Thousands of National Guard troops could remain in Washington until March

US National Guard soldiers are seen in silhouette as they keep guard in front of the Capitol Building and near the Washington Monument in Washington, DC on January 19, 2021. By Barbara Starr, CNN Pentagon Correspondent

(CNN) -- Discussions are taking place about keeping thousands of National Guard troops in Washington until March because of concerns about potential unrest during the upcoming impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump and around President Joe Biden's first joint address to Congress, two defense officials told CNN.

The concerns stem from what defense officials say is ongoing chatter about demonstrations picked up by federal law enforcement. On Thursday, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser referenced "intelligence from our federal partners that would suggest that we need more presence," but she did not elaborate.

CNN reported Thursday that most of the 25,000 National Guardsmen who were brought to Washington to help secure the city through Biden's inauguration following the deadly riot at the Capitol earlier in the month would be sent home within five to 10 days, according to a statement from the National Guard Bureau. Approximately 15,000 troops will return home "as soon as possible," though the planning and process to begin moving them may take a few days.

There are some agencies requesting ongoing support, the National Guard Bureau said, and about 7,000 Guardsmen are expected to stay through the end of the January, but CNN has learned that discussions are taking place about potentially extending that deployment.

One defense official told CNN the deployment could last at least through Trump's impeachment trial in the Senate, while a separate defense official said it could last until Biden makes his first address to a joint session of Congress.

When asked when the remaining troops would leave DC, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, Gen. Daniel Hokanson, told CNN's Jessica Schneider on Saturday that mid-March was likely.

"We're looking at probably mid-March right now. And of course, we'll reevaluate that literally all along the way and making the determination if there needed to be that long or if we need to make adjustments," Hokanson said.

An official with knowledge told CNN that the number of troops in Washington by mid-March is expected to be around 5,000.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Friday that the impeachment trial is due to begin on February 8, and Biden's first joint address to Congress is yet to be scheduled but is expected to take place in the coming weeks.

The news of a potential extension of the National Guard deployments comes as CNN reported Friday that a series of miscommunications had left Guard members searching for an adequate rest area Thursday night when they were moved from the Capitol into a nearby parking garage.

Guard members ended up having to spend several hours resting on the concrete in the garage before the mistake was fixed and they were moved back to the Capitol Visitor Center.

In a briefing with reporters Thursday, Christopher Rodriguez, director of the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency for the District of Columbia, said Washington had made a request for continued National Guard support in the coming days.

"We have requested, because we do anticipate that there will be another national special security event occurring, the joint session of Congress. On behalf of the Metropolitan Police Department, we've made a request for continued National Guard support with traffic management and crowd control through January 30," Rodriguez said.

Incidents in Washington have calmed down, a law enforcement official said, but not to a level where anything greatly changes in terms of security concerns. The Capitol and events surrounding it remain a target, the official said.

The ongoing deployment, however, would be "voluntary," and governors will have to agree to keep forces in the city.

Fewer than 250 of the approximately 25,000 National Guardsmen in the city for inauguration have tested positive for Covid-19, according to a defense official, but the fear remains among some troops that coronavirus is spreading during their deployment -- especially when packed into tight quarters like on Thursday.

One Guardsman who spoke with CNN Thursday after troops were directed to the parking garage was worried about the confined indoor space. "We've already had just some in my unit alone test positive for Covid, and they're just keeping us packed together with caution tape in small areas," said the Guardsman, who added that more than 20 troops from his unit are quarantining.

The Department of Defense does not release coronavirus numbers for specific units or areas, and repeated queries to the National Guard Bureau regarding positive coronavirus tests in troops deployed to the capital have gone unanswered.

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

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