Next week's swearing-in of President-elect Joe Biden will see the biggest security presence of any inauguration in U.S. history. For days, thousands of National Guard troops have been pouring into the capital, and by Wednesday's ceremony, up to 25,000 troops will be in place to guard against security threats.
The nation's capital will look much different than it did in the days leading up to the attack on the U.S. Capitol building earlier this month. The area around the Capitol has been blocked off by barricades, and the National Mall is already closed to the public across its entire length — from the Capitol down to the Lincoln Memorial, 2 miles away.
"We cannot allow a recurrence of the chaos and illegal activity that the United States and the world witnessed last week," Matt Miller, head of the U.S. Secret Service's Washington field office, told reporters Friday.
Troops are pouring in from all over the country. "I'm sorry I have to ask you to leave your families and head down to our nation's capital because our country is so broken right now that we have to defend the Constitution," Maj. Gen. Gary Keefe reportedly told Massachusetts National Guard troops Saturday morning.
Those troops will join the thousands of camouflaged troops already in the capital, many carrying M4 rifles. And workers are installing miles worth of metal fencing to hold people back. "It looks like a military staging area because that's exactly what it is," NPR's Greg Myre told All Things Considered.
There's really no historical precedent for this level of National Guard activation. DCist reports that more than 13,000 Guard troops were called into the District after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 — the most to occupy a city since the Civil War. But that's only about half as many as are expected in the coming days.
To put things in perspective: Only 5,000 U.S. service members are currently stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In terms of security, the only thing comparable to Biden's inauguration is that of Abraham Lincoln in 1861, shortly before the Civil War broke out, says Heather Cox Richardson, a professor of history at Boston College. "He rode to the inauguration surrounded by soldiers and cavalry, soldiers were stationed around the streets, and sharpshooters were on the roofs," says Richardson, who writes a popular blog that puts American history in context.
"But Americans had never experienced an assassination before, and we did not yet have a Secret Service, so there was no real concept of keeping the public at a distance," Richardson tells NPR. "I guess the bottom line is that we are in uncharted waters."
National Guard troops will join the thousands of D.C. police and federal agents already in place, with security efforts of their own.
D.C. officials have warned would-be visitors to stay away and instead enjoy the inauguration virtually from their homes. It would be difficult for many to get into the city anyway, as four major bridges from Virginia will be closed from the day before until the day after the inauguration.
It will also be harder for known extremists to get to Washington by plane. The Transportation Security Administration says it's vetting hundreds of names passed along by law enforcement agencies. And it has beefed up security at all three D.C.-area airports, adding more bomb-sniffing dogs, more random gate screenings and more federal air marshals.
"Our intelligence and vetting professionals are working diligently around the clock to ensure those who may pose a threat to our aviation sector undergo enhanced screening or are prevented from boarding an aircraft," TSA Administrator David Pekoske said in a statement Friday.
“I’m sorry I have to ask you to leave your families & head down to our nation’s capital because our country is so broken right now that we have to defend the Constitution.”@AdjutantGenMA helped send off @MANationalGuard members this morning. Full story tonight on @boston25 pic.twitter.com/irtWv3Igec— Julianne Lima (@JulianneLimaTV) January 16, 2021
Despite the heightened danger, Biden will deliver his inaugural address just outside the Capitol, a tradition dating back nearly 200 years.
"We do think it's important to honor some of those grand traditions of the inaugural — most notably, that swearing-in on the west front of the Capitol," Tony Allen, head of the Biden-Harris Presidential Inaugural Committee, told NPR's Weekend Edition. That committee is working closely with the Secret Service to ensure a safe inauguration.
"I feel very strongly that this will be a very secure and safe event," Allen said. "We have taken every precaution."
Many of the activities leading up to the inaugural events are virtual, but that is largely because of the coronavirus that has killed nearly 400,000 Americans and completely reshaped life in the U.S. and the world. Other than heightened security, the events surrounding the inauguration are mostly unchanged.
"There hasn't been that much change because when we were planning the inauguration, we were planning it in a world of a pandemic," Stephanie Cutter, who is helping produce the inauguration, told All Things Considered.
"So there were no events with large crowds," Cutter said. "There was a scaled-down version of the swearing-in on the west front of the Capitol. And some of our events that are taking place have a very light footprint."
The Biden inauguration team has scheduled four days of events leading up to the day itself. Those include a virtual concert, a National Day of Service in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and a nationwide memorial to honor lives lost to COVID-19.
After his inaugural address, Biden will receive a presidential escort to the White House. Online chatter over the past weeks had included statements from supporters urging pro-Trump extremists to meet in D.C. and try to prevent Biden from entering the White House, but given the ubiquitous presence of troops and other security forces, such a move would prove challenging if not impossible.
And Facebook has temporarily blocked people from creating any new Facebook events near the White House or Capitol through Inauguration Day.