Securing the Capitol for the Biden-Harris Inauguration

President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated in the same spot where insurrectionists waged an assault on the U.S. Capitol just weeks before. Scott Pelley reports on how officials are ensuring the inauguration will be safe.

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Will the next president be inaugurated at noon on Wednesday? That's an unthinkable question. The Constitution demands it. But, on the other hand, the law also required Congress to count the electoral votes January 6th, which the attack on the Capitol delayed. This week, Washington is an armed camp. With a president impeached for inciting insurrection, tens of thousands of troops are on route to the Capitol to join thousands of police officers and federal agents--all preparing to uphold their oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies. 

Scott Pelley: Will Joe Biden be inaugurated at noon on January 20th?

Muriel Bowser: Absolutely. This nation will have its 46th president. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will take the oath of office right here in Washington D.C. on January the 20th.

Muriel Bowser is the Democratic mayor of Washington. She took us to the ground, trampled by the mob, to show us a Capitol and tradition restored.

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Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser speaks with correspondent Scott Pelley in front of the inauguration stage at the Capitol.

Muriel Bowser: You see the balconies there? And that is where the next president will take the oath of office. You see the red drapes just behind the podium. That's where the president and special guest will enter.

Ritual is returning after the greatest attack on the Capitol in 206 years. In the aftermath of January 6th, Mayor Bowser asked the federal government to reassess security. They're adding reinforcements and imposing a larger, earlier, lockdown around the White House, Capitol and National Mall. An exclusion zone of seven-foot fences and military roadblocks was rushed in six days sooner than planned. 

Muriel Bowser: What we know is that not only is the inauguration itself a target for these extremists who stormed these Capitol steps and put 535 members of Congress-- and the transition of power for our country in danger. We know that they're planning events leading up to it. So, it was very important that we have a posture that discouraged people from coming, all people, but also discouraged these extremist groups from thinking they could come back.

Earlier plans called for 10,000 National Guard troops. Now 25,000 are being deployed—more troops in Washington than in wars overseas. Their gear includes shields for COVID and combat.

Many of the troops are being mustered in the corridors of the Capitol itself, as they were in 1861 during the Civil War.

Muriel Bowser: I was also very heartened to see the Joint Chiefs of Staff issue a statement that the United States Army would be there to support the mission of a smooth transition of power

Scott Pelley: It's a hell of a thing for the Pentagon to feel like it has to issue a statement that it is supporting the Constitution.

Muriel Bowser: It is. But it is necessary. And I'm glad that it happened. But we, as Americans, have to stop thinking-- that we can take for granted that every American has pledged his allegiance to the Constitution. What we saw in plain view, were too many Americans who have pledged allegiance to Donald Trump.

Scott Pelley: The military has taken the decision to give combat weapons to the National Guardsmen who will be providing security for the inauguration. Are you glad about that, or are you worried about it?

Muriel Bowser: It's a place in our history that I'm sad that we've come to. American troops should not have to be armed against their fellow Americans. But what we saw was an unprecedented attack on our democracy, in the cradle of that democracy.  

The Secret Service is in charge of what the government calls a national special security event — a designation for high-risk gatherings, for example the Super Bowl after 9/11 and political conventions. 

Ken Cuccinelli: The Secret Service leads it, but there are, available to them, 10,000 to 20,000 security personnel.

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  Ken Cuccinelli

Ken Cuccinelli is acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security which oversees the Secret Service. He told us inauguration security planning has been going on eight months. 

Scott Pelley: On social media, the terrorists seem to see the attack on the Capitol as a win. And I wonder if you're picking up intelligence that they're emboldened by that.

Ken Cuccinelli: There is a lot more online chatter, if you will, that has come up since January 6th. But I would point out that a lot of that chatter isn't capital-- nation's capital focused, it's more general across the country.  

Scott Pelley: Has the suspect who planted two pipe bombs during the attack on the Capitol been caught?

Ken Cuccinelli: As you and I sit here speaking, the answer to that is no.

Scott Pelley: So you have him to worry about.

Ken Cuccinelli: Of course. Yes.

Scott Pelley: Is TSA intercepting known suspects before they get on planes for Washington?

Ken Cuccinelli: If they identify an individual like you described, they will, first of all, keep that person from flying. And if there's a legal basis to do so, they will seize and hold that person for delivery to the FBI or local authorities.

The local authority in Washington is the Metropolitan Police. On January 6th, the MPD helped rescue the Capitol Police and break the siege.

Robert Contee: Everyone is working very hard to ensure that that never happens again.

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  Robert Contee

We met acting chief Robert Contee in his command center which, on Inauguration Day, will be filled with representatives of the FBI, Secret Service and Defense Department. While the world is focused on the podium at the Capitol, Contee will still have to cover his city of more than 700,000 people. 

Scott Pelley: Chief, what will the MPD have deployed on Inauguration Day?

Robert Contee: Every available resource. That's our entire department. Our total department will be activated. We'll have support of law enforcement officers from all across our country-- to the tune of about 2,500 that will be here to support us in this effort.

Scott Pelley: You've been with the MPD for 31 years. Is this the tightest security you've ever seen in Washington?

Robert Contee: The tightest security that I've ever seen, absolutely. 

But the tight security faces unprecedented chaos at the top.

Both the attorney general and director of homeland security recently resigned. The defense secretary was recently fired. Even Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli is a stand-in. He was never confirmed by the Senate.

Scott Pelley: DHS has had six secretaries in four years. Why should the American people have confidence in federal law enforcement when the leadership is not in place?

Ken Cuccinelli: Because the professionals we have in law enforcement in the federal government, in the Secret Service and across the Department of Homeland Security and beyond, DOJ and all the rest that we work with, are lifelong, career professionals. That's 99.9% of the people creating and executing the plans to ensure the safety of incoming President-elect Biden and none of them are going anywhere.

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National Guardsmen in the Capitol

But there's also the dilemma that the security is commanded by President Trump who encouraged the attack on the Capitol and has relentlessly worked to stop the inauguration of Joe Biden. 

Scott Pelley: Who does the National Guard answer to?

Ken Cuccinelli: They answer through DOD. They can have--

Scott Pelley: To the president?

Ken Cuccinelli: That's the chain of command. The whole executive--

Scott Pelley: If he orders them to stand--down--will they stand down?

Ken Cuccinelli: Well, you're gonna have to ask them, but that's unimaginable.

Scott Pelley: If the president orders DHS to stand down, will you stand down?

Ken Cuccinelli: We're gonna complete our jobs. There's not-- there's not a stand down. We have a statutory mission we're going to perform under all circumstances. And I think that hypothetical is-- not going to happen. It's unimaginable.

Scott Pelley: A lot of things are unimaginable in Washington these days. And we don't have a very good track record taking the president's word on things, so--

Ken Cuccinelli: In the Department of Homeland Security--

Scott Pelley: My-- my point is are you going to-- are you gonna follow--

Ken Cuccinelli: --you know, we're--

Scott Pelley: --the president or are you gonna follow the Constitution--

Ken Cuccinelli: We all swore an--

Scott Pelley: --in your role now?

Ken Cuccinelli: We all swore an oath to the Constitution. That is first and foremost. And we take Homeland Security very, very seriously. We deal with a lot of curveballs of all kinds. And yet, we march forward to keep the American people as safe as we possibly can. 

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Senator Chuck Schumer

Chuck Schumer: We must go forward. We must make it as safe as possible, but we must go forward. 

Much of what happens in Washington after Inauguration Day is in the hands of Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York who will be the new majority leader in the Senate. He's making plans for the trial of President Trump after last week's impeachment. 

Scott Pelley: Why put Donald Trump on trial when he'll be out of office anyway?

Chuck Schumer: What Donald Trump did is the most despicable action any president has ever taken. And he should be convicted at this trial. In addition, if we convict him, we can then, by only 51 votes, remove him from ever running for office again. I know we wanna heal. But when something this awful happens, to just push it off will not heal.

Scott Pelley: To convict him, you need a supermajority, which means 17 Republicans would have to vote to convict. It doesn't seem likely.

Chuck Schumer: I just believe that our Republican colleagues, when they look at this, will see how awful this was, what it means in history, and join us in convicting him.

Scott Pelley: How soon would you like the trial to begin? Do you feel that it's important to get part of President-elect Biden's agenda completed in the Senate first?

Chuck Schumer: Well, we have the trial of the president. That's mandated by law. Second, there's a very, very real need for President Biden to have in place key people in his cabinet, the people in charge of national security, the people in charge of domestic security, the people in charge of making sure everyone gets vaccinated as quickly as possible. And third, this country is in the greatest economic crisis since the Depression, the greatest health care crisis since the Spanish pandemic flu 100 years ago, and we must pass more relief for the American people. We must do all three and we have to do them all quickly. One cannot stand in the way of the other.

On Wednesday, President Trump will not be on the podium — the first president to snub his successor's inauguration in 152 years.

Also not attending will be the usual inauguration multitude on the National Mall. The two-mile-long park is closed. Invited guests, members of Congress, family and dignitaries will be socially distanced on the stage and in the few chairs on the Capitol grounds. Mayor Muriel Bowser is telling the general public not to come to her city. She's even asking the interior department to revoke permits it already issued to demonstrators. 

Muriel Bowser: For a couple of reasons. For the security of the event. And let's keep in mind what we just saw here one week ago. People storm these steps and put our democracy in danger. But we're also concerned about people traveling and gathering, celebrating in big groups because of COVID.

Scott Pelley: What is the best guarantee that you can make to the American people?

Muriel Bowser: I know for sure that the United States Secret Service that is responsible for the security of the president of the United States-- if they thought this couldn't be a secure event, they wouldn't let it happen.

But security comes at a cost to a ritual celebration. Constitution Avenue, the spine of federal Washington, is vacant for miles from the Lincoln Memorial to the White House, past the Washington Monument, and to the Capitol. The military cordon has the feel of some other country, one with a tenuous grasp on the rule of law. Halfway up the avenue, the Constitution itself has been locked out of sight in the National Archives to protect the parchment for future reference.

Produced by Nicole Young, Aaron Weisz and Pat Milton. Associate producers, Katie Kerbstat and Ian Flickinger. Edited by Warren Lustig.

  • Scott Pelley
    Scott Pelley

    Correspondent, "60 Minutes"