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Security Tightens Amid Reports Extremists Aim To Breach Capitol Again

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The fencing that surrounded the United States Capitol after the January 6 attack is still in place today. And that matters because security in Washington is especially tight. This day, March 4, holds significance for some people duped by right-wing conspiracy theories. And the House called off its business today after authorities warned of possible new attacks on the Capitol. NPR national correspondent Sarah McCammon is covering the story. Sarah, good morning.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What draws conspiracy theorists to March 4?

MCCAMMON: Well, it used to be that March 4 was the date that presidents were inaugurated. We're talking decades ago, back before the 1930s. And some right-wing extremists have concocted this, frankly, strange and baseless idea that former President Trump would return to power today, which they see as the true Inauguration Day. Now, I talked to Denver Riggleman about this. He is a former Republican congressman who now tracks disinformation with the Network Contagion Research Institute. And, Steve, Riggleman told me that there is a lot of confusion among conspiracy theorists. Many of them now believe, without evidence, of course, that this March 4 date is a trap set up by the, quote, unquote, "deep state."

DENVER RIGGLEMAN: I'm a little worried about March 4. But now the conspiracy theorists believe that March 4 conspiracies are there to capture them after January 6. So I know that sounds absolutely bizarre. But that's how these individuals, you know, live in their rabbit holes.

MCCAMMON: And so because of that, Riggleman and other experts tell me they think that large-scale violence isn't likely today. But law enforcement is on guard.

INSKEEP: Excuse me. Just let me get my head out of my hands, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: So people bought into the conspiracy theory and then bought out of it because of another conspiracy theory. And yet there is this concern.

MCCAMMON: Exactly.

INSKEEP: What is the threat?

MCCAMMON: Well, Capitol police say they've received intelligence reports about a specific militia group - they're not saying much more than that - that this group is making plans to breach the Capitol today. And March 4 has been the focus of online chatter among some Trump supporters, including followers of the Qanon conspiracy theory. Now, the acting House sergeant at arms has described these reports as concerning. Though, he said the significance of this date has declined among various groups in recent days, perhaps because of that conspiracy theory we were talking about.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

MCCAMMON: And he's seen no indication that large groups of people will be traveling to Washington. Still, Steve, after the attack on the Capitol in January, there's been a significant National Guard presence here and heightened security all around the grounds.

INSKEEP: What's that look like?

MCCAMMON: Well, there are more than 5,200 National Guard troops stationed around D.C. That is way down from the 26,000 or so that were here. But the Capitol, if you've driven by it, you know, it's really a fortress now. Before the attack, you could kind of walk up - you know, well, you couldn't actually go through - you had to go through security to get inside. But you could walk right up to the building. And now it's surrounded by tall fencing. So you can't get close at all. And officials say they will be on heightened alert for the next couple of days based on the intelligence they've received.

INSKEEP: Presuming we get through the next couple of days, where does this story go next?

MCCAMMON: Well, a lot of these extremist groups continue to believe the false claims about election fraud that have been made by many Republican elected officials. And they're not giving up. Jared Holt is a fellow at the Atlantic Council. And based on what he's saying, he thinks that conspiracy theorists will likely just adjust their narrative and find another date to focus on.

JARED HOLT: I don't really see this calming down at all. The goal posts are just going to keep moving indefinitely, indefinitely until the people that follow these theories just, eventually, give up.

MCCAMMON: And, Steve, we should point out that it's also in some people's political and financial interest for people not to give up on these ideas. Just one example right now - apparently, because of the interest in this March 4 date, the Trump Hotel here in Washington is advertising rates around $1,300 a night. That's about three times the normal rate for this time of year.

INSKEEP: Sarah, thanks so much.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Sarah McCammon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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