Days before the violent insurrection at the US Capitol, the then-US House Sergeant at Arms sent a memo to members of Congress banning tours of buildings on January 6, the day lawmakers gathered inside to certify Joe Biden’s victory, according to a copy of the memo obtained by CNN.
The lockdown was in response to alarm from some congressional members who were growing concerned about seeing large groups of pro-Trump supporters walking around the Capitol the week around the swearing in of the new Congress leading up to the January 6. It was a level of traffic that had not taken place since officials tightened access to the building in March of last year to limit spread from the coronavirus pandemic, multiple Democratic lawmakers and aides told CNN.
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Tours of the building in the days leading up to the violent insurrection of the Capitol have become a flashpoint in the fallout from last week’s riots, with some Democrats openly accusing some Republican members of aiding the President’s supporters in reconnaissance on the Capitol by providing tours.
No proof has been provided so far, but investigators are looking at the possibility that some members of Congress unwittingly provided tours in the days before the rally to people who later were part of the mob that stormed the Capitol, a US law enforcement official said.
No evidence so far has emerged to show complicity by members of Congress, but prosecutors are examining whether some people may have used tours to familiarize themselves with the Capitol building layout, the official said.
The ban on tours also stemmed from concerns about who Republicans might bring in that day, a senior Democratic aide told CNN.
Prior to the pandemic, the public had wide-ranging access to the Capitol complex, including the tunnels connecting the member office buildings to the Capitol itself. After, the Sergeant at Arms banned all tours of the Capitol Grounds at the start of the pandemic, but members of Congress were able to ignore the guidance. Lawmakers or staff led tours have never had to register visitors with Capitol Police, a law enforcement official with direct knowledge of overall protocols told CNN.
Capitol police don’t keep security logs either, two current US Capitol Police officers told CNN.
“Rules don’t apply to the members. Never have, never will,” one officer said.
“(Members) can just waive people through. If they do that, we’re advised to notify the Sergeant-at-Arms,” another officer said. “We can’t stop them.”
The January 4 letter obtained by CNN went further and banned all tours. In it then US House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving explicitly wrote, the Capitol and the Capitol Visitor Center “remain closed to all tours, including Member, staff-led and public tours” on January 6.”
CNN was only shown part of the letter because the remainder contained sensitive security information about lawmakers’ movements.
Irving stepped down last week after the riots. CNN has reached out to Irving, the acting House Sergeant at Arms, the US Capitol Police and former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund about why there was a need to ban tours on January 6, with no response.
Concerns about tours being reconnaissance
The existence of previously unknown tensions about member-led tours in the days leading up to January 6 help explain why soon after the violence at the Capitol some Democrats called for a review of who was brought on the tours.
Multiple Democratic aides have told CNN that tours had been given in the days leading up to the Capitol attacks, and even some members have confirmed that other lawmakers were involved in leading them.
Since the riot, Democratic Rep. Mikie Sherrill has accused her Republican colleagues of leading “reconnaissance” missions around the Capitol and has been joined by a chorus of 30 of her Democratic colleagues in a letter sent to the acting House and Senate Sergeant at Arms along with the acting chief of the Capitol Police.
Sherrill told reporters on Capitol Hill on Wednesday that she turned over her findings to “certain agencies.” She, nor any of those who signed the letter, have named any specific members.
Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, who is leading the investigation into Capitol Police’s handling of the attack, said Wednesday that he has heard of members who showed rioters around the Capitol on January 5, but wanted to wait for verification before naming any names.
“I’ve heard a couple, but I’m going to wait to make sure we get verification. I don’t want to throw any member under the bus,” Ryan said. “Now you look back on certain things and you look at them differently so, yeah, we’re looking into it.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday said accusations from her fellow Democrats will be investigated.
“If in fact it is found that members of Congress were accomplices to this insurrection, if they aided and abetted the crime, then there have to be actions taken beyond the Congress in terms of prosecution for that,” Pelosi said.
A senior Republican aide pushed back on the accusations that GOP members were specifically responsible for the new guidance from the Sergeant at Arms.
“Capitol tour guidance issued to members and staff has been consistent throughout the year because of the pandemic, and members of both parties were sworn in last week with family in town to experience the event,” the aide told CNN. “It’s unfortunate that Democrats are intentionally ignoring those facts and are not using this time for bipartisan fact-finding.”
However, some Republicans are raising concerns about the activity of their colleagues leading up to the riots.
In an interview with CBS on Thursday, GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger, one of the 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach Trump, said it was “certainly possible” that his GOP colleagues gave reconnaissance tours.
“I think it’s certainly possible” Kinzinger said. “I don’t know, but I think it was possible that you know, people were showed around. I hope not.” Kinzinger added that if the claims of reconnaissance missions were verified “there should be criminal charges and certainly be expelled from the House of Representatives.”
Growing alarm about ‘Stop the Steal’
A senior Democratic aide told CNN the request to ban tours was the result of Republican lawmakers wanting to bring members of the “Stop the Steal” movement into the building. Thousands of members of the group were scheduled to gather outside that day.
The aide said that there was widespread concern about the member-led tours infringing on security, and said the issue was raised with the House Sergeant at Arms, Capitol Police and House administration.
“In the three days leading up to the 6th, there was ongoing communication, both at the member and the staff level with relevant entities” the Democratic aide said, adding that “there was a very specific concern around building access.”
Democratic Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon told CNN that she saw groups of six to eight people in MAGA apparel on tours one or two days before the attack.
“I had seen what appeared to be tour groups of folks dressed in MAGA attire, in the halls, in the tunnels” Scanlon told CNN.
“I can verify that it happened. There were people who were roaming around in the halls, apparently under the guidance of congressional staff,” the Pennsylvania Democrat told CNN. “We haven’t seen tour groups in the Capitol or in the tunnels for months, and so that’s why it was noticeable.”
A Democratic lawmaker told CNN it was particularly alarming at the time to learn participants on these tours did not have to pass through security or be screened by Capitol Police before entering the Capitol.
A second Democratic lawmaker described seeing a group walking through the Longworth tunnel the day before the attack wearing MAGA hats and no masks.
This member recounted asking a Capitol Police officer why they were there, because they were not supposed to be there. The officer responded that there was nothing to be done since the group was brought in by a lawmaker. The member was specifically concerned about the group not wearing masks and asked them to put their masks on to no avail.
Looking back, the lawmaker wondered if focusing on Covid-19 exposure was wrong and should have instead raised the larger question of whether these tours were preparation for the upcoming attack.
On the morning of January 6, a Democratic lawmaker shared that members of Congress had to use a badge to enter the building with even a spouse having to show ID. Even though this was the mandate, the source did not know if every building complied with the new guidance of strict identification practices.
CNN’s Ryan Nobles, Peter Nickeas and Mark Morales contributed to this report.