After the attack on the US Capitol by pro-Trump groups, the DC National Guard was eventually called in to restore order. Strangely, it is being reported that Vice President Mike Pence was the one who approved the orders, not President Trump:

Defense and administration officials said it was Vice President Mike Pence, not President Trump, who approved the order to deploy the D.C. National Guard. It was unclear why the president, who incited his supporters to storm the Capitol and who is still the commander in chief, did not give the order. President Trump initially rebuffed and resisted requests to mobilize the National Guard, according to a person with knowledge of the events. It required intervention from the White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, among other officials, the person familiar with the events said.

Mr. Miller [the acting defense secretary] said on Wednesday afternoon that he had spoken with Mr. Pence, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senators Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer, and Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland about the situation at the Capitol. He notably did not mention Mr. Trump in his statement.

Since, so far as anyone knows, President Trump has not been incapacitated or removed from office, how was the Vice President able to command the National Guard, without approval from the President?

  • 4
    A reporter on PBS said because Trump gave the wrong answer officials worked around him to get the troops deployed ...
    – deep64blue
    Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 9:09

5 Answers 5


What authority does the Vice President have to mobilize the National Guard?

Apparently, none. However, the acting defense secretary does.

Because the District is not a state, the D.C. Guard answers to the president, but he has delegated authority to command the capital’s guardsmen to Miller and McCarthy — two of the top officials at the Pentagon. — Bennington Banner also Washington Post (paywall)

Statement by Acting Secretary Miller on Full Activation of D.C. National Guard, January 6, 2021

Chairman Milley and I just spoke separately with the Vice President and with Speaker Pelosi, Leader McConnell, Senator Schumer and Representative Hoyer about the situation at the U.S. Capitol. We have fully activated the D.C. National Guard to assist federal and local law enforcement as they work to peacefully address the situation. We are prepared to provide additional support as necessary and appropriate as requested by local authorities. Our people are sworn to defend the constitution and our democratic form of government and they will act accordingly.

[Chairman Milley refers to U.S Army General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.]

From the January 7, 2021, New York Times newsletter —

Trump initially rebuffed requests to send the National Guard to the Capitol. Pence eventually approved the order.

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    In other words, Pence has the authority to ask someone who has the authority to mobilize the guard to mobilize the guard. (But not to actually order it himself)
    – Bobson
    Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 5:38
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    "Pence has the authority to ask someone who has the authority". Meh, so do I. I can ask or even tell Trump to do it on Twitter. Not that he would listen to me. I wouldn't call this having authority.
    – nwp
    Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 10:29
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    That statement is pretty profound. They have talked to the vice president and the leaders of both houses - but not the president.
    – Stian
    Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 11:34
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    @nwp It’s arguably a bit more complicated than that. The VP is important because they are VP, and that title carries enough weight that if things were to go wrong because of mobilizing the National Guard, the Secretary of Defense could probably avoid taking full blame for making the decision if it was done at the request of the VP. Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 12:18
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    @nwp but the vice president, as president of the senate and of the joint session of congress, has primary responsibility to ensure that congress is able to conduct its business without interruption. That responsibility includes the authority to request assistance from agencies such as the national guard who would not normally be empowered to protect the security of the capitol. The speaker of the house has similar authority, which is why the defence secretary mentioned them both.
    – phoog
    Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 15:23

Mr. Miller [the acting defense secretary] said on Wednesday afternoon that he had spoken with Mr. Pence, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senators Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer, and Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland about the situation at the Capitol. He notably did not mention Mr. Trump in his statement.

Since, so far as anyone knows, President Trump has not been incapacitated or removed from office, how was the Vice President able to command the National Guard, without approval from the President?

The people listed are the leaders of congress. The vice president is included because of his role in the legislative branch, not his executive role. The authority for mobilizing the national guard rests with the secretary of defense, as explained elsewhere, because it has been delegated to him by the president. But the secretary of defense should not send the national guard to the capitol except at the invitation of congress. (Even if there is no law or formal policy forbidding it, it would be a bad political move to do it.)

Even more significant than the vice president's role as president of the senate is his role as presiding officer of the joint session whose business was being interrupted. In that role, it is his duty to have any interruptions addressed so the session can continue. Therefore the primary responsibility for authorizing an outside force to enter the capitol and assist in that effort lies with him.

Rick Smith's answer quotes the New York Times:

Trump initially rebuffed requests to send the National Guard to the Capitol. Pence eventually approved the order.

It appears that the reporters misunderstood the nature of the vice president's involvement.


For a bit of background WaPo relates how the request was made. It sorta came from Sund, the Capitol Police chief (who has resigned since then) but oddly only after someone (unnamed) DC official suggested it to him. An the Pentagon was initially reluctant to approve it. Note that this refers to sending the guard to the Capitol itself (where Sund had command), not to surrounding DC areas:

The Capitol Police, the law enforcement force that reports to Congress and protects the House and Senate, hadn’t requested help from the Guard ahead of Wednesday’s events. But early Wednesday afternoon, its chief made an urgent plea for backup from 200 troops during a call with top Pentagon and city officials, according to officials familiar with the call.

On the call, Capitol Police Chief Steven A. Sund was asked whether he wanted help from the National Guard. “There was a pause,” one of the D.C. officials said. And Sund said yes. “Then there was another pause, and an official from the [office of the] secretary of the Army said that wasn’t going to be possible.”

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) confirmed that account in an interview with The Washington Post, saying Capitol Police “made it perfectly clear that they needed extraordinary help, including the National Guard. There was some concern from the Army of what it would look like to have armed military personnel on the grounds of the Capitol.” One concern was whether the Army had been invited by Congress.

A U.S. defense official said the Army general on the call didn’t formally deny the request but rather reinforced the negative optics of having uniformed personnel inside the Capitol, a point on which Bowser had agreed, and later checked with the chain of command. The defense official said Bowser agreed that if further support was necessary, D.C. police would provide it inside the Capitol, and the Guard would backfill D.C. police positions away from the building.

The defense official said the military wanted to be the force of last resort, and that military officials had urged Bowser to request more support from federal law enforcement but that she didn’t do so until Wednesday.

Higher-up leaders at the Pentagon then evaluated the request and activated the full D.C. Guard, in addition to later calling the governors of other states to send their Guard forces as reinforcements. The officials also lifted limits on the Guard for the new mission, arming guardsmen with riot gear, but not guns, before they headed to create a perimeter around the Capitol.

Alas the WaPo story doesn't detail how the decisions in the Pentagon were made (although the accepted answer deals with that.)

However the story above may explain why the Army discussed the matter with Pence (formally the Senate President) and the other leadership of the two Houses, as they were seemingly very reluctant to appear to go into Congress only at the request of a police chief.


Sometimes it's about politics.

In the military if a soldier is given an order by an officer higher up the chain of command, then they do it. They don't usually ask if the officer is authorized to give the order. They might if they think the order is both wrong and unauthorized, but not usually. If the order turns out to be illegal it's the higher officer's fault.

Likewise if the National Guard is told by the Vice President to mobilize, they can choose to assume that the VP has been given authority to make that decision. If that turns out not to be the case they can reasonably blame the VP for giving an unauthorized order.

If the order had been something controversial or dangerous the recipient of the order would make more certain that the order was authorized, but in the current situation carrying out an order that was obviously the right thing to do (even if not technically backed up by an order from a lame duck, possibly delusional, President who seems bent on overthrowing the democratic processes of the country and has only a few days left in office) everybody concerned knows that they are not going to be punished.

So the VP gives the order, and the other people concerned choose to assume he has done so with the President's authority, the right thing is done and everybody is happy.

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    It's my understanding that the VP is not normally part of the military chain of command at all - there's no regular circumstance where the president would order the VP to order the National Guard. If the National Guard is taking orders directly from the VP, they might as well take them from any Congressperson or Justice or anyone else that's not in the chain of command. I'm not convinced that the NG would take orders from someone who was not, and has never been, part of their chain of command without verifying anything. It seems the order came from Miller, who is in the chain of command. Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 16:03
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    "If the order turns out to be illegal it's the higher officer's fault." Hogwash. If the higher officer orders the soldier to do something illegal, and the soldier does it, both will get in trouble.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Jan 8, 2021 at 22:12
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    @RonJohn That depends. If the order is something obviously illegal, sure. If the order is "defend the Capitol building from rioters" then it's not the private's job to make sure that the order didn't illegally originate from the VP.
    – D M
    Commented Jan 9, 2021 at 0:59
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    There has a big difference between being ordered to do something illegal and ordered to something entirely reasonable but which the higher officer wasn't authorized to order. Nobody would say that having the National Guard defend the Capitol from domestic terrorists is of itself illegal. Commented Jan 9, 2021 at 1:57

None. Absolutely none.

Anyone reporting otherwise is either ignorant or using artistic license in their reporting. (Either way, I think it speaks poorly of their reporting.)

Other than a State Governor (which isn't applicable for D.C.), there are only two people who can activated the National Guard: the President and the Secretary of Defense.

Support of operations or missions undertaken by the member’s unit at the request of the President or Secretary of Defense.

Title 32 U.S.C. https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/32/502

Note that Secretaries, including Sec Def, report directly to the President.

Overall, the Vice President has zero authority over the Armed Forces, including the National Guard. His formal authority in these matters is the same as the Speaker of the House or the Secretary of Education, that is to say, none.

Rather, more careful reporting indicates that VP Pence's role was in an advisory or facilitating capacity:

Trump, who has proven over the past year to be eager to deploy the National Guard when violence breaks out, initially resisted doing so on Capitol Hill Wednesday as a mob of his supporters breached the building, per a source familiar. Pence played a key role in coordinating with the Pentagon about deploying them, and urged them to move faster than they were.


The actual order was issued by either President Trump or Trump's recently appointed Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller. No one else that could have given the order for the D.C. National Guard.

  • While you’re right about the main point that the VP doesn’t have authority here, I don’t think your sources back up your speculation on what actually happened. According to the article you link, both Miller and McCarthy’s statements suggest that Pence was the key decision maker during the crisis and was central to actually making the order, even if its legal authority did not come from him directly
    – divibisan
    Commented Jan 10, 2021 at 4:23
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    Downvoted because it is just plain wrong, according to all the sources I've seen. Not only did Trump NOT give the order, reports say that he was quite happy about what was happening. As far as authority goes, if you are a military officer, sworn to uphold the Constitution, and you see a probable coup attempt unfolding, do you wait for orders from the very person who instigated that attempt?
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 10, 2021 at 5:06
  • @divibisan where is my speculation? This answer needs no speculation. The law is extremely clear. Commented Jan 10, 2021 at 10:36
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    I didn’t downvote, but what what bothered me reading this is the jump from “the VP has no authority” (true) to “therefore the order came from Trump or Miller and anyone saying otherwise is a bad reporter” (speculation)
    – divibisan
    Commented Jan 10, 2021 at 19:33
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    @divibisan this question verges on pedantry about the chain of command. The perceptions and definitions gets easily muddled. And FWIW when Bobson says "Pence as the authority to ask"....anyone has the "authority" to ask. The DC Mayor, the Speaker of the House, anyone. Perhaps I am being too precise, but I also would never say the Speaker deployed the National Guard either. Commented Jan 10, 2021 at 19:53

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