House Republicans have sought to change the narrative on the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by pro-Trump protesters, claiming that Speaker Nancy Pelosi is “ultimately responsible for the breakdown of security at the Capitol.”
But their arguments overstate the role of the House speaker in overseeing the security of the Capitol and rely on speculation about Pelosi’s involvement and knowledge about intelligence warnings for which they have not provided any proof.
- Republican Rep. Jim Banks said that Pelosi, as speaker, “has more control and authority and responsibility over the leadership of the Capitol Police than anyone else in the United States Capitol” and therefore, “is ultimately responsible for the breakdown of security at the Capitol that happened on Jan. 6.” The speaker does not oversee security of the U.S. Capitol. The speaker appoints one member of a four-member board that oversees Capitol security, and who then must be approved by the House.
- House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy suggested Pelosi played a role in denying efforts prior to Jan. 6 to bolster security on the Capitol grounds with members of the National Guard. There is no evidence of that.
- Banks accused Pelosi of withholding documents from the bipartisan Senate committee that investigated security and planning issues related to the Jan. 6 riot. Banks speculated that’s because the documents may show “the speaker was involved and the lack of leadership and the breakdown of security that occurred on Jan. 6th.” The Senate committee never requested any documents from the speaker’s office, though the House sergeant at arms “did not comply with the Committees’ information requests,” according to the Senate report.
- Rep. Rodney Davis pointed to the fact that on the afternoon of Jan. 6, the House sergeant at arms sought Pelosi’s permission to bring in the National Guard as evidence that Pelosi was “calling the shots on all of their actions on Jan. 6.” A Pelosi aide confirms the request was made, though he says Pelosi “expects security professionals to make security decisions” and that Pelosi only expects “to be briefed about those decisions.” In any event, the request also went to then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as well as to Department of Defense leadership.
- GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik said Pelosi “failed to act” on intelligence reports in December about potential security threats and therefore “Nancy Pelosi bears responsibility as speaker of the House for the tragedy that occurred on Jan. 6.” There is no evidence that Pelosi was privy to those intelligence reports.
Banks appeared on “Fox News Sunday” four days after Pelosi rejected Banks and Rep. Jim Jordan from serving on the select committee that will investigate the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. Banks and Jordan both voted to object to the certification of the 2020 presidential election results. In a statement, Pelosi said she had “concern about statements made and actions taken” by Banks and Jordan that she felt would compromise “the integrity of the investigation.”
Overseeing the Capitol Police
Banks contends that Pelosi left him off the committee because he was “prepared to ask questions” about “a systemic breakdown of security at the Capitol on Jan. 6,” for which he says Pelosi was “ultimately responsible.”
Banks, July 25: Once you go up the — to the top of the flagpole of who is in charge of the Capitol Police, who the Capitol Police union chief, they blamed the leadership of the Capitol Police. But — due to the rules of the United States Capitol, the power structure of the Capitol, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, has more control and authority and responsibility over the leadership of the Capitol Police than anyone else in the United States Capitol. So she doesn’t want us to ask these questions because at the end of the day she is ultimately responsible for the breakdown of security at the Capitol that happened on Jan. 6.
Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi, said Banks was simply trying to “divert blame” for the attack.
“On January 6th, the Speaker, a target of an assassination attempt that day, was no more in charge of Capitol security than Mitch McConnell was,” Hammill told us via email. “This is a clear attempt to whitewash what happened on January 6th and divert blame. The Speaker believes security officials should make security decisions.”
A bipartisan Senate investigation of security, planning and response failures on the day of the attack said “breakdowns ranged from federal intelligence agencies failing to warn of a potential for violence to a lack of planning and preparation by USCP [U.S. Capitol Police] and law enforcement leadership.”
The June 8 report — led by Sens. Gary Peters, chairman, and Rob Portman, ranking member, of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Amy Klobuchar, chairwoman, and Roy Blunt, ranking member, of the Committee on Rules and Administration — made no mention of any missteps by Pelosi.
In a House Republican press conference on July 27, Banks referred to the “tragic events that happened on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s watch,” and he said the Senate report identified “there was a systemic breakdown of security, a lack of leadership at the very top of the United States Capitol Police who report and who Nancy Pelosi is ultimately responsible for that lack of leadership.”
But he is overstating Pelosi’s authority.
In a statement provided to FactCheck.org, Jane L. Campbell, president and CEO of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, said: “The Speaker of the House does not oversee security of the U.S. Capitol, the Capitol Police Board does, and the Speaker does not oversee the Board. The Board consists of three voting members: the Senate Sergeant at Arms, the House Sergeant at Arms, and the Architect of the Capitol; together with one non-voting member, the Chief of the Capitol Police.”
To put names to those titles, on Jan. 6, the Capitol Police chief was Steven Sund; the House sergeant at arms was Paul Irving; the Senate sergeant at arms was Michael Stenger; and the architect of the Capitol was Brett Blanton. Sund, Irving and Stenger all resigned in the wake of the riot.
So how does Pelosi fit into all of this?
“The Speaker is involved in the appointment of the House Sergeant at Arms, who must be confirmed by the House,” Campbell explained. “The Senate Sergeant at Arms is chosen by the Senate. The Speaker also sits on the commission that recommends an Architect of the Capitol to the U.S. President. However, it is the President who appoints the Architect, who must be confirmed by the Senate.”
During the Republican press conference on July 27, Rep. Rodney Davis noted that Irving, the House sergeant at arms, was “appointed by the speaker.” That’s true, but Irving initially came to the position in January 2012 after being nominated by then-House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican. Irving was unanimously approved by the House. He was retained by House votes five more times, including twice when Pelosi was speaker — on Jan. 3, 2019, and Jan. 3, 2021, three days before the riot.
Pelosi, of course, played no role in Stenger’s nomination or election as Senate sergeant at arms. Stenger was nominated by then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and approved by unanimous consent by the Senate on April 16, 2018.
Blanton, the architect of the Capitol, was appointed by then-President Donald Trump and was confirmed in the Republican-controlled Senate by voice vote on Dec. 19, 2019.
Approving the National Guard
In the July 27 press conference, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said, “There’s questions into the leadership within the structure of the speaker’s office where they denied the ability to bring the National Guard here.”
McCarthy also referred — without naming anyone — to “people out there who say there were phone calls to the speaker that offered the National Guard prior to that day and was turned down.”
But there is no evidence of that.
In a Feb. 1 letter to Pelosi, Sund, the former Capitol Police chief — who was hired by the Capitol Police Board in June 2019 — wrote that on Jan. 4, two days before the riot, he “approached the two Sergeants at Arms to request the assistance of the National Guard, as I had no authority to do so without an Emergency Declaration by the Capitol Police Board (CPB).”
(According to a 2017 Government Accountability Office report, the Capitol Police Board “has authority for security decisions, as well as certain human capital and personnel matters, including the approval of officer terminations.”)
Sund said Irving told him he was “concerned about the ‘optics’ and didn’t feel that the intelligence supported it. He referred me to the Senate Sergeant at Arms (who is currently the Chair of the CPB) to get his thoughts on the request. I then spoke to Mr. Stenger and again requested the National Guard. Instead of approving the use of the National Guard, however, Mr. Stenger suggested I ask them how quickly we could get support if needed and to ‘lean forward’ in case we had to request assistance on January 6.”
During Senate testimony on Feb. 23, Sen. Ted Cruz asked Irving and Stenger whether they had any conversation with “congressional leadership” about supplementing the law enforcement presence on Jan. 6 or bringing in the National Guard.
Irving said he had “no follow up conversations and it was not until the 6th that I alerted leadership [Pelosi’s office] that we might be making a request and that was the end of the discussion.”
Stenger said that “it was Jan. 6 that I mentioned it to leader McConnell’s staff.”
So there is no evidence that Pelosi was made aware of any request for National Guard assistance or played any role in the decision not to fulfill Sund’s request on Jan. 4 for National Guard help on Jan. 6. The decision beforehand not to provide National Guard assistance on the Capitol grounds appears to be one made by both Irving and Stenger (who, again, was appointed by McConnell).
At the press conference on July 27, Jordan read from a Feb. 27 story in the conservative news outlet the Daily Caller: “Pelosi’s office had previously impressed upon Irving that the National Guard was to remain off Capitol Grounds, Irving allegedly told House Admin. The discussions, which centered around ‘optics,’ allegedly occurred in the months prior to the Jan. 6 riot, during a time when deployment of federal resources for civil unrest was unpopular with Democrats and many members of Congress.”
“Why were the Democrats so concerned about the optics?” Jordan asked. “It’s all driven by what happened last summer [during protests after a white police officer murdered George Floyd, a Black man], where Democrats normalized anarchy, normalized political violence, raised bail for the very rioters and looters who destroyed small businesses, attacked innocent civilians and maybe most importantly attacked police officers.”
But this is speculation. There is no evidence available to the public that Pelosi had conversations with Irving about not involving the National Guard on Capitol grounds on Jan. 6, or in the months prior, due to “optics.” We asked Pelosi’s spokesman, Hammill, whether Pelosi ever had such conversations with Irving, and he said, “No.” He referred us to a series of fact-checking articles that concluded Pelosi did not stop the National Guard from deploying.
According to Sund, the “optics” concern was raised by Irving on Jan. 4. But during testimony before the Senate in February, Irving said that comment was being mischaracterized. He said the Jan. 4 request for additional National Guard troops “would have been to work traffic control near the Capitol.”
“My use of the word optics has been mischaracterized in the media,” Irving said. “Let me be clear, optics, as portrayed in the media, played no role whatsoever in my decisions about security, and any suggestion to the contrary is false. Safety was always paramount when making security plans for Jan. 6. We did discuss whether the intelligence warranted having troops at the Capitol. That was the issue. And the collective judgment at that time was no, the intelligence did not warrant that.”
Later in the hearing, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley again asked Irving if he was concerned that having the National Guard at the Capitol on Jan. 6 “would look like it was too militarized” or about “the criticism of the guard being deployed in Washington during rioting earlier this summer–summer of 2020.”
“Senator, I was not concerned about appearance whatsoever,” Irving said. “It was all about safety and security. Any reference would have been related to appropriate use of force, display of force, and ultimately the question on the table when we look at any security asset is — does the intelligence warrant it? Does the security plan match with the intelligence? And again, the collective answer was yes.”
A Passed Note
At the House Republican press conference on July 27, McCarthy and Rep. Rodney Davis raised the issue of a note from Irving that was passed to Pelosi on the House floor on the afternoon of Jan. 6, asking permission to bring in the National Guard. Davis argued it was evidence Pelosi was “calling the shots on all of their actions on Jan. 6.”
“Why was the speaker’s permission even needed?” Davis asked.
Hammill confirmed that Irving sought out Pelosi for permission to seek support from the National Guard.
“At approximately 1:40 p.m., SAA Irving approached Chief of Staff Terri McCullough and other Speaker’s staff in the Speaker’s Lobby behind the House Chamber,” Hammill told us in an email. “He asked about permission to seek support from the National Guard. Ms. McCullough immediately entered the Chamber and passed a note to the Speaker who [was] presiding in the House Chamber at approximately 1:43 p.m. Ms. McCullough was on the rostrum briefly to present this request.
“The Speaker approved the request and asked if McConnell’s approval was also needed. Ms. McCullough said yes. The Speaker instructed Ms. McCullough to seek McConnell approval. Ms. McCullough left the Chamber to call Senator McConnell’s Chief of Staff and was not successful in reaching her. Ms. McCullough then spoke to SAA Irving by phone to relay the Speaker’s decision. SAA Irving explained that he and the Senate SAA were already meeting with Senator McConnell staff. Ms. McCullough then joined that meeting in the Senate SAA’s office where she reiterated the Speaker’s approval for seeking immediate National Guard support.”
McCarthy said he found it telling that Irving felt the need to get Pelosi’s approval.
“Why would a sergeant of arms, when you have an insurrection going on or protests out here, you’ve got a line being broken and you’re the sergeant of arms, why would your first response be ‘I gotta send a note to the speaker to see if it’s okay if I could do my job to protect the men and women on the line’?” McCarthy asked. “Why would that be your first reaction? Why?”
We asked Hammill whether permission from Pelosi was necessary.
“As we have said many times, the Speaker expects security professionals to make security decisions and to be briefed about those decisions,” Hammill said.
In any case, minutes after getting the OK from Pelosi and McConnell, Sund was on the phone at 1:49 p.m. with the commanding general of the D.C. National Guard requesting the immediate assistance of the guard. However, it took three more hours for the first National Guard members to arrive to assist at the Capitol, as the request needed the approval of Department of Defense leaders, and the force needed time to assemble and prepare.
Jordan and other Republicans speculated — despite Pelosi’s spokesman denying it — that Pelosi may have had discussions with Irving prior to Jan. 6 discouraging the deployment of the National Guard on Capitol property, and that emails or other communication records held by the House sergeant at arms might prove that.
Banks claimed Pelosi withheld documents from the Senate committee that looked into the security response to the Jan. 6 attack. Banks then speculated that it was because Pelosi “was involved and the lack of leadership and the breakdown of security that occurred in January 6th.”
Banks, July 25: The Homeland Security and the Rules Committee jointly published a report that came out in June, and it talked about the systemic failure of leadership and the — and the — and a breakdown of security on January. We — we know that a number of documents from the speaker’s office were submitted for that report, but there are also a number of documents that they refused to release, that the speaker’s office refused to release for that investigation that still — still sit on the computers in the speaker’s — speaker’s office that we should be demanding to take a look at as well. And the reason I can only speculate as to why they don’t want those documents to be released, because it — it — it — at the end of the day, it — it shows that — that the speaker was involved and the lack of leadership and the breakdown of security that occurred in Jan. 6.
Pelosi’s spokesman, Hammill, said: “Congressman Banks is making that up. There were no documents requested from the Office of the Speaker by the Senate investigation.”
Indeed, records from the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs show that Pelosi’s office was not among the 22 agencies the committee requested information from.
The Senate report on the Jan. 6 attack noted, however, that the office of House sergeant at arms “did not comply with the Committees’ information requests.”
Mitchell Hailstone, a spokesman for Banks, clarified that that’s what Banks was referring to.
“There are documents on staff computers in offices controlled by the Speaker of the House, including documents belonging to the then-Sergeant at Arms that were requested by the Committee on House Administration after the attack on the 6th, that have not been turned over,” Hailstone told us via email. “These are documents on staff computers that the speaker’s office has the ability to turn over or not. They have not been made public.”
A spokesman for Democrats on the Senate committee, however, said the office of the House sergeant at arms responded to the Senate committee that because it is a House entity, the Senate did not have jurisdiction over the office. The aide said there was no indication that this position was taken at Pelosi’s direction.
At the Republican press conference on July 27, Davis said that at Pelosi’s direction, the House sergeant at arms also denied a “House administration official request to preserve documents and communications.”
“We don’t have the details … or conversations leading up to the 6th because, under the speaker’s direction, the sergeant at arms has denied our House administration official request to preserve documents and communications,” Davis said. “What are they hiding? What is the speaker hiding?”
But the Democrats on the House Administration Committee provided us a letter, dated Feb. 1, from the chief administrative officer of the House and Timothy Blodgett, the acting House sergeant at arms, to Davis denying his request for data but assuring that they were “taking appropriate steps within our authority, as requested by data owners, or as requested by law enforcement to preserve information and data related to the attack on the Capitol.”
The Democrats also provided us with an email sent Jan. 12 by Blodgett to all House sergeant at arms staff directing them to preserve all records related to Jan. 6.
One other argument made by House Republicans to assign culpability for the Jan. 6 breach of the Capitol to Pelosi is the claim that she ignored intelligence warnings in December.
McCarthy: “On Jan. 6, these brave officers were put into a vulnerable and impossible position because the leadership at the top has failed. Dec. 14, the leadership knew there was a problem.”
Stefanik then made clear to whom Republicans were referring when they said “leadership.”
“It is a fact that in December of 2020, Nancy Pelosi was made aware of potential security threats to the Capitol, and she failed to act,” Stefanik said. “It is a fact that the U.S. Capitol Police raised concerns and, rather than providing them with the support and resources they needed and they deserved, she prioritized her partisan political optics over their safety.
“The American people deserve to know the truth that Nancy Pelosi bears responsibility as speaker of the House for the tragedy that occurred on Jan. 6, and it was only after Republicans started asking these important questions that she refused to seat them,” Stefanik said.
As the Senate investigative report indicated, “Internal records and USCP officials’ testimony confirm that USCP began gathering information about events planned for January 6 in mid-December 2020. Through open source collection, tips from the public, and other sources, USCP IICD [Capitol Police’s lead intelligence component—the Intelligence and Interagency Coordination Division] knew about social media posts calling for violence at the Capitol on January 6, including a plot to breach the Capitol, the online sharing of maps of the Capitol Complex’s tunnel systems, and other specific threats of violence.”
But there was no indication that that intelligence was shared with Pelosi. In fact, the report states, “IICD did not convey the full scope of known information to USCP leadership, rank-and-file officers, or law enforcement partners.”
Pelosi’s spokesman, Hammill, told us, “There was no such briefing in which the Speaker participated.”
The Senate report also says the IICD’s intelligence reports prior to Jan. 6 were “inconsistent” and “contradictory.”
“For example,” the report states, “although a January 3 Special Event Assessment warned of the Capitol being a target of armed violence on January 6, IICD’s daily intelligence reports rated the likelihood of civil disturbance on January 6 as ‘remote’ to ‘improbable.'”
In testimony before the Senate on Feb. 23, Irving said that based on intelligence they received, they expected something similar to previous MAGA rallies.
“Every Capitol Police daily intelligence report between Jan. 4 and Jan. 6, including on Jan. 6, forecast the chance of civil disobedience or arrests during the protests as remote to improbable,” Irving said. “Based on the intelligence, we all believed that the plan met the threat and that we were prepared. We now know that we had the wrong plan.”
In his testimony, Sund said, “We properly planned for a mass demonstration with possible violence. What we got was a military-style, coordinated assault on my officers and a violent takeover of the Capitol building.”
The bipartisan Senate committee found plenty of blame to go around: everything from intelligence, communication and planning failures to lapses in law enforcement leadership and inadequate equipment. Nowhere in the report does it suggest Pelosi bore any culpability for the failures that day.
As we have said, Pelosi has indirect authority over the Capitol Police Board that oversees security of the Capitol. She appoints one of three members, the House sergeant at arms, a man who was initially appointed by a Republican and who was unanimously approved by the House for nearly a decade. And holding Pelosi to that standard of accountability, McConnell would then be as culpable as Pelosi, but Republicans have made no mention of that.
Also, Republican leaders have offered only speculation in claiming that the National Guard was not deployed earlier because Pelosi expressed concerns to Irving about “optics” in light of Black Lives Matter protests last summer. Pelosi’s spokesman denies it, and Irving contradicted it in his Senate testimony.
Editor’s note: FactCheck.org does not accept advertising. We rely on grants and individual donations from people like you. Please consider a donation. Credit card donations may be made through our “Donate” page. If you prefer to give by check, send to: FactCheck.org, Annenberg Public Policy Center, 202 S. 36th St., Philadelphia, PA 19104.