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“The attorney general is here. We gotta go now."
A new report reveals yet more evidence that the Trump administration violently dispersed George Floyd protesters so the president could stage a photo op.
Few events capture the absurdist, competing realities we’ve navigated over the last several years like the June 1, 2020 clearing of protesters from Lafayette Park — followed by President Donald Trump’s bizarre photoshoot with a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.
In MAGA world, it’s now accepted as fact that the media badly botched this story in a rush to make Trump look petty and abusive. Back in the, er, realer reality, it’s remains clear that the Trump administration ordered the park cleared so the president could stage his photo op.
That these two narratives have simply marched on, parallel to one another, doesn’t make them equally plausible, of course. The latter version has always been more consistent with witness descriptions, video footage, and even accounts from National Guard troops at the scene. But the MAGA version got a boost in June 2021, when a report from the Office of Inspector General for the Department of the Interior concluded: "the evidence does not support a finding that the USPP cleared the park on June 1, 2020, so that then President Trump could enter the park.”
It’s understandable that Trump and his supporters would champion the report as vindication. Inspectors general are, ideally, independent investigators, and some OIGs have produced damning reports about the agencies they oversee. But as I and others wrote at the time, there were far too many problems with the report to accept it as the definitive account.
First, the OIG investigation was hampered by its limited jurisdiction — while the clearing of the park involved officials in the White House, Secret Service, Justice Department, and several other agencies, the OIG investigators could only compel interviews and records from the U.S. Park Police. Compliance from other agencies was voluntary, and the Secret Service, White House and Justice Department all declined to cooperate.
Second, the OIG report was oddly deferential to the Park Police, the one agency over which it did have authority. Assertions from the agency’s leaders were taken as fact, despite the fact that they often contradicted one another, and despite the agency’s long record of excessive force, cronyism, and obfuscation.
And third, the OIG had to rely on the word of Park Police officials because the agency inadvertently failed to record its radio transmissions, even though it was required to do so. (If the “inadvertently” part seems suspicious to you, you’re in good company. But it does seem clear that the agency had been failing to record radio transmissions since 2018.)
The report provided some needed cover for the Trump administration. It also set the stage for a milquetoast settlement in April 2022 between a handful of Black Lives Matters supporters and the Park Police and Secret Service, in which the two agencies promised to make a few policy changes — clearly displaying name plates, giving warnings before using force, not punishing entire groups of protesters for the actions of a few — that should have already been in place.
This is all newly relevant for two reasons. First, the Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee recently published a new report on the 2020 police actions against the protesters. It lays out a meticulous, well-documented argument that the original narrative — that the park was cleared for Trump’s photo op — is the most likely explanation for what happened.
To be clear, this is a partisan report. It wasn’t endorsed by Republicans on the committee. Much of it rehashes what I and others wrote about the OIG report’s limitations and blind spots when it came out. But it also includes evidence previously unavailable to the public, including statements from interviews with other law enforcement officials at the scene. Among the most compelling pieces of new evidence is something assistant chief with the D.C. Metro Police Department (MPD) told OIG investigators. According to the assistant chief, when he told a Park Police commander that MPD couldn’t legally clear the park until after the city imposed curfew, the Park Police commander responded, “The attorney general is here. We gotta go now."
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This statement casts more doubt OIG report, and raises the question of why this portion of the assistant chief’s interview with investigators was left out of it.
The second reason to revisit all this is a recent ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit throwing out a lawsuit brought by the protesters who were violently cleared from the park. The three judges on the panel went out of their way to say they were not ruling on whether the protesters’ rights had been violated — although their tone suggests they were.
Instead, the judges explain that they’re hamstrung by Supreme Court precedent, which has made it nearly impossible to sue federal law enforcement officials, even for egregious constitutional violations. The judges ruled that while federal officials are in theory still obligated to respect the Constitutional, there’s really no reliable way to hold them accountable when they don’t.
This makes it all the more important to get right what happened at Lafayette Park. If Trump’s critics are correct, his administration inflicted mass violence and reckless constitutional violations on peaceful protesters so he could indulge in some garish authoritarian cosplay. Afterward, he and his administration then brazenly lied about it all. It was one of the most cynical displays of state violence against protesters in the nation’s capitol since the government’s attacks on the Bonus March protesters in 1932. And of course Trump is now running for president again.
So here’s a timeline of what we know that can be supported with evidence:
Friday, May 29, 2020
According to the New York Times, as the size of the George Floyd protests in D.C. grew on the evening of May 29, the Secret Service evacuated Trump and his family to an underground bunker. The AP subsequently reported that Trump “told advisers he worries about his safety,” and that, according to White House spokesman Judd Deere, Trump had been “shaken” by the protests.
These reports mesh with Trump’s tweets at the time, which seemed frantic, even for him. In one tweet, Trump promised that “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons” awaited any protesters who breached White House security fences. At one point, he appeared to solicit protection from his supporters, tweeting “Tonight, I understand, is MAGA NIGHT AT THE WHITE HOUSE???.” (This of course was a tactic he’d try again after he lost his bid for reelection, with quite a bit more success.)
Evacuating Trump and his family to a more secure location was a perfectly reasonable precaution. Protesters had indeed breeched some security fences near the White House grounds, and while the daytime protests in D.C. had been peaceful, nights in the city had been more violent and chaotic.
But these reports apparently infuriated Trump. According to multiple reports, he told his staff he thought they made him look weak. He wanted to do something about it.
Sunday, May 31, 2020
Over the weekend, Trump pushed back on the reports. He first told Fox News Radio that he’d never even been to the bunker. When confronted with evidence to the contrary, he backtracked, admitting he’d visited the bunker for “a tiny little short period of time,” but only to “inspect” it.
That Trump would be furious at being seen as weak in the face of protests is consistent with everything we know about him. This is a man who once praised the deadly crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square. According to former members of his staff, he privately expressed admiration for the way Venezuela cracked down on protesters in 2017 (which included shooting them). He also initially refused to condemn China’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, calling Chinese President Xi Jinping “an incredible guy” and referring to the protests as “riots.”
It would be perfectly in-character for Trump to be livid at being portrayed as cowardly in the face of protests — and for him to demand a show of strength in response.
On Sunday evening, Trump, Jared Kushner, Mark Meadows, and Hope Hicks hashed out the plan for the photo op. According to the NY Times, the idea to pose in front of the church with a Bible originally came from Ivanka Trump, though she also suggested he read a verse, or go into the church to pray. Trump nixed the prayer part, and decided he’d simply stand and hold the Bible long enough for the press to snap photos.
Monday, June 1, 2020
On the morning the park was cleared, media reports portrayed Trump as agitated and excitable. He first met with Vice President Mike Pence, Attorney General Bill Barr, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley to discuss the protests. According press reports and those in attendance, Trump repeatedly said he wanted to invoke the Insurrection Act, which would have allowed him to deploy active duty military to put down protests around the country. It would have been the first invocation of the Act since the 1992 L.A. riots, the first invocation against the wishes of state governors since the Civil Rights era, and the most geographically expansive use of the Act since Reconstruction.
According to reports, Pence backed the idea, while Barr and Milley opposed it. There are mixed reports about Esper. The Times reported that Esper supported invoking the law in that meeting, and we know that he’d use exceptionally militaristic language in a phone call with state governors the same day. But two days later, Esper would publicly contradict Trump on invoking the law in a statement to reporters, an incident widely reported to have been the beginning of the end of Esper’s tenure at the Pentagon. Trump fired via tweet the following November.
Later that day, during the aforementioned call with state governors, Trump berated the governors. He called them “weak” for failing to contain the protests. He implored them to “dominate the streets” and added, “It’s like we’re talking about a war, which it is a war in a certain sense, and we’re going to end it fast.”
Amusingly — and ominously — Trump also promised to “activate Bill Barr, and activate him very strongly,” a turn of phrase that makes Barr sound like a latent supervillain whose powers can only be conjured by the president’s magic ring. We’d later learn that Barr took his new responsibility seriously, deploying cell extraction teams from the Bureau of Prisons around the country. These are teams trained to suppress prison riots and to pull prisoners out of their cells. They aren’t trained to police protests, or interact with people exercising their constitutional rights.
Trump then hinted to the governors about what was to come. “[W]e’re doing it in Washington, in DC, we’re going to do something that people haven’t seen before,” he said. “We’re going to have total domination.” This was hours before the clearing of Lafayette Park.
Protesters began showing up at the park in the early afternoon. According to extensive video reviewed by the Washington Post and other media outlets, the protesters were vocal but not violent. At worst, a few threw eggs or water bottles at police. But those instances were sporadic, often denounced by other protesters. There’s also no evidence that such incidents increased in frequency or intensity in the minutes before the park was cleared.
Sometime in mid-to-late-afternoon on Monday, Trump told others on his staff about his plan to visit the church. At about the same time, the Secret Service notified the U.S. Park Police that the president had planned an unscheduled “off-the-record” event that would require the park to be cleared. The exact time that the Secret Service wanted the park cleared isn’t recorded, but the context suggests it was after the 7pm curfew announced by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.
A short time later, someone from the FBI called Park Police Chief Greg Monahan and asked if the park could be cleared earlier than planned. (This bit was also redacted from the OIG report). Monahan replied that he didn’t think law enforcement officials could be ready in time.
Monahan would later tell OIG investigators, “I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that the Secret Service and the Park Police . . . timeline did not change the entire day.” As we’ll see, there’s ample evidence that he wasn’t telling the truth.
By 5pm, the Secret Service and Park Police officials had put together a plan to clear the park with civil disturbance teams from the panoply of police agencies involved. As the Democrats point out in their report, the decision to deploy civil disturbance teams without giving protesters the opportunity to leave the park voluntarily once the curfew kicked in is a good sign that this was to be intended from the start to be a show of force — the sort of “total domination” Trump promised in his phone call to governors just hours earlier.
Shortly after 6pm, the White House sent out an unusual press notice that Trump would be giving a last-minute briefing in the Rose Garden at 6:15.
According to video footage Barr arrived at the park at around 6:10pm. Milley appeared in video about 15 minutes later. Barr was then seen in videos briefly speaking with a Park Police commanding officer, after which the officer dropped his head. The officer would later tell OIG investigators that in this conversation Barr asked him, “Are these people still going to be here when POTUS comes out?”
As the Washington Post’s Philip Bump points out, this was clearly more of an order than a question. The commander would later say he responded, “Are you freaking kidding me?” An official at the Justice Department characterized the exchange this way: “[Barr] conferred with them to check on the status and basically said: ‘This needs to be done. Get it done.’ ”
The Park Police commanding officer and Monahan would later claim that Barr did not tell them to clear the park earlier than intended. I’ll leave it to you to determine if “Are you freaking kidding me?” is the response one would give when asked if you’re ready to carry out a task for which you’ve been preparing all day.
Officials at other police agencies on the scene also seemed surprised when told that the park would be cleared prior to curfew. MPD officials weren’t informed until after 6pm. One MPD official would later tell the Washington Post that plans for the clearance had been “hurried up.”
This brings us to the new information revealed in the subcommittee report: At 6:12pm, a Park Police commander called an assistant chief at MPD to say the clearance was about to begin. The assistant chief responded that they needed to wait until after the 7pm curfew, when MPD officers could act in accordance with city law. According to the assistant chief, the Park Police commander responded, “The attorney general is here. We gotta go now.”
Democratic staffers on the House Natural Resources Committee found this comment in the OIG files. Curiously, while other parts of the investigators’ interview with the assistant chief were included in the final OIG report, this comment was left out.
There’s a clear contradiction between Monahan’s assurance to OIG investigators that the timing of the park clearance never changed and the “Are you freaking kidding me?” comment from Monahan’s own commander, statements from the MPD assistant chief and from a National Guard commanding officer that the clearance began earlier than planned.
I can think of a few possible explanations for the discrepancy. The first is that the MPD assistant chief, National Guard commander, and other local police officials are lying or mistaken. This seems unlikely, and there was no discernible motive for them to lie.
The second explanation is that Monahan was lying or mistaken when he told OIG investigators that the plan never changed. This seems somewhat more plausible. Both Monahan and his agency have a history of deception and lack of transparency, both prior to this incident and in relation to it.
But a third explanation makes the most sense — Monahan was technically telling the truth, but was also misdirecting. Barr, the Secret Service, and possibly Monahan indeed had a plan to clear the park prior to the curfew, adopted this plan early in the day, and didn’t waver from it. But they then kept that information from the other police organizations and officials at the scene until the last minute — including MPD, Arlington (Virginia) PD, the D.C. National Guard, and even the Park Police commander on the ground.
Why would you keep other police agencies in the dark about a plan you’ve known about for more than a day, and that you’d need their help to execute? One reason might be that you know what you’re planning is illegal or out of bounds, and you don’t want to give other officials the opportunity to object.
There’s one other substantial body evidence that supports this theory — the role of the Secret Service. According to multiple reports, the plan to clear the park was drawn up and overseen by Anthony Ornato, a Secret Service agent who was granted unprecedented leave to become Trump’s White House Deputy Chief of Staff. Ornato would later make headlines for contradicting key parts of former Pence aide Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony before the January 6 Committee. He’d also be called out by other White House staff for lying in defense of Trump.
We know from both video and the OIG report that Secret Service agents began clearing a portion of the park at 6:16pm. That’s about 15 minutes earlier than even the Park Police planned to begin, and 44 minutes before the D.C. curfew. It was also exactly one minute after Trump’s Rose Garden briefing was set to begin (it ended up starting a half hour late) — the one he concluded by starting his walk to the church.
The Secret Service clearance wasn’t just earlier than the actions of the other police agencies. It was also more violent, more confrontational, and included the use of pepper spray. And unlike the Park Police clearance 15 minutes later, it was not preceded by any warnings to protesters (though according to virtually all witnesses, including National Guard troops, even the Park Police warnings were inaudible.)
So the agency that operates in closest coordination with the White House, that is most responsible for the president’s safety, and that, according to multiple reports, is staffed with people fiercely loyal to Trump, is also the agency that acted with the most disregard for the protesters’ safety and constitutional rights. (The Secret Service agents who cleared the protesters also violated several of the agency’s crowd control policies, which call for multiple warnings, and for using munitions and chemical agents “only as a last resort.”)
If you’re a Secret Service agent turned political appointee who wants to carry out a legally dubious police action and bring others along who might otherwise object, a good strategy would be keep those agencies in the dark until the last minute, then start the action early, giving other law enforcement officers a stark choice — support their fellow officers, or stand by and do nothing.
Making the Secret Service the lead agency here is also smart because, as the name suggests, it’s the most secretive of the agencies involved, and the one least likely to be held least accountable.
And that’s exactly how this has played out. Recall that the Department of the Interior’s OIG has no jurisdiction over the Secret Service, so its investigators lacked the authority to compel interviews or request documents. That authority lies with the Department of Homeland Security’s OIG. That office was (and still is) headed by a scandal-plagued, Trump-appointed inspector general named Joseph Cuffari.
Cuffari has refused to investigate the agency’s role in Lafayette Park. He too would later be better known for his obfuscation of investigations into January 6 — in his case for blocking his own investigators’ efforts to recover text messages deleted from the phones of Secret Service agents after the January 6 insurrection. He’d also display a general incompetence that prompted much of his staff to resign.
The DOJ’s OIG has promised its own investigation into the role of Barr and other officials at Lafayette Park but more than three years later, that investigation is still pending.
At the Rose Garden speech, Trump was accompanied by Milley, Esper, Ivanka, Jared Kushner, Kayleigh McEnany, and several others, all of whom then accompanied Trump to the church. Milley and Esper would later claim they didn’t know the park had been forcibly cleared, and both have since expressed regret for participating in the stunt.
Milley was particularly angry. The day after the photo op, he sent a letter to the head of each branch of the U.S. military reminding them of their obligation to uphold the Constitution, and in particular their duty to protect and the defend rights of freedom of speech and assembly. It was a clear shot at Trump. Milley would later say it was a mistake to appear with Trump at the Rose Garden while in uniform, and that he nearly resigned afterward.
In his book, Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Bender reported that during the protests, Milley was often the only person talking Trump down from his more authoritarian instincts. According to Bender, multiple sources said Trump demanded that Barr, Milley, Esper, and others send police or soldiers to “beat the fuck out of” protesters, “crack their skulls,” or just straight up shoot them.
As for Esper, as noted above, while initial reports suggest he went along with Trump’s call for state violence, he appears to have quickly changed his tune. Though he told state governors to “dominate the battlespace” in that Monday morning phone call, he’d later publicly criticize Trump’s promise to invoke the Insurrection Act. In his memoir, Esper called the park clearance “excessive and unnecessary,” and added that Trump at one point inquired about “shooting protesters in the legs” — an account also backed by Milley and others.
What Trump World says
The Trump administration and its media ecosystem have made an array of ever-shifting claims to counter this narrative. Let’s look at those one by one.
Lafayette Park was cleared to enforce the curfew in Washington, D.C.
This was the first explanation the White House gave for why the park was cleared. It quickly fell apart when video showed the park being cleared more than a half-hour before the curfew. As noted, the D.C. police planned to wait until after the curfew before removing people. It was the two agencies most accountable to Trump — the Secret Service and Park Police — who insisted on clearing it earlier.
Trump World quickly dropped this excuse and moved onto the next one:
“The Lafayette Park protesters were expelled because they were violent.”
No amount of video evidence has been able to shake Trump defenders from their claim that the protesters were violent. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt claimed the park was in a “state of siege.” The day after the park was cleared, the Park Police put out a statement claiming protesters had hit with police with “projectiles including bricks, frozen water bottles and caustic liquids” at “approximately 6:33 pm.”
There’s no video evidence of any of this, save for a handful of incidents in which protesters threw eggs or water bottles at police, who were clad in full riot gear. It’s impossible to tell from video if those bottles were frozen, but the projectiles were sporadic. It was hardly a barrage. Conservative journalist Tim Carney was at the park at the time and reported, “there were [more] people shouting ‘stop throwing shit’ than there were people throwing shit.”
Moreover, the clearance couldn’t possibly have occurred in response to an escalation in protester “violence” at 6:33pm, because that would have been 15 minutes after the Secret Service had already moved on protesters. It was also 20 minutes after the Park Police official told the MPD assistant chief that the clearance was about to begin. At risk of stating the obvious, you can’t begin a police action “in response” to protester actions that have yet to occur.
As evidence of protester violence, Trump administration officials also claimed that to dozens of police officers had been injured. The Park Police claimed “51 members of the USPP were injured; of those, 11 were transported to the hospital and released and three were admitted.” A few days later, Barr claimed on TV that “150 law enforcement officers” had been injured, with “many taken to the hospital with concussions.”
In addition to being wildly disparate, these claims were curiously worded. They never explicitly indicated that the injuries occurred in Lafayette Park, on the day of the clearance, prior to the police action.
As it turns out, there’s good reason for that. The truth finally came out when Monahan was pinned down on the question while testifying before Congress — under oath. Monahan conceded that just one officer was injured on June 1, and that it happened after the clearance began, not before. Any other injuries — be it 50 or 150 — occurred on previous days, during previous protests, or not at all. (The administration never provided documentation for either figure.)
Again, at risk of stating the obvious, you can’t use violence against protesters in one part of the city on one day because of the actions of protesters in another part of the city, on a previous day. Well, you can. But not legally.
Finally, Trump supporters also claim the clearance and photo op were justified because a protester set fire to St. John’s Church the night before. (Sen. Ted Cruz claimed that the church had been “firebombed.”) In truth, there had been a small fire in the basement of the church that night. It was promptly extinguished. Church officials themselves said the fire didn’t merit the violent clearing of the park, which they too described as excessive and unnecessary.
The claims from the Trump administration and its supporters all stand in contrast to hundreds of hours of video and dozens of firsthand accounts from journalists, protesters, bystanders, and the clergy of St. John’s Church — all describing the protest as peaceful. One National Guard soldier sent to back up the Park Police and Secret Service later described the scene this way: “The crowd was loud but peaceful, and at no point did I feel in danger, and I was standing right there in the front of the line.” Another National Guard officer added, “Having served in a combat zone . . . at no time did I feel threatened by the protestors or assess them to be violent.”
“Lafayette Park was cleared to install some fencing as part of a plan to expand the security perimeter around the White House.”
About two weeks after the incident, a third narrative emerged. This is the one the OIG report would adopt in its report. The claim is that because of the violence and fires on previous nights, Barr, Ornato and the Secret Service decided to expand the security perimeter around the White House. Lafayette Park was cleared to allow workers to install additional fencing without interference from protesters — and all of this was decided well in advance of Trump’s plan to walk to the church.
In support of this theory, the OIG report cites emails about the fencing and perimeter, and points out that fencing materials did indeed arrive at the White House late in the afternoon of June 1.
There’s little dispute that the administration planned to expand the security perimeter or that new fencing was part of the plan. The question is about the timing and the tactics. Why did the fencing installation require the park to be cleared a half hour before curfew? And why did it require violent, confrontational tactics? Is it merely coincidence how neatly all of this fits with Trump’s expressed desire for a show of force, or how it fights with the timeline for Trump’s planned photo op, down to the minute?
The OIG report says the park was cleared prior to curfew because the fencing contractor “requested that because of the current environment at the park, installation of the fence occur before nightfall.”
There are several problems with this explanation. First, the fencing took five hours to install. It wasn’t completed until about 12:30am on June 2nd. Clearing the park at 6:30pm instead of 7 had little effect on preventing the contractor from having to work at night.
Second, it’s revealing what time the installation did begin. The park was cleared by 6:50pm. But the fence installation didn’t start until 7:30. What happened between 6:50 and 7:30 that may have prevented the contractor from starting sooner? The photo op, of course. Trump began his stroll from the White House to St. John’s at 7:01. He returned to the White House at 7:18. The fence installation started 12 minutes later.
Third, according to the same OIG report, the fencing could have been mostly installed during daylight hours if that had truly been a priority. When the fencing arrived at around 4:30pm, the contractor requested to install it right away — again, to avoid installing it at night. The Park Police said that would be impossible because the agency lacked the manpower to clear the park while it was full of protesters. Yet, two hours later, when the park contained even more protesters, they did exactly that. Something very quickly made clearing the park a top priority. It seems unlikely that it was the fencing.
Finally, as noted above, if this was indeed the plan from the start, it seems quite odd that it wasn’t communicated until the last minute to anyone other than those closest to Trump. I’ve already run down the surprise expressed by police officials at the park, including the commanding officer from the Park Police and assistant D.C. police chief, along with the comments from Milley and Esper saying they were unaware of the police action. But D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham was also surprised, telling the Washington Post, “We heard that there was going to be an unscheduled presidential movement. Just a few minutes later, our teams on the ground learned [chemical] munitions were going to be used. The munitions were deployed minutes later.”
And here’s Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel, head of the National Guard Bureau, and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “I never heard any plan, ever, that police or National Guard were going to push people out of Lafayette Square.”
It’s notable that in defending against the lawsuit brought by protesters, DOJ officials eventually argued precisely what Trump administration has long denied — clearing the park was necessary to ensure the president’s safety en route to the church. The federal district court judge overhearing the case agreed. “How do I get over the clear national security concern over the president’s safety?” she asked. “It seems to me you have to clear the square before he [Trump] walks to the church. Why is that not reasonable?”
When the federal government had to defend the Trump administration’s actions in court, it argued exactly what should have been obvious to everyone who has seen those videos. And ultimately, the argument that the park had to be cleared for Trump’s photo op was the justification won the day. It’s what protected Barr, other Trump administration officials, and federal law enforcement officers from liability.
“The removal of protesters wasn’t violent.”
In the days following the incident, the Park Police, Secret Service, and White House all tried to discredit media reports by insisting that law enforcement agencies never used teargas on protesters. Trump defenders like Mollie Hemingway at the Federalist credulously cited these denials as proof that the media botched the story. Trump then amplified those criticisms, and the White House demanded apologies and corrections.
But all of these claims came the face of clearly contradictory video evidence and numerous accounts from protesters, journalists, and bystanders. Those accounts included former military personnel who had experience with teargas, National Guard troops, and people affiliated with the same St. John’s Church Trump claimed to be “defending” — all of whom said they witnessed or suffered the effects of the gas firsthand.
When confronted with these accounts, the Park Police, Secret Service, and Trump administration retreated to a dubious technical distinction between teargas and pepper spray. The former is an artificial irritant and the latter is a natural one, but the effects are mostly the same. The whole argument was just a transparent attempt to change the subject from Trump’s violent expulsion of peaceful protesters to stage a ham-fisted photo op, to a pedantic argument about the chemical makeup of the irritants used during that expulsion dressed up as a media criticism.
Even this distinction was eventually rendered moot, as video analysis, spent canisters found at the scene, media investigations, and eventually the OIG report confirmed that the police agencies involved used both pepper spray and tear gas to clear the park.
Also worth noting: According to the OIG report, the BOP cell extraction teams sent by Barr arrived late, after the operation had already begun. The Park Police were apparently unaware they were even coming. Video showed at least one BOP officer shooting pepper balls at protesters who had done nothing wrong. Citing interviews with Park Police officials, the OIG report speculates that BOP officers may have heard flash grenades fired by Park Police officials in another part of the park, mistakenly thought they were fireworks set off by protesters, and responded by randomly firing pepper balls at the protesters around them. It’s just most evidence that this was a last-minute, slapdash show of force than a well-planned operation.
“The protesters were given multiple warnings to disperse.”
The Park Police and Monahan claimed that police gave multiple orders to protesters to disperse before moving in. This is important, because under a 2015 court order, police officials in D.C. must give protesters — even those violating curfew or other policies — three clearly-audible orders to disperse before taking action against them.
We now know that the Secret Service began clearing the park without giving any warning at all. As for the Park Police, dozens of witnesses, including National Guard troops, say they didn’t hear any warnings, nor can the warnings be heard on media and cell phone footage shot by those in the park.
Monahan would later testify that Park Police amplified the orders with an LRAD, commonly called a “sound canon.” But the only evidence of an LRAD on the premises is in a couple of grainy photos in the OIG report. D.C. National Guard Maj. Adam DeMarco testified that someone at the Department of Defense had requested an LRAD from the National Guard, but the Guard didn’t have one. (DeMarco also testified that the administration had requested a “heat ray” device, which inflicts intense pain onto the skin of anyone in its path.) According to their report, investigators on the Natural Resources Committee couldn’t find any evidence that Parks Police used an LRAD.
In sum, these protesters were demonstrating in a park with a long history of First Amendment activity. Their protest was legal. The city’s announced curfew was 7pm. The police began assaulting them more than 40 minutes early on one side of the park (with no warning), and nearly a half hour early on the other (with inaudible warnings).
There was no reason for these protesters to think they were about to be subjected to violence from police. And there was no opportunity for them to avoid it.
Why this matters
On some level, all of this feels futile. On one side you have Maj. DeMarco and Gen. Lengyel from the National Guard and the National Guard troops; officials with the D.C. and Arlington police departments; Chairman Milley and Sec. Esper; the eyewitness accounts of dozens of journalists, protesters, and bystanders; the documented chronology of the clearing and photo op; Trump’s history and previous statements; and hundreds of hours of video footage.
On the other side, you have the word of Trump, Barr, Monahan, and the limited OIG report. We can also look at what Trump said out loud, in public, in his Rose Garden address, as the park was being cleared:
“As we speak, I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults, and the wanton destruction of property.”
Trump not only knew the park was being cleared as he gave the speech that preceded his walk to the church, he boasted about it.
This gets at why this whole debate is so ridiculous. Trump wanted those images of protesters getting beaten and gassed — and wanted them juxtaposed with his triumphant stroll to the church. He wanted to be seen as the strongman unafraid to dispatch heavily armed troops to rough up a few unarmed radicals to impose order. That’s what his supporters wanted, too. The idea that the timing was entirely coincidental and this was actually about fencing is just farcical.
But this is also why it’s important to set the record straight, and not allow a clearly inaccurate narrative to linger. In addition to his fondness for strongmen, Trump has a history of prodding his supporters to commit political violence against his critics. As I write this, news just broke that the armed Trump supporter arrested outside the Obama home last month got the idea after Trump posted the Obamas’ address on his social media site. The same guy was also at the January 6th riots.
Trump doesn’t just proclaim that his political opponents are wrong, he calls them traitors and criminals who ought to be in prison. Trump believes a president’s relationship with federal law enforcement agencies is akin to that of a mob boss and his goons — that they exist to do his bidding. There’s also his weird habit of claiming bikers, cops, and troops are ready and eager to rise up in his defense should he ask them to.
This was all on display at Lafayette Park. It was a clumsy and desperate plea for attention, and Trump got exactly what he wanted. He got to show — at least in his own mind — that he was tough, that he faced down the protesters, that he reclaimed the streets. He got to accuse the media of spreading false information to boot. And he was never held to account for any of it.
Trump now knows he can get away with using federal police agencies to inflict violence for his political benefit. It’s a pretty safe bet that if he’s re-elected, he’ll do it again.
The hapless courts
It’s also important to set the record straight because the courts have little power to anyone accountable for these sorts of abuses. The D.C. Court of Appeals’s rejection of the protesters’ lawsuit had nothing to do with the merit of their claims. It turned only on the fact that the Supreme Court has made such lawsuits against federal officials all but impossible.
It was made even more difficult by the Trump administration’s — and then the Biden administration’s — invocation of national security. The federal courts are especially deferential to the executive branch, here. It was unlikely a federal court was ever going to second-guess Trump’s motives for going to the church. At best, a court might have looked at whether that decision necessitated clearing the park with such aggressive tactics. But once the Secret Service and DOJ said the police action was necessary to ensure the president’s safety, the protesters had little hope of holding anyone accountable.
Even so, the judges were clearly uneasy about this. From the majority opinion:
Appellants caution that such a ruling creates a “Constitution-free zone” by precluding . . . claims for any constitutional violation occurring in Lafayette Square due to its sensitive location, and treats national security as a “talisman used to ward off inconvenient claims.” . . . [T]o the extent Appellants’ fears come to fruition, it is a result of heeding the Supreme Court’s admonition to “ask ‘more broadly’ if there is any reason to think that ‘judicial intrusion’ into a given field might be ‘harmful’ or ‘inappropriate.’” . . . We decide only the availability of damages, not the existence of a constitutional violation.
Of the two concurring opinions, one suggested an alternate (though uncertain) route for protesters to recover damages through the Federal Tort Claims Act. The other felt obligated to (gently) prod the Supreme Court for its inconsistency on the law. Thought it provided cover for Trump, even the OIG report still found that Park Police failed to follow the law requiring clear, audible warnings before using force, and then used excessive force during the clearance itself. But it seems unlikely that there will be any legal accountability.
At the start of this post, I mentioned the Bonus March violence of 1932. I think there are some lessons there. The Bonus March was a protest staged by World War I veterans who were angry that they hadn’t been paid the wartime bonuses they were promised. When the Great Depression hit, thousands of veterans descended upon Washington, D.C. to demand what they were owed. They set up campsites, and refused to leave until they were paid. President Herbert Hoover eventually ordered the U.S. military to clear the campsites. A military contingent with tanks, bayonets, and tear gas led by George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, and his aide Dwight Eisenhower (who objected to the action) forcibly removed the marchers and burned their camps — all in front of a crowd of spectators, who booed and jeered the military action.
Here too, protesters were subjected to a violent crackdown ordered by the White House. Here too, the president misleadingly characterized the protests as violent. And here too, none of the officials faced legal or even administrative consequences for their clear abuses of power.
But the Bonus March violence did exact a political cost, which is likely why nothing like it has happened since. The crackdown only boosted public sympathy for the marchers, and further wounded the already hobbling incumbent President Hoover.
It also became an issue in the 1932 presidential campaign. Like Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt opposed paying the veterans the bonuses they were owed. But Roosevelt also thought Hoover’s decision to use violence against the protesters was a crass abuse of power. More importantly, Roosevelt knew the public was angry about how it all went down. Hoover would likely have lost anyway, but the Bonus March made the election all but certain. Hoover would later write of the crackdown, “The vision of Regular Army troops marching on veterans would provide propaganda for the Left for years to come.”
When the protests continued into his own administration, Roosevelt took a more conciliatory approach. He set up a camp for the marchers outside the city provided meals and transportation to the Capitol for the protests, and sent his wife to negotiate with them.
The Supreme Court (and Congress, through its inaction) has rendered the courts useless to question the propriety of and the motives behind what transpired in Lafayette Park. That leaves political pressure as the only remaining deterrent. The only way this doesn’t happen again is if the public makes clear that it won’t be tolerated.
And that begins with debunking Trump World’s increasingly preposterous attempts to convince us it never happened.