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Unpacking the DC National Guard Miller Memo

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Image shows an authentic January 4 2021 memo issued by Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, restricting deployment of the Washington, DC National Guard on January 5th and 6th 2021.

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A wave of reporting on an “explosive” PowerPoint document about the events of January 6 2021 renewed interest in a memo issued two days before by former Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller about deployment of the DC National Guard on January 5 and 6 2021.

On December 13 2021, an Imgur user shared an image of the Miller memo, in a post titled “DC National Guard was disarmed on Jan 4. This is why Christopher Miller was installed by [Trump] literally weeks before the failed coup”:

As for the titular claim that Miller was “installed” by former United States President Donald Trump shortly before the events of January 6 2021, a November 9 2020 Los Angeles Times article was among major news items about Miller’s sudden and concerning appointment. Its piece, headlined “Esper’s firing raises concerns about Trump’s plans for the Pentagon in final weeks” reported:

President Trump’s decision to fire Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Monday [November 9 2020] raised concerns that he may be planning far-reaching military moves in his final weeks in office — and is putting in place new leadership more inclined to go along.

Trump named Christopher Miller, director of the national counterterrorism center, to take over as acting Defense secretary, bypassing the normal practice of having the Pentagon’s No. 2 official take charge temporarily if the top job becomes vacant.

Trump announced the move on Twitter, saying Esper “has been terminated” and that Miller would assume control immediately.

That memo was not part of December 2021 reporting on the PowerPoint document, and its veracity was not in question. It was obtained and shared on Twitter by New York Times reporter Luke Broadwater on January 28 2021:

Dated January 4 2021 and titled “Memorandum for Secretary of the Army” and “Subject: Employment Guidance for the District of Columbia National Guard,” the document began by referencing a prior request for District of Columbia National Guard (DCNG) support on January 5 and 6 2021 (citing Executive Order 11485, “Supervision and control of the National Guard of the District of Columbia,” issued in 1969):

This memorandum responds to your January 4, 2021 memorandum regarding the District of Columbia request for District of Columbia National Guard (DCNG) support in response to planned demonstrations from January 5-6 2021. You are authorized to approve the requested support, subject to my guidance below and subject to consultation with the Attorney General, as required by Executive order 11485.

Immediately following “You are authorized to approve the requested support,” the memo outlined extensive limits on the aforementioned “approval”:

Without my subsequent, personal authorization, the DCNG is not authorized the following:

  • To be issued weapons, ammunition, bayonets, batons, or ballistic protection equipment such as helmets and body armor.
  • To interact physically with protestors, except when necessary in self-defense or defense of others, consistent with the DCNG Rules for the Use of Force.
  • To employ any riot control agents.
  • To share equipment with law enforcement agencies.
  • To use Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) assets or to conduct ISR or Incident, Awareness, and Assessment activities.
  • To employ helicopters or any other air assets.
  • To conduct searches, seizures, arrests, or other similar direct law enforcement activity.
  • To seek support from any non-DCNG National Guard units.

It concluded:

At all times, the DCNG will remain under the operational and administrative command and control of the Commanding General of the DCNG, who reports to the Secretary of the Defense through the Secretary of the Army.

You may employ the DCNG Quick Reaction Force (QRF) only as a last resort and in response to a request from an appropriate civil authority. If the QRF is so employed, DCNG personnel will be clearly marked and/or distinguished from civilian law enforcement personnel, and you will notify me immediately upon your authorization.

Commenters on the Imgur post (some claiming to be current or former members of the military) responded to purportedly clarify distinctions about when and how the National Guard is armed, with respect to the use of “disarmed … the National Guard” in the title. Broadly, commenters suggested that the National Guard is not typically issued weapons, saying that they were not disarmed but rather unarmed:

“National guard doesn’t have their people actively hold weapons or ammunition. It’s poor phrasing saying disarmed but they weren’t … Given access to weapons they would normally have had /end[.]”

“Most people think that military members always have a gun with them. They don’t. If the memo says “don’t issue” weapons, you’re disarmed.”

“Former Army here – unless in a warzone you don’t have weapons on you, they’re kept in the armory and have to be issued out to be used.”

“I read it as being the distinction between taking away arms and not issuing any arms in the first place.”

“Disarming is removing weapons, they were made to be unarmed instead.”

Much of the discourse and examination of Miller’s memo was either outdated or focused on its semantics, as opposed to its meaning and effects. As of December 2021, additional information — some supplied by Miller — contextualized the intent of the memo at the time it was issued on January 4 2021.

Miller’s Wikipedia page included a summary in a section titled “Coup concerns and U.S. Capitol attack”:

On January 3, 2021, all ten living former defense secretaries raised alarm in an open letter regarding a potential military coup to overturn the election results, warning officials who may participate, and specifically naming Miller, that they would face grave consequences if they violated the constitution.

According to Miller’s later statements, on January 3 [2021] he was ordered by Trump to “do whatever was necessary to protect the demonstrators” on January 6 [2021]. The following day, Miller issued orders which prohibited deploying D.C. Guard members with weapons, helmets, body armor or riot control agents without his personal approval. On January 5 [2021], Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy issued a memo placing limits on the District of Columbia National Guard. Maj. Gen. William J. Walker, the commanding general of the D.C. National Guard, later explained: “All military commanders normally have immediate response authority to protect property, life, and in my case, federal functions — federal property and life. But in this instance I did not have that authority.”

Miller’s actions on January 6 [2021] also faced scrutiny. After rioters breached the Capitol Police perimeter, Miller waited more than three hours before authorizing the deployment of the National Guard. Miller didn’t provide that permission until 4:32 pm, after assets from Virginia had already entered the District, and Trump had instructed rioters to “go home”.

On May 12 2021, Reuters published an article, “Trump wanted troops to protect his supporters at Jan. 6 rally.” That later reporting undermined claims Miller’s memo did not intend to hamper or disrupt DC National Guard response ahead of January 5-6 2021.

Reuters quoted and paraphrased Miller on the topic of the January 4 2021 memo:

President Donald Trump wanted National Guard troops in Washington to protect his supporters at a Jan. 6 [2021] rally that ended with them attacking the U.S. Capitol, leaving five dead, Trump’s former Pentagon chief testified on Wednesday [May 12 2021].

Former Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller told a House of Representatives panel that he spoke with Trump on Jan. 3 [2021], three days before the now-former president’s fiery speech that preceded the violence and led to his second impeachment.

According to Miller’s testimony, Trump asked during that meeting whether the District of Columbia’s mayor had requested National Guard troops for Jan. 6 [2021], the day Congress was to ratify Joe Biden’s presidential election victory.

Trump told Miller to “fill” the request, the former defense secretary testified. Miller said Trump told him: “Do whatever is necessary to protect demonstrators that were executing their constitutionally protected rights.”

Subsequently, the story reported:

Miller testified that the U.S. military was deliberately restrained that day …

Trump’s direction to Miller on January 3 2021 appeared in a transcript [PDF] of Miller’s May 2021 testimony:

Mr. DONALDS … A couple of questions. Mr. Miller, I know that you said earlier that you were in contact with—or you received a request from Mayor Bowser with respect to National Guard troops. When did you receive that request from Mayor Bowser?

Mr. MILLER. December 31, 2020. I spent the weekend going over it to finalize the plan with the D.C. National Guard and the Department of the Army and Army staff.

Mr. DONALDS. At what point did you and President Trump actually have a discussion on this request from Mayor Bowser?

Mr. MILLER. I had a meeting with President Trump on the 3d of January concerning some international threats, and at the very end, he asked if there were any requests for National Guard support, and I informed him of Mayor Bowser’s request.

Mr. DONALDS. Mr. Miller, to clarify that point, did you tell the President about the Mayor’s request, or did President Trump ask if there were requests?

Mr. MILLER. He asked if there were requests.

Mr. DONALDS. What was the President’s response to you with regard to the request made by Mayor Bowser?

Mr. MILLER. Fill it and do whatever was necessary to protect the demonstrators and that were executing their constitutionally protected rights.

In December 2021, it was difficult to apply the same lens of ambiguity that was applied to Miller’s memo when it was first leaked in late January 2021. Extensive reporting on the PowerPoint document (which was shared via Twitter by Fox News personality Lara Logan on January 5 2021) organized a more robust timeline of events leading up to January 6 2021.

A December 10 2021 Guardian article about the document’s contents reported on some of the strategies it outlined, all of which were aimed at disrupting the certification of the 2020 election. It further indicated that lawmakers and other involved individuals engaged in planning and preparation on January 3 and 4 2021 — around the time Miller’s memo was issued:

Senators and members of Congress should first be briefed about foreign interference, the PowerPoint said, at which point Trump could declare a national emergency, declare all electronic voting invalid, and ask Congress to agree on a constitutionally acceptable remedy.

The PowerPoint also outlined three options for then vice-president Mike Pence to abuse his largely ceremonial role at the joint session of Congress on 6 January [2021], when Biden was to be certified president, and unilaterally return Trump to the White House.

Pence could pursue one of three options, the PowerPoint said: seat Trump slates of electors over the objections of Democrats in key states, reject the Biden slates of electors, or delay the certification to allow for a “vetting” and counting of only “legal paper ballots”.

The final option for Pence is similar to an option that was simultaneously being advanced on 4 and 5 January [2021] by Trump lieutenants – led by lawyers Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman, as well as Trump strategist Steve Bannon – working from the Willard hotel in Washington DC.

The Guardian revealed [in early December 2021] that sometime between the late evening of 5 January and the early hours of 6 January [2021], after Pence declined to go ahead with such plans, Trump then pressed his lieutenants about how to stop Biden’s certification from taking place entirely.

The recommendations in the PowerPoint for both Trump and Pence were based on wild and unsubstantiated claims of election fraud, including that “the Chinese systematically gained control over our election system” in eight key battleground states … The PowerPoint was presented on 4 January [2021] to a number of Republican senators and members of Congress, the source said.

Additional context appeared in a transcript of Trump’s extensive remarks on January 6 2021 to the crowds assembled in Washington, DC ahead of the insurrection. Those remarks included:

We’re gathered together in the heart of our nation’s capital for one very, very basic and simple reason: To save our democracy.

[…]

You will have an illegitimate president. That’s what you’ll have. And we can’t let that happen.

[…]

The Republicans have to get tougher. You’re not going to have a Republican Party if you don’t get tougher. They want to play so straight. They want to play so, sir, yes, the United States. The Constitution doesn’t allow me to send them back to the States. Well, I say, yes it does, because the Constitution says you have to protect our country and you have to protect our Constitution, and you can’t vote on fraud. And fraud breaks up everything, doesn’t it? When you catch somebody in a fraud, you’re allowed to go by very different rules.

So I hope Mike [Pence] has the courage to do what he has to do. And I hope he doesn’t listen to the RINOs and the stupid people that he’s listening to.

[…]

But now, the caravans, I think Biden’s getting in, the caravans are forming again. They want to come in again and rip off our country. Can’t let it happen.

As this enormous crowd shows, we have truth and justice on our side. We have a deep and enduring love for America in our hearts. We love our country.

We have overwhelming pride in this great country and we have it deep in our souls. Together, we are determined to defend and preserve government of the people, by the people and for the people.

Our brightest days are before us. Our greatest achievements, still away.

I think one of our great achievements will be election security. Because nobody until I came along had any idea how corrupt our elections were.

And again, most people would stand there at 9 o’clock in the evening and say I want to thank you very much, and they go off to some other life. But I said something’s wrong here, something is really wrong, can have happened.

And we fight. We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.

Against the backdrop of reporting on a coup-related PowerPoint and its strategies in December 2021, an Imgur user shared an authentic memo issued by former Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller on January 4 2021. When the document initially emerged (and in December 2021 discourse about it), commenters discussed the idea that Miller did not seek to hamper the DCNG’s response. Among the many additional details reported in the intervening months between January and December 2021 was Miller’s testimony to Congress. In that testimony, Miller acknowledged following Trump’s directive that he do “whatever is necessary to protect demonstrators that were executing their constitutionally protected rights.” The memo was issued at the same time that lawmakers and others associated with the Trump administration openly sought any and all means to obstruct a peaceful transition of power — culminating in the deadly events of January 6 2021.