Security surrounding the inauguration of Donald Trump is proving to be the most challenging in recent history, according to senior officials involved in its planning, largely because of the same forces of political rancor that shaped the race for the presidency.
On top of the daunting threats to any inaugural ceremony, the three dozen agencies responsible for security at the Jan. 20 festivities are preparing for the possibility of large numbers of protesters flooding the capital, along with what may be nearly 1 million supporters of Trump.
The agencies are worried about the possibility of confrontations between groups of Americans still deeply divided over the election – and at a moment when millions of people around the world will be turning their attention to Washington. At the very least, officials said, protests would put additional pressure on the region’s already-stretched security apparatus.
“To paraphrase Tolstoy: Each inauguration is risky, but each is risky in its own way,” said Michael Chertoff, who was secretary of homeland security under President George W. Bush and oversaw the department for President Barack Obama’s first inauguration, in 2009.
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“I can’t think of an inauguration that presented more security challenges than this one,” Chertoff said.
There were, of course, heightened concerns for the second inauguration of Bush, in 2005, the first presidential swearing-in to follow the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And in 2009, Obama’s inauguration was the first transfer of power in the post-9/11 era – and the first in which an African-American was taking the oath of office. Obama faced a rash of racist threats, as well as concerns about a terrorist plot that ultimately proved unfounded but sent the president-elect and top aides scrambling on the eve of his swearing-in.
Even so, Obama did not face the kind of large protests expected to greet Trump when he officially arrives in Washington. The 2009 crowd of nearly 2 million people, a record, included few, if any, protesters and did not lead to a single arrest, according to Christopher T. Geldart, the director of homeland security for the District of Columbia.
The National Park Service, which controls much of the public land in Washington, from sidewalks to the Mall, has already seen permit requests from groups hoping to host events both for and against Trump skyrocket to 23; in typical inauguration years it gets just a handful of requests.
Safeguarding the nation’s peaceful transfer of power is no easy task even under the most predictable of circumstances. There are few higher-profile rituals in American public life than the swearing-in of a new president.
From Washington’s metropolitan police to the National Park Service to the FBI, a vast overlapping patchwork of intelligence analysts, military personnel and law enforcement officers numbering in the tens of thousands will be working to protect the inauguration and related activities.
In total, more than three dozen different agencies spread out across the capital will be working to prevent the occasion from becoming a platform for individuals or groups looking to do harm. Their work, begun months ago, has taken on a new urgency since Election Day and will soon include the imposition of a security perimeter around the Capitol, the Mall and large parts of the city.
The costs of security alone are expected to exceed $100 million.
Protecting the new president, the thousands of dignitaries who will be on hand and the crowds is the top priority of federal intelligence, law enforcement and military agencies, as it has been at inaugurations since the Sept. 11 attacks. Threats, from foreign actors and from homegrown extremists alike, remain a chief concern, current and former officials said.
“What the intelligence community says publicly is what they say privately, and that is more threats from more directions than ever before,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who is chairman of the congressional committee planning the inaugural ceremony. “And that just means the Capitol Police and the security elements need to be more thoughtful and alert than ever to what could happen.”
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But this time, security forces – particularly law enforcement officers who will be on the ground here – are also preparing to confront crowds of Americans who are unusually divided and anxious over the election results. The priority, officials said, is to avoid the kind of violent clashes that periodically flared up on the campaign trail between Trump’s supporters and those who opposed him, while allowing groups on both sides to carry on with events.
“Everybody knows how contentious the campaign was,” said Geldart, the District of Columbia homeland security director. “Honestly, what really keeps me up at night around this is the ability for us to just allow folks to come in, express their views, and leave safely.”
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Mike Litterst, a spokesman for the Park Service, said the agency was “actively reviewing” permit requests, with a goal of trying to accommodate as many events as possible. Groups that are granted permits will be spaced out to try to prevent mixing, Geldart said. The largest of those events, the so-called Women’s March on Washington, was granted a permit for some 200,000 people to rally and then march in protest against Trump on Jan. 21, the day after the inauguration.
Boris Epshteyn, communications director for Trump’s inaugural planning committee, said the group welcomed the “free exercise” of First Amendment rights “as long as it is done peacefully and within all applicable laws, rules, and regulations.”
Just how many of Trump’s supporters will attend remains unclear. The planning committee said it was expecting between 2 and 3 million people. Such a crowd would be a record, though Geldart said his team had yet to see evidence that would cause it to revise its own estimates of 800,000 to 900,000 people.
The security effort will require virtually the full strength of the region’s law enforcement agencies, as well as significant reinforcements. More than 3,200 police officers from departments across the country and about 8,000 members of the National Guard will be on hand to help with basic crowd and traffic control around the city. Another 5,000 active duty service members will be on hand to serve in ceremonial capacities.
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Geldart said those forces would allow local agencies better versed in crowd management tactics to monitor the protesters and pro-Trump groups, in person and with the help of social media.
The security planning covers not just Inauguration Day itself but also a week of public and private events planned to celebrate Trump’s victory, beginning with a welcome concert on the National Mall on Jan. 19.
Thomas Barrack Jr., a longtime friend of Trump’s who is leading the inaugural planning committee, said each of those events had been carefully negotiated with the Secret Service and its partners.
Trump’s personal security was made somewhat simpler when he decided he would stay at Blair House, as his modern predecessors have, rather than at his new hotel in Washington, as was once under consideration.
“It’s their party and we’re there to develop the operation security plan to make their party safe,” said James Murray, the deputy assistant director of the Secret Service’s office of protective operations, which has overall responsibility for inaugural security. “But by all means it’s certainly a back-and-forth kind of thing.”