WASHINGTON — More than 1,250 former Justice Department workers on Wednesday called on the agency’s internal watchdog to investigate Attorney General William Barr’s involvement in law enforcement’s move last week to push a crowd of largely peaceful demonstrators back from Lafayette Square using horses and gas.
In a letter to Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, the group said it was “deeply concerned about the Department’s actions, and those of Attorney General William Barr himself, in response to the nationwide lawful gatherings to protest the systemic racism that has plagued this country throughout its history.”
“In particular, we are disturbed by Attorney General Barr’s possible role in ordering law enforcement personnel to suppress a peaceful domestic protest in Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020, for the purpose of enabling President Trump to walk across the street from the White House and stage a photo op at St. John’s Church, a politically motivated event in which Attorney General Barr participated,” the group wrote.
The group asked Horowitz to “immediately open and conduct an investigation of the full scope of the Attorney General’s and the DOJ’s role” in that and other events.
“The rule of law, the maintenance of the Department’s integrity, and the very safety of our citizens demand nothing less,” the group wrote.
A Justice Department spokeswoman and a spokeswoman for Horowitz declined to comment.
The signatories are mostly former career prosecutors, supervisors and trial lawyers who are not household names and worked in both Republican and Democratic administrations. The letter was organized by the nonprofit group Protect Democracy, which has organized similar missives in the past calling on Barr to resign and asserting Trump would have been charged with obstructing special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe were he not protected from indictment by his office.
Federal law enforcement’s June 1 move on protesters near the White House has faced widespread criticism — in part because of the forceful tactics used on the mostly nonviolent crowd, and in part because soon after the demonstrators were moved, Trump walked across the now empty area to pose for a photo, with Barr and others, at St. John’s Church.
For his part, though, Barr has repeatedly and forcefully defended the police action and his involvement in it, offering an account that sometimes contradicts what happened.
By Barr’s latest telling, Park Police had decided the night before that the security perimeter outside the White House should be extended because of violent demonstrations there in the days prior. He said he gave that direction to law enforcement about 2 p.m. Monday. Hours later — just before police moved in — Barr was spotted on the scene, and a Justice Department official and the White House press secretary have said he was telling officers on the scene to put the plan into action. Barr, though, has disputed giving “tactical commands” of the operation.
Barr has sought to cast the crowd as an unruly one, telling Fox News that bottles were thrown at him that day. He has also said the crowd was given three warnings before police moved in.
A Washington Post analysis of videos from June 1 showed some bottles being thrown, but the crowd was largely peaceful when police moved in. Because of the crowd noise, the analysis showed, police’s warnings were virtually inaudible.
Barr has also sought to make counterfactual claims about the degree of force used. He has disputed, for example, that tear gas was used; reporters and demonstrators were hit with a noxious gas that induced severe coughing and tears. Park Police have acknowledged using pepper balls; Barr sought to dispute to CBS that pepper spray was a chemical irritant, or even a chemical at all. That is incorrect.
Asked on Fox News this week if he would do anything different in Lafayette Square, Barr responded, “Based on what I know now, no.” He also specifically defended Trump’s decision to walk to the church — though he insisted police did not push back demonstrators to facilitate that.
“I don’t see anything wrong with the president walking over to the church,” Barr said.
The former Justice Department workers said they were also concerned with Barr’s “deployment of federal law enforcement officers throughout the country, and especially within the District of Columbia, to participate in quelling lawful First Amendment activity.” Barr had tapped every Justice Department law enforcement agency — including the Bureau of Prisons and Drug Enforcement Administration — to help respond to the protests. Some of the Bureau of Prisons teams were not clearly marked as such.
“Especially in view of the events in Lafayette Square, we have no assurance that these officers are lawfully deployed, that they will respect the rights of the civilians they encounter, or that there are proper mechanisms in place to identify and investigate possible law enforcement misconduct,” the former Justice Department officials wrote.
While Horowitz might be able to investigate some of what the former officials want, he could face some jurisdictional limits. The inspector general is legally restricted from investigating some allegations having to do with department attorneys and the legal decisions they make, which are considered the purview of the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility.