Law enforcement cleared protesters outside of Lafayette Square last year so contractors could install new anti-riot fencing, not to make way for former President Donald Trump’s controversial photo-op outside a D.C. church, a new federal government probe report released Wednesday found.
Interior Department inspector general Mark Lee Greenblatt issued the findings after investigating why U.S. Park Police used pepper pellets and other crowd control tactics to clear activists in Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020, before Trump walked through the square to St. John’s Episcopal Church, which had been damaged by protesters the night before.
Trump’s photo-op was roundly criticized, as it first appeared the protesters had been removed specifically so the former president could pose for a publicity stunt.
Greenblatt found no evidence to conclude law enforcement “cleared the park to allow the president to survey the damage and walk to St. John’s Church.”
Instead, Greenblatt said that Park Police and Secret Service had already concluded early on the morning of June 1 that it “was necessary to clear protesters from the area in and around the park to enable the contractor’s employees to safely install the fence,” according to the report.
The Park Police “did not know” about the president’s photo-op plan until mid-to late afternoon on June 1, hours after it already concluded it needed to clear the protesters to install the fence.
Greenblatt concluded the Park Police had the “authority and discretion” to clear the protesters that day, but law enforcement did not sufficiently warn the protesters ahead of time and law enforcement did not effectively communicate with one another, leading to “confusion” on the front lines and excessive use of force.
According to the report, the operation to install the fence—and clear the protesters—began at 6:23 p.m. local time, about half an hour before Trump began his walk from the White House at 7:01 p.m. Law enforcement used pepper bullets to push back the protesters— a tactic met with widespread criticism by protesters and observers at the time. The report found the decision to use the increased force was made “contrary to the USPP incident commander’s instructions.” But the agency’s missteps were due to miscommunication on the front lines, not pressure from the White House, the report found. The Park Police and the Secret Service “did not use a shared radio channel to communicate,” the report states. Contrary to accusations from some critics, officials were not pressured to move in and clear the protesters because of the 7 p.m. curfew set by Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. According to the report, officers perceived the curfew as “irrelevant” because the Park Police are a federal agency.
According to the report, then-Attorney General Bill Barr encouraged the Park Police commanding officer to clear the protesters specifically for Trump’s photo op, but was rebuffed. “The Attorney General asked him, ‘Are these people still going to be here when POTUS comes out?’” an anonymous Park Police official recounts in the report. “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.”
“Thank you to the Department of the Interior Inspector General for Completely and Totally exonerating me in the clearing of Lafayette Park!” Trump said in a statement Wednesday.