Government watchdog finds failings, but no Trump influence, in clearing of Lafayette Square
A government watchdog has determined the law enforcement agencies responsible for clearing protesters gathered outside the White House last summer failed to fully warn the crowd to disperse while fractured radio communications led officers to use chemical irritants that had not been authorized.
The report from the Department of the Interior’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) is the first to evaluate the June 1 clearing of protesters shortly before former
crossed Lafayette Square for a photo-op at a nearby church with a Bible in hand.
While the event spurred accusations from lawmakers and others that the protesters were cleared to enable Trump’s passage to the church, the report ultimately determined that Trump’s plans to visit the park did not influence the officers' decision to clear it.
The OIG found that while law enforcement learned on the day of the incident that Trump might visit, U.S. Park Police (USPP), the lead agency overseeing Lafayette Square, had already planned to clear the park in order to install additional fencing around the White House.
“The evidence established that relevant USPP officials had made those decisions and had begun implementing the operational plan several hours before they knew of a potential Presidential visit to the park, which occurred later that day,” the report states.
In a statement released after the report, Trump claimed the review "completely and totally" exonerated his involvement, adding the fencing was needed in response to "violent demonstrators."
The protests that day have been described as largely peaceful. The incident, one of several protests across the country in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, earned a swift rebuke from those who argued the numerous officers reacted inappropriately in their use of force.
The report also paints a picture of a collection of seven law enforcement agencies that failed to act in concert, with some agencies using tear gas that had not been cleared for use and jumping in to disperse protesters before final warnings to the crowd had been given.
“Although the USPP used a sound-amplifying long-range acoustic device to issue three dispersal warnings to the crowd on June 1, not everyone could hear the warnings,” the report stated.
“Multiple officers told us they either did not hear the warnings or could not clearly hear the information conveyed in the warnings. One USPP officer told us that given the size and noise level of the crowd, he believed it was unlikely that all protesters could hear the warnings,” it states.
The miscommunications also occurred between law enforcement themselves.
Contrary to the plan, some officers began deploying before the third and final warning could be issued to protesters.
And though Park Police had instructed its officers to not use tear gas, Bureau of Prisons officers, who arrived on the scene late, did not apparently receive a full readout of which chemical agents they could use.
And the scene was further complicated by a number of other crowd-clearing agents in use.
One Park Police officer told investigators that “because the USPP officers clearing H Street did not communicate over the radio when they used flash bang or stinger ball grenades, both of which emit a loud sound when used, personnel inside the park could not determine whether the noise was from munitions or fireworks set off by protesters. He speculated that the BOP may have perceived that explosions from the grenades came from the crowd instead and reacted accordingly.”
D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department also used tear gas at the scene, even though the agency “was not a participant in or under the control of the USPP and the Secret Service’s unified command.”
Lawmakers who requested the investigation were largely disappointed by the extent to which OIG reviewed the use of force of officers on the scene.
"Serious questions remain about why such violent tactics were used,” Sen.
(D-Ore.), one such lawmaker, said in a statement.
“Additionally, the report’s findings that the U.S. Park Police were unaware of Trump’s planned photo op are irrelevant, as it appears they were still used as political pawns by former Attorney General Bill Barr to clear the park quickly. Americans deserve more answers on why those peacefully exercising their constitutional right to protest were met with force.”
The report is the first to come from several ongoing investigations surrounding the incident.
The Interior’s inspector general did not seek to interview former Attorney General
for the report or other White House officials, noting other investigations by watchdogs at the Department of Justice and the Government Accountability Office.
The Park Police's acting chief said department's incident commander told him about Trump’s potential visit to assess damage to the park at some point between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. that day, while the protesters were cleared after 6 p.m.
The Park Police operations commander said that when he told Barr that the authorities were getting ready to move the crowd, Barr asked him, “Are these people still going to be here when POTUS [President of the United States] comes out?”
Per the report, the commander did not appear to previously know that Trump would enter the park and reportedly responded, “Are you freaking kidding me?” then hung his head and walked away.
The official said that Barr did not order him to clear the park, which conflicts with some reporting from the time which that said the attorney general gave the order to disperse protesters, something Barr himself has denied.
The incident commander told the watchdog that he didn’t consider waiting until the Washington, D.C., curfew of 7 p.m. to clear the park, saying, “We were not enforcing the Mayor’s curfew. We’re a Federal entity. We don’t work directly for the Mayor.”
The inspector general determined that it was within the Park Police’s discretion to decide when to start the operation, saying it did not find any law or rule requiring it to wait.
House Natural Resources Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), expressed disappointment in the report and said his committee would continue with its own investigation.
"Americans are no longer satisfied with taking law enforcement’s word as the gospel truth when skepticism is warranted, and I come away from this report skeptical of the version presented here,” he said in a statement.
“The Lafayette Square crackdown was played on repeat on televisions around the world and raised serious questions about why heavily armed law enforcement attacked peaceful civilians practicing their constitutional rights. Not only does this report not answer those questions, it doesn’t even seem to acknowledge them. Our own investigation is ongoing, and we will continue to pursue answers to the questions this report didn’t satisfactorily address.”
--Updated at 3:24 p.m.