What a National Guard Commander Saw on January 6

William J. Walker led the D.C. National Guard during the Capitol attack, but for hours that day, he felt helpless.

William J. Walker testifying in Congress.
Greg Nash / AFP / Getty

Nearly a year after Donald Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, Americans have a much better picture of how the attack transpired. Less clear is why measures to secure the building, and the hundreds of lawmakers inside, failed. The patchwork response is even more confounding when compared with how law-enforcement agencies and the National Guard were used during protests against police brutality in the summer of 2020.

Major General William J. Walker commanded the D.C. National Guard during both events. He watched as crowds swelled at the Capitol complex on January 6, and fearing the worst, he prepared his troops to restore order. When rioters burst through barricades surrounding the Capitol around 1 p.m. that day, Walker was seeing the mayhem on TV from a mile and a half away, waiting for his phone to ring so he could relay orders down the chain.

The call came at 1:49—the chief of the U.S. Capitol Police was suddenly requesting that every available guardsman join the fight. “If we didn’t get there immediately, he was in fear that the Capitol would be breached,” Walker says. But before Walker could dispatch guardsmen, he needed approval from the secretary of defense. He’s said that some of his authority was wrested away before the attack. So he followed protocol, and he waited. Three hours passed.

“My soldiers were asking me, my airmen were asking me, ‘Sir, what the hell is going on?’ … And I had no answer,” he says.

Walker left his position at the National Guard in April. He is now the first Black sergeant-at-arms for the House of Representatives—the person in charge of protecting Congress from future attacks. He recently spoke with Tracie Hunte and Peter Bresnan from The Experiment, a podcast from The Atlantic and WNYC Studios, about his career, how he watched January 6 unfold, and why he felt he was limited in acting.

Listen to an interview with William J. Walker, sergeant-at-arms of the U.S. House of Representatives, on The Experiment.

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Here’s a sample of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Tracie Hunte: Do you know what was behind the wait?

William J. Walker: No, I don’t know. Here’s what I was told: that the secretary of the Army was trying to reach the secretary of defense. That’s what I was told: that the senior leadership was trying to develop a plan for the National Guard to respond. And one of my colonels, he established a contact with the leadership of the Capitol Police and the Metropolitan Police Department. And they kept asking him, “Where’s everybody; where are the troops?” And he’s calling me. And I said that we don’t have approval yet, we don’t have permission yet but hold where you are. I’m sure it’s coming. My soldiers were asking me, my airmen were asking me, “Sir, what the hell is going on? Are they watching the news? Are they watching what’s going on at the Capitol?” And I had no answer. I don’t recall ever being in that position, where I did not have an answer for my soldiers and airmen, my guardsmen.

It’s like a fire. The longer you wait, the fire spreads and it gets more intense.

Peter Bresnan: What did it feel like to see on TV what was happening at the Capitol as people were breaking through the windows?

Walker: To watch crime in progress. That’s what it was like, to watch criminals. And so that’s—to witness that, that was troubling. It’s troubling.

Hunte: And to be on the outside of it, not being in a position at that moment to help?

Walker: Yeah, you clearly saw policemen being battered and could’ve been killed. So that was troubling, deeply troubling, as a career law-enforcement officer, retired law-enforcement officer, but 31 years of carrying handcuffs, a gun, and a badge—I felt for them. I felt deeply for them. And it was hard to watch.

Hunte: Up until that point, had you felt like the senior leadership was supporting you?

Walker: They were saying that they were supporting me. They were saying the right thing. So, so, you know, 39 years in the Army National Guard—I trust the Army. I trust everything about it. The Army has Army regulations. I studied them. I knew them. I believe in the Army. When the Army says we need to do something, I don’t question it. So I was thinking, All right, there must be a reason why somebody is not saying yet, ‘Go do it, go support.’

Hunte: That must have been so frustrating that day.

Walker: I have never been that frustrated during my military career.

Hunte: I can’t help but see that you had a situation where the National Guard was readily deployed. You guys were put into place during protests where, quite frankly, it was about Black people and police killing Black—these were, those were the concerns. And then you have this situation on January 6 where it was almost 100 percent white people, and there was a hesitancy to call you all. Did you make that connection? Have you thought about that connection, or …?

Walker: Well, I’m African American, I’m a Black person. George Floyd could have been my brother, my son, my uncle, my father. George Floyd could be me. So it wasn’t lost on me. And then not just George Floyd—Sandra Bland and so many others. It’s not lost on me. So it’s inescapable to see the difference in the response in the summer and the response on January 6.

Hunte: Was that also on your mind on January 6?

Walker: It could not not be on my mind. And I’ll tell you something, ma’am: It was on the mind of everybody. Not just Black airmen and Black soldiers. It was on every guardsman. The difference was undeniable.

Hunte: What do you think that people don’t understand about January 6?

Walker: Oh, I think they understand. I think it’s just willful blindness. It’s willful. They’re deceiving themselves. Anybody who says that there was not a riot here, anybody who could watch the video of what occurred here and walk away from that saying that it was not what it was, then they’re—they’re self-deceived. I mean, I was here. They’re either being deceived or they’re deceiving themselves. Or maybe both.

Hunte: I guess I’m not convinced that it’s so innocent as just denial. I think it’s lying.

Walker: Well, and I don’t disagree with you, but denial sometimes is a reflex, you know? It’s something that This can’t be happening. I can’t be here. This couldn’t have occurred. That type of denial, which I call self-deception.

Hunte: You’re somebody who’s very methodical. You believe in the chain of command; you believe in these rules. And that was a day when the rules weren’t working—

Walker: Well, the rules work, because as bad as I wanted to show up here with every available guardsman, I didn’t.

Hunte: Right. I guess the rule as far as—

Walker: And I need you to know, I really wanted to come. I came very close to just doing something I had—which would just be so outrageous to me—and that was to come anyway. And I had my Army lawyer, my command sergeant major, and others say, “Sir, you—there’s no way you can just tell us to go. Now we will go if you tell us, but you just can’t do that.” So yeah, the rules do work. As bad as I wanted to come, I didn’t.

Hunte: I guess a rule I’m thinking of is: You need to be backed up. Like, it shouldn’t have taken three hours for this person to call this person to get a sheet of paper that said that you can go, you know? I feel like there was definitely a letdown there.

Walker: Yeah. So I felt let down, but more than that I feel like the United States Capitol Police, the Metropolitan Police, and everybody that was out here felt let down. It was a day of disappointment that this could happen in America. You know, as a DEA agent I traveled quite a bit to developing countries. And I guess in my mind, this can never happen here. And it did. It was just disappointing.