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At the Capitol, a March 4 threat from militant Trump supporters proves a mirage

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/4/2021 Katie Mettler, Emily Davies, Meagan Flynn, Marissa Lang, John Woodrow Cox
a group of people standing in front of a military uniform: Members of the Pennsylvania National Guard line up outside the United States Capitol on Thursday in D.C. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post) © Matt McClain/The Washington Post Members of the Pennsylvania National Guard line up outside the United States Capitol on Thursday in D.C. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

On the day when former president Donald Trump’s most delusional supporters swore he would return to power — and the House suspended its business because of supposed threats to the U.S. Capitol — Washington looked on Thursday morning much the way it has for the past two months.

National Guard members armed with M4 rifles braced for rebellion that never came. Razor wire lined miles of steel fencing that went unbreached. Trump remained in Florida, where it was 70 degrees and sunny.

Threats of a March 4 attack create disruptions but little trouble. Researchers say police overreacted.

The angst stemmed from another misguided belief within QAnon, the extremist ideology that claims Trump has been working in secret to overthrow a cabal of blood-drinking, Satan-worshiping Democratic pedophiles. After repeated unfulfilled prophecies, the group’s supporters declared in recent weeks that Trump would retake office on March 4, the country’s original Inauguration Day.

That, of course, did not happen, but on Wednesday, the U.S. Capitol Police announced it had identified a potential plot by a militant group to breach the Capitol, as hundreds of insurrectionists did on Jan. 6. The threat apparently was credible enough for the House to suspend a Thursday session, though the Senate still convened. And it came just before the Capitol Police sought to extend the Guard’s mission by two more months.

Samantha Broaddus, 34, had heard vague references about a QAnon threat, but she didn’t think much of it before arriving on the Hill for a dentist appointment and finding what looked like a fortress.

“It’s more sad than nerve-racking,” she said, strolling down Second Street NW with her 9-month-old daughter, Isabelle. “D.C. used to feel so accessible to everyone who wanted. Now it’s starting to feel like another country.”

Along the fence, which stretches from the east side of the Supreme Court to the Mall, police shooed away anyone who lingered nearby.

“Have you seen the news?” they asked.

a man standing in front of a building: A runner passes along a fence near the Capitol Thursday. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post) © Matt McClain/The Washington Post A runner passes along a fence near the Capitol Thursday. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Outside the fence, the neighborhood’s streets were quiet. People walked their dogs in the morning sun and masked students sat on steps drinking coffee. Construction crews continued with their projects.

For more a month now, people who live and work on Capitol Hill have navigated, and gradually accepted, the reality that this part of their city has been converted into a militarized zone. No longer can they exercise on the Capitol lawn or rest on the steps of the Supreme Court. For many, Thursday was just another day in 2021.

About 5,200 Guard members remain on duty in Washington, where the sprawling security operation costs $2 million per week to maintain. The Guard’s mission here is scheduled to end March 12, but the Capitol Police has asked that it be extended for 60 days.

The request appeared to surprise D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser.

“It was our expectation that the additional forces would be leaving now,” she said, adding that the Capitol Police has had little communication with the city about its security requests. “We don’t know why additional forces have been requested until May.”

One defense official familiar with the talks said authorities have discussed scaling back the number of troops around the Capitol, but keeping others ready for an emergency at the D.C. Armory, about two miles away.

The oppressive security measures have become increasingly controversial in recent weeks, particularly among the people who have to live with them every day.

“It doesn’t make sense anymore,” said John Kabre, who, before all that fencing went up, had a view of the Capitol from his shifts as an events coordinator outside of 101 Constitution Ave. “I think people are overreacting.”

At a news conference, even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) played down the decision to suspend votes, arguing that the move was as much about accommodating Republicans attending an annual retreat as it was about any possible danger.

a person standing on top of a metal fence: A member of the National Guard walks between fencing not far from the Capitol Thursday. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post) © Matt McClain/The Washington Post A member of the National Guard walks between fencing not far from the Capitol Thursday. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Unconcerned about the potential menace, Kabre smiled at passersby and encouraged them to enjoy the sunshine. He waved at National Guards members through the fence, some of whom he’d come to recognize over the past month.

Among those on duty was Capt. Dan Rogers, who had traveled to D.C. a few times before his New York Guard unit was deployed here Jan. 28.

School trips mostly, filled with the typical museum and monument stops. But now, in his off time, he’s enjoyed an insider’s view of the Capitol, escorted through the halls by people who work within them.

“We’ve gotten way better tours than we had in eighth grade, that’s for sure,” he said.

Inside the fence, Rogers and his comrades milled around the grass in the late-afternoon sun. Some ate snacks. Others set their helmets down and stretched, bending to the right then left, adjusting the rifles slung from their shoulders.

Occasionally, a passerby would call out with a question, a word of thanks, a quip or a joke.

“Can I take your picture?” asked a woman, holding up a digital camera.

Two soldiers agreed, gave her a thumbs-up and smiled beneath their face masks.

Washingtonians navigate new normal: Razor-tipped wire fences and armed soldiers

By then, the Mall had been peppered for hours with cyclists, joggers, clusters of journalists. A trickle of people filed in and out of Union Station, where three American flags billowed at full-staff.

At Freedom Plaza, skateboarders practiced kick flips on the same concrete squares where thousands of Trump supporters gathered the night before the Jan. 6 attack.

Two skaters, who declined to give their last names, argued over whether one of them had landed a trick until the sound of a motorcycle vrooming down Pennsylvania Avenue interrupted them. They glanced at the bike, an American flag waving from its back end, before proceeding with the debate.

“That totally counts,” Sean, 25, said of the maneuver that sent him leaping over his board.

Xavier, 27, shook his head.

The pair had no idea that March 4 was a day of any particular significance, nor that the District had again braced for possible violence at the Capitol.

“I guess we’re just used to foreigners, out-of-towners, whatever, coming into our city to cause trouble, you know?” said Xavier, who wore a hoodie emblazoned with Bart Simpson’s sarcastic grin and crossed-arm pose. “Just part of being in the nation’s capital these days.”

Down by the White House, a man in a red Washington Capitals hoodie stood against the tall steel fencing that still encircles Lafayette Square as he raised his phone and peered expectantly at the camera lens.

He was about to go live.

David Bardash, who lives in Bowie, Md., is a citizen journalist for something called Patriot Party News. He and other volunteer correspondents fanned out across the District on Thursday, trying — at last, in their minds — to uncover what was really going on.

The 50-year-old had come to Black Lives Matter Plaza, thinking he might find people to talk to, but as the bare branches of trees rustled in the late-afternoon wind, the square remained largely empty.

Nearby, Henry Jenkins, 39, looked puzzled. After hearing about the QAnon claims, he had come to the District from Charles County, Md., to find a counterprotest to join. Instead he saw only Bardash, holding his phone aloft.

“I really expected to see more Trump people or something,” Jenkins said, shaking his head, the red mohawk on top bending in the wind. “It’s weird how quiet it is today.”

Bardash, who declined to say whom he voted for in the last election, said he identifies as an independent but has been intrigued by the false claims that Joe Biden lost the election.

“I’m no Trump fan by any means, but I think we need to have a new election for the good of the country,” said Bardash. “I’m not sure what to believe.”

Bardash had more questions than answers Thursday, but it was his job to find something true.

So he gestured to the building behind him and smiled beneath his blue surgical mask.

“Hi, I’m live outside the White House,” he said to the phone, motioning with his other hand.

And that much, at least, was true.

Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.

Read more:

Why March 4 matters to QAnon extremists, leading to fears of another Capitol attack

The Pizzagate gunman is out of prison. Conspiracy theories are out of control.

A small town seethes after one of its own says he joined Capitol’s mob

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