A new inspector general report about the chain of events that led to protesters being teargassed near the White House last June is generating headlines like “Police did not clear Lafayette Square so Trump could hold ‘Bible’ photo op: Watchdog” and “Yet Another Media Tale — Trump Tear-Gassed Protesters For a Church Photo Op — Collapses.”
But a close reading of the report in question reveals there are still some unanswered questions.
Last summer, large Black Lives Matter protests were occurring throughout cities across the country in response to the May 25, 2020, murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis. Initially, many of these protests in Washington, DC, were held near the White House, including in Lafayette Square, a park that sits in front of the building.
On June 1, 2020, as the Black Lives Matter protests were escalating, President Donald Trump, in an effort to project power and restore a sense of “law and order,” decided to walk across the street from the White House and hold aloft a Bible outside St. John’s Church, which had been damaged during a protest the night before.
He was able to do so because the crowd of protesters in Lafayette Square, which abuts the church, had been forcibly cleared by law enforcement in what some outlets referred to as an “attack” — officers from various law enforcement groups used horses, riot shields, batons, pepper spray, and tear gas to clear the area.
Reporters and onlookers understandably linked Trump’s desire to hold a photo op with the operation to forcibly clear protesters. But the new IG report has prompted a reevaluation of that linkage with its conclusion that “the evidence we obtained did not support a finding that the USPP (United States Park Police) cleared the park to allow the President to survey the damage and walk to St. John’s Church.”
“Instead, the evidence we reviewed showed that the USPP cleared the park to allow the contractor to safely install the antiscale fencing in response to destruction of property and injury to officers occurring on May 30 and 31,” it says.
But the report does not clarify everything about what happened on June 1. For example, it does not offer perspective on whether the injury to officers actually necessitated clearing the park — a question raised immediately after protesters were removed. Nor does it definitively state that Trump had nothing to with how the clearing was carried out.
In fact, the report also suggests that other law enforcement agencies that were on the scene that day, such as the Secret Service, may have had reasons for taking aggressive action to clear protesters that went beyond the desire to install new fencing.
But because the IG report is limited to the actions of the USPP and did not include interviews with the Secret Service or the attorney general at the time of the incident, Bill Barr — who spoke with law enforcement before the operation began — important questions about the chain of events that led to protesters being forcibly cleared from the area on that day remain unanswered.
The report has led the media to reexamine its coverage — and to Trump supporters saying it exonerates Trump
The display of force against protesters in and around Lafayette Square marked a turning point of sorts for Trump’s presidency. In the days that followed, former Defense Secretary James Mattis offered a remarkable rebuke of a president he recently served, saying Trump’s handling of the situation — and the involvement of military officials — made him “angry and appalled.”
“When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” Mattis added. “Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”
Days later, Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, who took part in the photo op, apologized, saying, “I should not have been there. My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”
Mattis and Milley made these comments amid a drumbeat of media reports that directly linked Trump’s Bible photo op with the effort just before it to clear the area of protesters — chaotic scenes captured in this video shot by journalist Hunter Walker.
CNN, for instance, framed its coverage of the conflict in Lafayette Square with a chyron that read, “Peaceful Protesters Near White House Tear-Gassed, Shot With Rubber Bullets So Trump Can Have Church Photo Op.” Along similar lines, the New York Times wrote that “Police officers used flash grenades to disperse a crowd so the president could visit for a photo opportunity.”
The new IG report is being used by some Trump supporters and anti-anti-Trumpers to revisit coverage of that sort and argue that it unfairly assigned blame to Trump. While some mainstream outlets have misleadingly suggested the new IG report proves Trump didn’t order protesters to be cleared out, Trump supporters have gone even further and have used it to try to discredit the media in general.
Donald Trump Jr., for instance, suggested it serves as the latest evidence that the media was wrong not just about what happened in Lafayette Square but also in much of its reporting about his father.
In the last week alone, we’ve learned that the media, so-called fact checkers and their Big Tech enforcers lied to us about the lab-leak theory, Hydroxychloroquine and the clearing of Lafayette Square.— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) June 10, 2021
All to hurt Donald Trump.
What else are they lying about?
It’s not surprising that Trump Jr. would spin things in service of his father, of course. But a close reading of the report indicates that outlets weren’t necessarily getting ahead of the facts in linking the brutalizing of protesters with Trump’s desire for a media event that made him look strong and in control of the situation.
What the IG report actually says
The key takeaway from the IG report is that the law enforcement agency with jurisdiction over Lafayette Square (the United States Park Police, or USPP) wasn’t directly following an order from Trump last June 1 when it forcibly removed protesters from the area, and had actually decided to move to clear the park of protesters well before Trump hatched the idea of the Bible photo op. Here’s the central passage:
The evidence we obtained did not support a finding that the USPP cleared the park to allow the President to survey the damage and walk to St. John’s Church. Instead, the evidence we reviewed showed that the USPP cleared the park to allow the contractor to safely install the antiscale fencing in response to destruction of property and injury to officers occurring on May 30 and 31. Further, the evidence showed that the USPP did not know about the President’s potential movement until mid- to late afternoon on June 1—hours after it had begun developing its operational plan and the fencing contractor had arrived in the park.
However, the operation to clear Lafayette Square involved numerous other law enforcement agencies, including Washington, DC’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), the Secret Service, and the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). And the report makes clear that the various agencies involved in the chaos that unfolded outside the White House that day were not always in radio communication with one another — and overall were certainly not on the same page.
Notably, as lawyer Luppe Luppen highlighted on Twitter, the IG report indicates that Secret Service officers on the scene — who were aware of USPP’s operational plan — escalated the situation by using pepper spray against protesters, and by doing so before USPP officers had a chance to give demonstrators any warnings to disperse. The report says a Secret Service official later apologized to USPP officials for the incident, but didn’t explain why it happened.
The IG report says the Secret Service, contrary to the Park Police plan and without explanation, instigated the violence with protesters within six minutes of AG Barr’s visit to the park. The IG didn’t interview the Secret Service about its independent decision-making. pic.twitter.com/PIpw71DHXT— southpaw (@nycsouthpaw) June 10, 2021
A few redactions raise similar questions: One, on page 10 of the report, seems to suggest an unnamed official requested USPP change its timeline; another later in the document seems to support that a redacted official or department did in fact ask that the clearing be done earlier. A third redaction conceals parties or an individual who submitted at least two additional requests to clear the area near the White House again. Why someone wanted the area cleared earlier is not yet completely clear, nor is who wanted to see the area cleared a second time — or why.
While the report does make clear that the president and other administration officials didn’t directly order the USPP to clear the park, it suggests Attorney General Barr indicated to USPP officials earlier in the day that he wanted protesters cleared ahead of Trump’s trip to the church:
The USPP operations commander said the Attorney General asked him, “Are these people still going to be here when POTUS [President of the United States] comes out?” The USPP operations commander told us he had not known until then that the President would be coming out of the White House and into Lafayette Park. He said he replied to the Attorney General, “Are you freaking kidding me?” and then hung his head and walked away.
On June 2, 2020, the Washington Post reported that Barr “personally ordered law enforcement officials to clear the streets around Lafayette Square just before President Trump spoke Monday, a Justice Department official said, a directive that prompted a show of aggression against a crowd of largely peaceful protesters, drawing widespread condemnation.” Trump at that time cheered on the show of force, tweeting the next morning, “D.C. had no problems last night. Many arrests. Great job done by all. Overwhelming force. Domination.”
So while the new IG report established that Trump didn’t order Park Police to forcibly clear protesters from outside the White House for his photo op, it doesn’t foreclose that administration officials may have had the ear of one of the many other law enforcement agencies that took part in the chaotic scenes that day.
A more thorough investigation is needed
There are still some key questions remaining about what happened last June 1.
Journalist Dave Levitan, for instance, points out that even if it’s not the case that protesters were cleared out of Lafayette Square because Trump wanted a photo there, that doesn’t mean that Trump didn’t capitalize on them being cleared out for his trip to the church.
I am not sure there is quite as much distance between "tear-gassed protesters for a photo op" and "took advantage of scheduled tear-gassing of protesters for a photo op" as some people seem to claim there is. pic.twitter.com/SUY3sJBwH1— Dave Levitan (@davelevitan) June 9, 2021
Also unclear is what role Barr played in clearing the park. The report states that it was local police rather than federal forces that deployed tear gas against the protesters, and stresses that USPP leaders made clear no tear gas was to be used; why it was used anyway is not clear. Nor is the role played by groups other than the USPP — including the Secret Service, which was too hasty in using force against the demonstrators.
An investigation that went beyond the USPP and included other parties like the Secret Service would help shine more light on these unresolved ambiguities. Unfortunately, the DHS inspector general — who, like the Interior Department inspector general, is a Trump appointee — has already blocked an investigation that would have looked into the Secret Service’s role in the decision to clear protesters.