Biden apologises after some National Guard troops slept in parking garage

About 7,000 US National Guard troops are expected to stay in Washington through the end of January. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - United States President Joe Biden on Friday (Jan 22) called the chief of the National Guard Bureau to apologise that troops who had been brought in to protect his inauguration were ordered to sleep in an unheated parking garage after they were booted from the Capitol on Thursday, administration officials said.

The issue has generated controversy in the first days of Mr Biden's term. Several governors and members of Congress have criticised the move, even as the reasons for the troops' relocation remain murky.

In the telephone call with General Daniel R. Hokanson, head of the National Guard Bureau, Mr Biden apologised and asked what he could do, the officials said.

Dr Jill Biden, the first lady, visited some of the troops stationed outside of the Capitol on Friday afternoon, thanking them for their work and handing out chocolate chip cookies.

"The National Guard will always hold a special place in the hearts of all the Bidens," she said, noting that their son Beau, who died in 2015, was a member of the Delaware Army National Guard.

Photographs of the troops sleeping on the floor of the parking garage on Thursday night at the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building, where they had scant toilet facilities and were breathing in exhaust fumes, have sparked an uproar.

The governors of Texas, Florida, New Hampshire and Montana said they had ordered their National Guard troops to return home from Washington, with some directly criticising their move to the garage.

"They're soldiers, they're not Nancy Pelosi's servants," Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Republican, said on Fox And Friends on Friday morning.

"This is a half-cocked mission at this point, and I think the appropriate thing is to bring them home."

His comments came after Governor Greg Abbott of Texas and Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, also Republicans, said they, too, had called for their troops to return, though many were already slated to leave Washington.

"They did an outstanding job serving our nation's capital in a time of strife and should be graciously praised, not subject to substandard conditions," Mr Sununu wrote on Twitter on Friday morning.

Only some state's troops were left to sleep in the parking garage. Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey, a Democrat who attended Mr Biden's inauguration, said on Friday afternoon that he had been angered by the photographs he saw, but that New Jersey officials had ensured that all of his state's troops had hotel rooms to sleep in.

"This is no way for our heroes to be treated," Mr Murphy said. "Thankfully, none of our Guard - none of the New Jersey Guard - were left to have to deal with such disrespect."

The troops were eventually moved back into the Capitol, Capt. Edwin Nieves Jr., a spokesman for the Washington branch of the National Guard, said Friday morning.

He said the troops had been moved out of the Capitol on Thursday afternoon at the request of the Capitol Police because of "increased foot traffic" as Congress came back into session, but a statement from the acting chief of the Capitol Police on Friday sought to distance the beleaguered agency from the decision.

US National Guard soldiers resting in a parking garage in Washington on Jan 21, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Chief Yogananda Pittman said that the Capitol Police had not told the troops to leave the Capitol except for certain times on Inauguration Day, and that even then, the troops were encouraged to return to the building by 2pm that day. She said the managers of the office building whose parking lot the troops were using had reached out "directly to the National Guard to offer use of its facilities".

Many troops were already leaving the city, their mission concluded after Mr Biden was sworn in on Wednesday. The Pentagon said Friday that most of the nearly 26,000 National Guard troops who had helped secure the event were heading home.

About 19,000 troops from all over the country have started packing up and returning to their home states, a process that will take about 5 to 10 days and include coronavirus screenings.

About 7,000 troops are expected to stay in Washington through the end of January to provide support to federal agencies and guard against a possible repeat of the breach of the Capitol on Jan 6 by supporters of former president Donald Trump.

Officials said that the White House might also hold a call with state officials to thank them for the deployment of the National Guard personnel who provided security for the inauguration.

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