A little more than year ago, I watched federal agents and local police violently attack demonstrators and journalists outside the White House. I wound up treating someone with a minor head scrape and helping another victim adjust their bandages, attempt to find their phone, and figure out how to get home. I'll never forget those crowded days during the uprising or how people mobilized in even greater numbers the next day, in defiance of yet another assault on free speech.
Earlier today, the Department of the Interior's inspector general released a report about this attack. Interestingly, it blamed the inciting incident on security forces attempting to clear the street outside Lafayette Square to install a new fence, not on Trump's photo op. However, the report also documents how Attorney General William Barr closely monitored developments around the White House ahead of Trump's photo op, making it clear to the Park Police's operations commander that he expected the area to be cleared for the president.
Barr met with security officials at 2PM that day. This is from page 9 of the report:
Later, the Secret Service informed the Park Police that President Trump might visit Lafayette Park (page 10):
The USPP incident commander told us that around mid- to late afternoon, the Secret Service UD WHB deputy chief informed him of the President's potential unscheduled movement to Lafayette Park. The USPP incident commander said the Secret Service UD WHB deputy chief told him that the President's visit would likely occur later that day or in the evening, after protesters had been removed from the area.
About an hour before Trump's photo-op, Attorney General William Barr visited the park to assess progress in clearing the area (page 14):
At approximately 6:10 p.m., news video showed the Attorney General entering Lafayette Park with his security detail and other White House staff members. Protesters in the crowd recognized the Attorney General and began shouting at him. The USPP operations commander heard the change in the crowd, saw the Attorney General, and walked over to him. News video showed the USPP operations commander speaking with the Attorney General and then hanging his head, while another unidentified official patted the USPP operations commander on the back.
When we asked the USPP operations commander about this exchange, he stated he told the Attorney General the area was unsafe and asked him and the other officials to move away from the line of officers. The USPP operations commander told us the Attorney General then asked him why the crowd was still on H Street and said he thought they would be gone by that point. The USPP operations commander told us he advised the Attorney General that they were getting into position to move the crowd. He stated he again advised the Attorney General that the Attorney General was not in a safe area and should move further from the crowd. 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. The Attorney General then left Lafayette Park. The USPP operations commander denied that the Attorney General ordered him to clear Lafayette Park and H Street.
The USPP operations commander told us he informed the USPP acting chief of police of the Attorney General’s question regarding whether the protesters would still be there when the President came out. The USPP operations commander said the USPP acting chief of police told him he did not know what the Attorney General was talking about. The USPP operations commander said he did not speak with the USPP incident commander, who was preparing to issue the dispersal warnings to the protesters at that time, and he did not know whether the USPP acting chief of police spoke with the USPP incident commander before the USPP incident commander executed the operational plan. When we interviewed the USPP acting chief of police, he did not recall the specifics of what the USPP operations commander relayed to him about the conversation with the Attorney General.
Having read the report, it's clear that Barr was monitoring the square very closely. By the time President Trump departed the White House at 7:01 pm there had been nearly a half hour of live reporting on the trampling and tear gassing outside St. John's Church.
In the immediate wake of the inspector general's report release, some media outlets have focused on the fence and the lack of a direct order from Barr or Trump to clear the area of demonstrators. But what the report makes clear is that they didn't have to issue such an order. They could just take advantage of the area being cleared anyway and paid very close attention to Park Police operations for several hours. Further, the Attorney General of the United States, one of the country's most powerful people, doesn't have to issue a direct order in triplicate and faxed to the right number to make their wishes clear, as Barr certainly did according to this very report.
Additionally, if the Trump administraiton didn't want to make it look like they cleared the park for a photo op, they simply could have waited until the next day. But it's perfectly reasonable to assume, given their stance toward civil rights demonstrators, that they viewed the police crackdown as a feature, not a bug.
Never the less, here's a sampling of headlines:
Beyond those headlines however, some reporting did pick up on Barr's role:
That finding, published Wednesday, is likely to surprise many critics of Trump, who have long asserted that the president or his attorney general ordered the operation to pave the way for an act of political theater. That is also the central allegation of a federal lawsuit by Black Lives Matter against the Justice Department.
The report found no evidence of that, but did find that Attorney General William Barr urged officials to speed up the clearing process once Trump had decided to walk through the area that evening.
Clearly, exercising one's power doesn't always come in the form of a direct order, especially during a time when agencies were communicating with one another poorly and responding live to growing demonstrations.
Finally, on that lawsuit: the inspector general's report complicates the argument the Department of Justice continues to make — even under President Biden — that the president and attorney general shouldn't be held accountable for violence that occurs when attempting to secure a president's movement. Without accountability, it's easy for leaders to abuse their power, as William Barr certainly seems to have done that day.