Inside Interior during the January 6 attacks

On the morning of January 6, 2021, a senior Trump administration official at the Department of the Interior sent an email urging his colleagues to tune in to the Electoral College vote count at the United States Capitol.

“Maybe I’m a complete political nerd…but it’ll be worth watching,” wrote Cole Rojewski, director of the Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs of the Interior.

Rojewski circulated details on how to watch the proceedings, which were scheduled to start at 1 p.m., about 2 miles from Interior headquarters in Washington.

This email was posted in response to a Freedom of Information Act request for communications from Interior Chief of Staff Todd Willens on the day protesters supporting former President Donald Trump violated the Capitol. That day, lawmakers had gathered to certify President Joe Biden’s victory over Trump.

The excitement of the congressional debates earlier in the day was followed by security updates as protesters thronged the Capitol and shots were fired, the emails show. That evening, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt was drafting a statement condemning the violence at the Capitol, and department employees in the area were encouraged to work remotely the next day.

The “day was scheduled like any normal day before that,” Willens told E&E News today in an email.

The domestic policy appointees had received instructions the day before on how to submit their resignation letters and begin their exit process as they prepare to leave the Trump administration later that month.

Resignation letters began pouring into Willens’ inbox. Doug Domenech, Assistant Secretary for Insular and International Affairs, wrote this afternoon: “As instructed, I am submitting my resignation pending the final outcome of voter certification. William Perry Pendley, deputy director of policy and programs for the Bureau of Land Management, sent in a draft of his resignation letter.

Much of the Interior staff was still working remotely that day, Willens said, although political and career executives visited their offices regularly for about nine months before Jan. 6.

Interior officials received a coronavirus pandemic update that morning that detailed confirmed cases and deaths within the department, emails show. By then, 20 interior workers had died of Covid-19, including two Bureau of Indian Affairs workers who had died the previous day.

Then-Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt speaking September 17, 2020, during a dedication ceremony for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

On the afternoon of January 6, Interior officials received security updates that protesters had broken into the Capitol.

“United States Capitol Police have issued a shelter-in-place order for the United States Capitol in response to a complex access violation,” says an email to Bernhardt and other officials from the Interior Office of Emergency Management agency. “There are currently no threats or impacts to the main interior building,” the 3:44 p.m. email said.

Another one E-mail at 3:44 p.m., Bernhardt’s director of planning said, “I understand that the Secretary of Defense needs to speak to Secretary Bernhardt. Secretary Bernhardt is inside the building and can make a secure call in the [secure facility].” A follow-up email from Willens at 4:55 p.m. said Bernhardt planned to take the 5:00 p.m. call from his office.

It is not clear from the emails who participated in the call or if it took place. Willens said today the call ‘appears from the record to have been in place prior to January 6th and has been moved several times due to scheduling issues’. He added, “It was not unusual for the Secretary or myself to be in communication with the DOD on political or other matters. The same as for the other administrative services.

An email update just after 5 p.m., sent to Interior officials, he described how protesters “forced their way into the United States Capitol” and law enforcement “reported that shots had been fired drawn in the chamber of the House of Representatives”. The Washington Monument was closed “for safety reasons,” the email said, adding that there were “no reported impacts to DOI personnel, facilities, or lands.”

Willens and Nick Goodwin, the director of domestic communications, decided not to answer a question from E&E News that day about whether Bernhardt would consider invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office after the president urged protesters to march to the Capitol before the attack. .

“We won’t answer that one” willens wrote.

That night, Bernhardt sent a draft statement on the Capitol attack to Willens and Goodwin, the emails show.

“I and the American people appreciate the efforts of the formidable United States Park Police to meet the needs of the United States Capitol Police, while continuing to protect our national parks and monuments,” Bernhardt wrote. “Anarchy cannot be tolerated. He will be treated with speed and severity.

Goodwin replied, “On further thought, you should issue a statement.” He offered suggested changes.

Shortly after the email exchange, at 7:23 p.m., Bernhardt tweeted the amended statement.

“Today’s violence and lawlessness in the United States Capitol cannot and will not be tolerated,” he wrote. “Our brave men and women of the United States Park Police have responded diligently to assist the United States Capitol Police, while continuing to protect our national parks, memorials and monuments. Thank you to law enforcement for your service and unwavering commitment to ensuring peace,” he added.

Bernhardt said in an email today: “The statement reflects my deep appreciation for the actions the United States Park Police took on January 6 to meet the needs of the United States Capitol Police to to help protect members of Congress and Capitol grounds, while protecting our parks and monuments.”

He added, “Their response to the anarchic events of January 6 has earned the appreciation of all Americans. This is especially the case because throughout the summer of 2020, the United States Park Police have been the subject of unfair and inaccurate criticism from various members of Congress, and despite this criticism without hesitation, they responded to help shield those same critics.

Park Police came under scrutiny that summer for tactics they used to disperse protesters outside the White House before Trump walked through Lafayette Square to pose for photos outside the church. Historic Episcopal Church of St. John’s (Daily O&MJune 3, 2020).

On the evening of January 6, Willens sent a message to National Capital Region Interior employees urging them to “telecommute as much as possible” the next day.

He wrote: “Thank you for continuing to perform your duties exceptionally well and keeping the Department’s many missions on track in light of all current events.”

Betty K. Park