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Byron York: Why is the National Guard still in Washington?

There were roughly 25,000 National Guard members in Washington, D.C., for the inauguration of President Joe Biden. It has been normal practice to have some National Guard in town for inaugurations, but 25,000 was far more than any number from the past. Of course, nerves were raw after the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, but there is little doubt that mobilizing 25,000 troops was an overreaction.

Now, 5,000 are still in the nation’s capital. The inauguration was nearly two weeks ago. It went off without incident. There is no need for troops in the city. And yet, touring the federal area of Washington, one finds tall fencing and razor wire creating a huge militarized zone around the Capitol, with National Guard members guarding it from inside the fence. The barrier is not just on the perimeter of the Capitol. It extends for blocks beyond the building in every direction.

Now the head of the Capitol Police wants to make the fencing permanent, and the National Guard has not left. They are staying at least until mid-March, apparently because authorities fear another Jan. 6-style riot from Trump supporters.

“There are several upcoming events — we don’t know what they are — over the next several weeks, and they’re concerned that there could be situations where there are lawful protests, First Amendment-protected protests, that could either be used by malicious actors, or other problems that could emerge,” Secretary of the Army John Whitley told the press last week.

The proposal to make the fence permanent has met bipartisan opposition, not only from Capitol Hill but from the District of Columbia government.

“Permanent fencing would send the wrong message to the nation and the world, by transforming our democracy from one that is accessible and of the people to one that is exclusive and fearful of its citizens,” said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia’s delegate to Congress.

It’s a different story with the troops. While some, like D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, have called for the troops to go home, others, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have remained silent, preferring to make vague and ominous statements like, “The enemy is within.” That is apparently Pelosi’s way of turning the security issue to her partisan advantage, hinting that Hill Republicans are the true enemy.

There are reports the troops are staying because those in charge — Pelosi? Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer? Others? — want them at the ready during the Trump impeachment trial, set to begin next week in the Senate. There are other reports that there might be a big protest on March 4, which was the Constitution’s original presidential inauguration day until it was changed to Jan. 20 in the 1930s. In any event, the troops are in town.

The Biden White House is staying out of it, publicly at least. At a recent briefing, spokeswoman Jen Psaki declined to answer a question on the Guard, referring journalists to the Defense Department.

But there are some voices saying enough is enough. Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, has called for the troops to go home. In a FoxNews.com op-ed, Cotton wrote that the Guard deserves gratitude for deploying on short notice after the violence at the Capitol began. They stayed for the two weeks until the inauguration. Now, it’s time for them to go.

“The lesson of the Capitol riot is not that we should quarter a standing army at the Capitol just in case,” Cotton wrote, “but rather that our security measures should be calibrated to the actual threats.” Cotton noted that he is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and is aware of no threat that would justify continued Guard presence.

In a recent text exchange, Cotton gave his prescription for what should be done now: “Store fencing, send home troops. The Capitol Police can get reinforcements from local law enforcement and local National Guard much faster with coordination. Tailor the personnel and physical barriers to any given threat.” In other words, what the Capitol needs is better policing, not a standing army, and not a permanent fence, to deal with whatever threat may or may not be out there.

The question now is whether the leadership on Capitol Hill will listen. Will the fence really come down? Or will it continue to stand on a “temporary” basis? Will the troops go home, or will their “temporary” deployment last beyond March? Those are questions Speaker Pelosi and other top lawmakers need to answer.

Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.

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