors, and other opponents of democracy are expected to descend on Washington, D.C. today in an effort to protest the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, encouraged by President Trump. In many other contexts, such actions and rhetoric would be considered tantamount to incitement to terrorism. Despite repeatedly discredited allegations of voter fraud, President-elect and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have been declared the winners and are scheduled to be inaugurated on January 20, 2021. Congress is slated to convene today to certify Electoral College votes and formally declare Biden’s election win. The 2020 U.S. presidential election was deemed by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) as ‘the most secure in American history;’ and senior officials had promised a professional transition once the results were validated. Yet, some of the most ardent Trump supporters in the House and Senate, including current and elected officials still to be sworn in following the very election they challenge, have vowed to oppose certification of the election results. Just last week, a recording emerged of President Trump pressuring Georgia’s Secretary of State, Republican Brad Raffensperger, to ‘find 11,780 votes’ to overturn the state’s election returns.

Such efforts to tamper with the democratic process and calls by his supporters to ‘Stop the Steal’ have been unparalleled and relentless, most shockingly amplified by current and elected officials sworn to uphold the democratic process from which they themselves derive their mandate. Such actions threaten to weaken U.S. soft power and efforts to curb authoritarianism abroad, as civil liberties and human rights are increasingly challenged by governments, especially with a world distracted by COVID19. Numerous events are planned throughout Washington, D.C. in support of the claims of a 'stolen' election, despite losing both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Expected among the protesters are The Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group with ties to white nationalism, whose leader, Enrique Tarrio, was arrested earlier this week for his role in vandalizing a historically black church in Washington, D.C. ‘Let’s make this simple,’ he said, as reported by the BBC, ‘I did it.’ In addition to being charged with destruction of property, Tarrio was also charged with possession of a high capacity feeding device, as he was found with two high-capacity firearm magazines when he was arrested. Another notorious far-right extremist group, The Oath Keepers, is also expected to be in attendance.

Despite no evidence of foul play, the President continues to encourage his supporters to attend protests and demonstrations. While election-related violence thankfully fell short of some predictions, the potential for violence remains a real and persistent threat. In online chatrooms, white nationalists, militia members, and QAnon adherents have all signaled their intent to attend the demonstrations, some openly bragging about their plans to smuggle guns and other weapons into the nation’s capital. Washington, D.C mayor Muriel Bowser has asked residents to avoid areas adjacent to downtown and issued reminders that firearms are illegal in specific locations, including the National Mall and Freedom Plaza. Members of the D.C. National Guard will be deployed throughout the city to assist the police with maintaining law and order.

While the United States continues to be ravaged by death and despair in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump spends most of his time promoting false claims of electoral fraud and instigating civil unrest, generating heightened concern about how erratic his behavior might become. On social media, far-right extremists have portrayed the protests as something akin to a ‘last stand’ and appropriated the rhetoric of warfighting. Others have openly speculated about the possibility of Trump enforcing martial law or staging a military coup to hold onto power, with many senior former military officials taking to social media to try and mitigate such fears. In the Washington Post, all ten living defense secretaries felt compelled to write a letter reaffirming their respective oaths to the Constitution and reiterating that there is ‘no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of an election.’ The next two weeks leading to inauguration will keep many on edge, with leading experts on terrorism worried about the prospect for political or ideologically motivated violence perpetrated by individuals or groups, and the long-term effects on democracy and civil liberties in the United States.