Uproar in US after troops deployed for inauguration forced to sleep in car park.

US president Joe Biden has expressed his dismay after troops deployed to protect his inauguration were ordered a day earlier to rest in an unheated car park after being booted from the Capitol, administration officials said.

Photographs of dozens of guard members resting in parking spaces created a public relations debacle in the first days of Mr Biden’s term, with some governors demanding that troops from their states be sent home. In a telephone call with Daniel R Hokanson, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, Mr Biden asked what he could do about the situation, the officials said. The two men also talked about Mr Biden’s personal connection to the guard; Mr Biden’s son, Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015, served as a major in the Delaware Army National Guard.

A photo provided to The New York Times shows National Guard soldiers resting in the parking garage of the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building in Washington on Thursday. Photograph: New York Times

A photo provided to The New York Times shows National Guard soldiers resting in the parking garage of the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building in Washington on Thursday. Photograph: New York Times

Officials said that the White House might also arrange a call with state officials to thank them for their state’s contributions to the deployment of more than 25,000 National Guard personnel to the nation’s capital to provide security ahead of and during the inauguration on Wednesday.

Early Friday morning, the DC National Guard said that the soldiers had been moved back to the Capitol from the parking garage. Guard officials said that the troops had been temporarily moved out of the Capitol on Thursday afternoon at the request of Capitol police because of increased foot traffic as Congress came back into session.

But photographs of the troops resting on the floor of the parking garage, paired with reports that they had access to scant toilet facilities and were breathing in car exhaust fumes, prompted a public uproar. The scene contrasted sharply with photographs taken of guard soldiers sleeping on the floor or on cots inside the Capitol immediately before Mr Biden’s inauguration, which led to an outpouring of support for the soldiers. The number of guard soldiers mobilised to provide security for the inauguration rose sharply following the January 6th attack on the Capitol, reaching 15,000 by January 12th and ultimately surpassing 20,000 by January 20th. A spokesman for the National Guard Bureau said on Thursday that the DC Guard was responsible for their lodging.

Members of the National Guard rest in the Capitol Visitor Center on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Friday after hundreds of troops were allowed to return there to rest after being forced by Capitol police to rest in a parking garage on Thursday. Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA

Members of the National Guard rest in the Capitol Visitor Center on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Friday after hundreds of troops were allowed to return there to rest after being forced by Capitol police to rest in a parking garage on Thursday. Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA

A joint statement from the National Guard Bureau and the Capitol police released Friday afternoon did not explain why soldiers were sent to a parking garage but suggested it would not happen again. The statement from Major Matthew Murphy, a National Guard spokesman, said both organisations were co-ordinating their efforts to ensure guard members stationed at the Capitol were being provided “appropriate spaces within congressional buildings” for “on-duty breaks.”

“Off-duty troops are being housed in hotel rooms or other comfortable accommodations,” Major Murphy said. About 19,000 of the troops deployed to Washington have started packing up and returning to their home states, a process that will take about five to 10 days, officials said. The remaining troops – about 7,000 of them – are expected to stay in Washington at least through the end of January to provide support to federal agencies and guard against the possibility of another riot at the Capitol. As the images from the parking garage spread on social media Thursday afternoon, lawmakers in both parties were quick to condemn the situation and pledged to get the soldiers back in to the Capitol. Some offered to let guard soldiers take breaks in their private Senate and House offices.

With the troops safely returned to the Capitol premises by Friday morning, multiple lawmakers – including senators Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the top Republican – made a point of meeting with soldiers on Friday.

Ahead of a meeting with National Guard troops from Kentucky, Mr McConnell called for finding “the right middle ground between the unacceptable lapses three weeks ago and the extraordinary short-term measures that have been in place since. And in the meantime, we need to make darn sure that we look after the men and women who look after us.”

Just after 2pm local time Friday, the first lady, Jill Biden, visited guard soldiers at the Capitol and gave them a basket of chocolate chip cookies. Dr Biden thanked them for protecting her family, which she said was a National Guard family. “The National Guard will always hold a special place in the hearts of all the Bidens,” said Dr Biden, who took a group photograph with some of the soldiers before returning to the White House.

Meanwhile, between 150 and 200 National Guard deployed to Washington DC for the inauguration have tested positive for the coronavirus, a US official said on Friday. The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the number of National Guard troops who tested positive could rise but was still a small fraction of the more than 25,000 troops deployed in city over the past few days. – New York Times and Reuters

The Irish Times

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