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Ex-Homeland Security Secretary Johnson On Security Breaches At U.S. Capitol

NOEL KING, HOST:

Five people are dead after this week's attack on the U.S. Capitol, including, we learned overnight, a Capitol Police officer. President Trump's supporters talked openly for weeks about a plan to prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden's victory. So why did security at the Capitol seem relatively lax? Johnson served as secretary of homeland security from 2013 to 2017. He's with us now. Good morning, sir.

JEH JOHNSON: Good morning, Noel. Thanks for having me.

KING: Of course. This is a notably well-documented event. Journalists were there. The people rioting took lots of video and selfies. What did you see go wrong?

JOHNSON: Well, where do we begin? I have to say the images are - will be burned into my memory for the rest of my life. The two most shocking images were a hangman's noose on the western front of the Capitol - a hangman's noose - and the Confederate flag flying on the U.S. Capitol. We fought an entire civil war to prevent exactly that. On the security aspect of this, this could have been prevented. It should have been prevented. We know how to secure the perimeter of the U.S. Capitol grounds. Four years ago, I had overall responsibility for the security of President Trump's inauguration. We typically secure the U.S. Capitol grounds during a State of the Union address by the president of the United States. We know how to secure the perimeter around the United Nations during a session of the U.N. General Assembly with world leaders converging in Manhattan.

It is a combination of U.S. Capitol Police, Secret Service, D.C. Metro Police, TSA, the Coast Guard, Homeland Security investigations. If you properly anticipate the level of security that will be required for an event at the U.S. Capitol - clearly, those in charge of security on Wednesday did not anticipate the level of security that would be needed to safeguard Congress and the vice president in that circumstance. That was the failure.

KING: But why do you think they did not? I mean, the president had made a speech, an incitement speech saying, head on down. Shouldn't at that moment someone have sprung into action and said, we need more people here?

JOHNSON: Well, I cannot provide for you an explanation...

KING: Sure, sure.

JOHNSON: ...Of the thinking of those in charge. And it does seem clear to me that this could have been prevented if properly anticipated. You can secure the grounds of the U.S. Capitol if you know what to expect and anticipate.

KING: Do you think the lack of preparedness could possibly have been the result of something that is true, which is this was a historic event. Nothing like this has ever happened at the U.S. Capitol. And so perhaps the assumption was nothing like this ever could. Don't those in positions of authority sometimes make mistakes like that?

JOHNSON: I don't believe that is an acceptable justification.

KING: OK.

JOHNSON: I used to tell my people in Homeland Security, anticipate the next crisis. Don't plan for the last crisis. This was an unprecedented event. Not since the War of 1812 have we seen rioters rush to the Capitol like this. We are living in unprecedented times, where you have a sitting president of the United States essentially light the match for what was clearly an act of insurrection. And in those circumstances, security personnel at the U.S. Capitol should have anticipated that thousands of people would rush the Capitol in this way.

KING: If you were still secretary of Homeland Security, could you tell us who would take the blame for this? Who would bear responsibility?

JOHNSON: Noel, I have to say I'm less interested in the blame game. I'm more interested in understanding the thinking of those who were responsible for this and what we're going to do for the next 12 days through the date of President-elect Biden's inauguration to make sure that nothing like this can happen again.

KING: Let's talk about that. Let's talk about the next 12 days. Some lawmakers say they want to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove the president from office. They say the country is simply not safe with him as president. What do you think about that?

JOHNSON: I have a few thoughts on that. Well, first, the 25th Amendment requires an act by the cabinet and the vice president. If the president disagrees with being removed, then it's over to the Congress. And that requires, as I read Section 4 of the 25th Amendment, a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress. I know that many in the House are talking about impeachment. That, of course, would then require a two-thirds vote in the Senate to convict. No doubt that would be time consuming, and it would require a number of Republicans to vote to convict. The House is going to do what the House is going to do.

I think that in the meantime, whoever is still around in the White House who has the ability to influence the personal behavior of President Trump should be telling him to just basically leave town. Get on Air Force One. Go to Mar-a-Lago long ago. And stay there for the indefinite future. Empower your chief of staff, empower the vice president to do whatever is necessary to keep the government functioning for the next 12 days. But, basically, just leave, encourage him to just leave. Going through the exercise of impeachment would itself be a very, very partisan act and would perhaps create an environment in which the incoming president, President-elect Biden, would have a harder time trying to bring the country together. I think that has to be a consideration for the next 12 days. And it may be the reason why President-elect Biden himself has hesitated calling for that.

KING: In the last minute that we have, inauguration is less than two weeks away. The same groups that took part in this week's insurrection are talking about messing with security around the inauguration. What should authorities be prepared for? How should they be prepared?

JOHNSON: Well, this inauguration is going to have to be unique because of COVID and because of the threat environment. It's going to have to be unique. We do know how to secure the perimeter of the U.S. Capitol grounds. They've already erected the barricades yesterday. So you can have an inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in this threat environment that I believe provides adequate security.

KING: Former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. Sir, thank you for your time this morning.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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