U.S. paid ‘horrible price’ for failing to halt Capitol siege, former defence secretary says

A former U.S. defence secretary says he’s “shocked” that Wednesday’s siege of Capitol Hill wasn’t met with a stronger security presence and worried about what that could mean for president-elect Joe Biden’s impending inauguration.

“Everybody knew that this was a real possibility. This wasn’t something [where] you had to rely on some kind of classified intelligence. All you had to do was read the paper and watch television and know that these groups were going to be gathering in Washington,” Leon Panetta said in an interview on Rosemary Barton Live airing Sunday.

Panetta — a former Democratic Congressman who also served as defence secretary to former president Barack Obama, chief of staff to former president Bill Clinton and director of the CIA — called this week’s attack by a pro-Trump mob “tragic.”

“We paid a horrible price for that. It really is probably the worst crisis we have had with regard to our democracy … since the Civil War,” Panetta told CBC Chief Political Correspondent Rosemary Barton. “To have that happen has told us how fragile our democracy is.”

President Donald Trump has been accused of inciting the mob responsible for storming the U.S. Capitol, where lawmakers had gathered on Wednesday to certify Biden’s victory in the Nov. 3 presidential election. The rioters outnumbered members of the Capitol Police responding to the breach, leading to the death of one officer and the hospitalization of others. A female protester was also shot and killed by police during the riot.

Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump are confronted by Capitol Police officers near the Senate chamber inside the Capitol building in Washington on Wednesday. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/The Associated Press)

The violence has led to concern over what might happen when Biden is sworn in as president on Jan. 20 — an event Trump has made clear he will not attend.

“It raises questions about whether or not the security that’s established for the inauguration itself will indeed be sufficient to protect against these kinds of activities,” Panetta said. “I’m concerned about whether or not we’ll have proper security in place so that what we saw on Wednesday will never happen again.”

Panetta said this week’s events could embolden extremist groups to carry out other attacks.

“It is very important for the authorities in this country to be able to make certain that extreme groups that are out there will not try something similar either on Inauguration Day or at another moment in our time,” he warned.

Pivotal moment for U.S. leadership

The former defence secretary said that while it falls to law enforcement to prevent future riots, there is “no question” that Trump set off Wednesday’s siege.

“The president has challenged not only our laws, but challenged our Constitution. We saw it happen the other day, when he stood up before that crowd and told them that he would lead that march up to the Capitol,” Panetta said.

Trump speaks at a rally that preceded throngs of his followers descending on the Capitol building in Washington on Wednesday. (Jacquelyn Martin/The Associated Press)

Hours before the violence began, Trump spoke at a rally near the White House urging supporters to head to the Capitol to protest the electoral college vote count.

It’s for those reasons, Panetta explained, that the outgoing president should resign and allow Vice-President Mike Pence to steer the final days of the Trump administration before Biden takes office.

“This is going to be a moment where the leadership of our country is truly going to be challenged as to whether or not we can heal what’s happened over these last four years and restore a belief in the strength of our democracy,” he said.

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