WASHINGTON – Attorney General William Barr personally ordered law enforcement officials on the ground to clear the streets around Lafayette Square just before President Donald Trump spoke Monday, a Justice Department official said, a directive that prompted a show of aggression against a crowd of largely peaceful protesters, drawing widespread condemnation.
The forceful effort to squelch the demonstration came as Trump has sought to flex the federal government’s muscle in response to a wave of unrest across the country, filling the streets in the District of Columbia with federal law enforcement officers from multiple agencies.
On Tuesday, city officials said the White House had pushed to take control of the District police force to quell protests, an effort that Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, said she rejected. Still, by Tuesday evening, National Guard Humvees were streaming through downtown as officers from the Drug Enforcement Administration, Department of Homeland Security and Park Police were positioned throughout the capital.
Bowser said that she had not requested any help from outside the city and that she has sought to fend off Trump’s attempts to deploy active-duty military throughout Washington.
The president – furious about criticism that he has not done enough to stop the protests and violence that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis – told senior advisers Monday that they had to show they could control the streets of Washington and the area around the White House, according to two people familiar with his comments who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
If they did not, it would send a bad signal to the rest of the country and they would look weak, he said. “You can’t have a burning church in front of the White House was the president’s message,” one person said.
Trump cheered on the dramatic show of force, tweeting Tuesday: “D.C. had no problems last night. Many arrests. Great job done by all. Overwhelming force. Domination.”
His willingness to press the outer limits of presidential powers was sharply denounced by local leaders and congressional Democrats such as Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who compared Trump’s actions to that of a dictator. Several Democratic House chairmen pressed the administration for testimony and documents about the decision to disperse protesters outside the White House with force.
And it did not dissuade protesters. By Tuesday evening, as the curfew arrived, several thousand people amassed in Lafayette Square, facing a line of law enforcement officials. “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” hundreds chanted.
On Monday evening, officers from the Park Police and other agencies used smoke canisters, pepper balls, riot shields, batons and officers on horseback to shove and chase people gathered to protest the death of Floyd. At one point, a line of police rushed a group of protesters, many of whom were standing still with their hands up, forcing them to race away, coughing from smoke. Some were struck by rubber bullets.
Secret Service officers then surrounded the area and created a protective zone for Trump, who moments later crossed the street and made an appearance outside St. John’s Church, joined by Barr and other administration officials.
On Tuesday, the administration offered conflicting explanations for the forcible removal of the protesters, seeking to separate the move from Trump’s visit to the church.
The White House asserted that the crowd was dispersed to help enforce the city’s 7 p.m. curfew, although District police had not requested such assistance. The Park Police said that its officers responded after protesters began throwing projectiles.
Other administration officials said the move to clear the crowd was part of a previously planned effort to extend the perimeter around Lafayette Square. Two federal law enforcement officials said that authorities decided either late Sunday or early Monday to broaden it by one block and that Barr participated in those discussions.
The plan was to be executed the following afternoon, according to the Justice Department official, who was not authorized to comment ahead of Barr addressing the matter himself publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity. But when Barr went to survey the scene, he was “surprised” to find the perimeter had not been extended and huddled with law enforcement officials on the ground, the Justice Department official said.
“He conferred with them to check on the status and basically said: ‘This needs to be done. Get it done,’ ” the Justice Department official said.
Police soon moved on the protesters.
District city officials said they were not involved in the decision to use force, which Bowser called “shameful.”
“I didn’t see any provocation that would warrant the deployment of munitions, and especially for the purpose of moving the president across the street,” the mayor said at a Tuesday news conference.
District Attorney General Karl Racine, a Democrat, said in a statement that the District was “now reckoning with an unhinged president responding to nonviolent demonstration with war-like tactics.”
And officials with Virginia’s Arlington County, which had dispatched officers from a civil disturbance unit in response to a mutual-aid request from the Park Police, said their police officers found themselves unexpectedly confronting protesters.
“We were being used. . . . We had been asked to do something that turned out to be a political stunt,” said County Manager Mark Schwartz, who said officials are now reevaluating the county’s role the regional mutual-aid pact.
Throughout Tuesday, several federal agencies involved in the response declined to answer questions about who ordered the use of force and the clearing of the park, which occurred just before Trump’s visit there.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on who gave the order, referring questions to law enforcement agencies. The Secret Service declined to comment.
Defense officials on Tuesday said the National Guard did not participate in the decision to clear Lafayette Square on Monday evening and did not take part in firing any rubber bullets or gas.
A Justice Department spokeswoman said Monday that Trump had directed Barr to personally “lead” the response to the unrest. Less than an hour before police moved to clear the peaceful demonstrators from in front of Lafayette Square, Barr was captured on camera with officials at the scene, including Tony Ornato, the White House deputy chief of staff.
Ornato was involved in discussions Monday with Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and other top White House officials about a possible visit by Trump to St. John’s Church. Meadows told others the idea was suggested by the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, according to two administration officials and first reported by the New York Times. Aides worked on plans for much of the afternoon, though a final decision was not made until after 6 p.m., a senior administration official said.
There were also talks about invoking the Insurrection Act, a 19th-century law rarely used in modern history that allows the president to deploy the military domestically, but some advisers, including Barr, argued against it.Most aides were told to go home at 4 p.m. because of the city curfew, according to a memo reviewed by The Washington Post.
Ornato ultimately contacted the Secret Service to arrange for the president to make a brief appearance the church, according to two people familiar with the plans. Following protocol, the Secret Service alerted other law enforcement agencies that it would need help clearing the area for the president’s safety, they said.
Black-clad officers and agents of the Secret Service’s civil disturbance unit stood by during the tense confrontation with protesters and then helped secure the emptied-out streets. Trump told an ally Monday after the visit that the Secret Service was not “thrilled” about the idea of him visiting the church.
It was unclear when Barr learned Trump would be walking across the square to appear in front of St. John’s. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on that question.
When Barr ordered the perimeter to be pushed back, the Justice Department official said, the attorney general “assumed that any resistance from the protesters of being moved would be met with typical crowd-control measures.”
The official said Barr had been told on the scene that there were reports of the crowd passing rocks among themselves and that a bottle had been thrown in his direction. Washington Post reporters who were at the square did not witness protesters using any rocks.
The official defended Barr’s decision. “This plan was happening, regardless of any plans of the president,” the official said.
One senior administration official said that Trump and other senior White House officials wanted the perimeter pushed back to I Street NW and that they expected it to happen earlier in the day. “We weren’t saying to push it back just so he could go to the church,” the official said. “That was not the reason it was pushed back.”
The official added that the goal was to spread protesters across the city and not just around the White House and to have armed D.C. National Guard officers help enforce curfew.
About 30 minutes after the protesters were removed, Trump arrived at the church and posed for a photograph outside it, holding a Bible. Afterward, he told allies and advisers that he believed the event had gone well, and his mood improved.
The use of such aggressive force startled some veteran former officers of the Secret Service and other federal agencies, because it appeared to be rushed and unprovoked by protesters.
The line of officers rushing protesters, many of whom were standing still with their arms in the air, violated the normal protocol for clearing protesters, something the Secret Service accomplishes dozens of times a year in Lafayette Square without ever tossing smoke canisters or using riot shields.
“Usually officers hold a line and don’t move forward unless there is provocation,” said one former Secret Service agent who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe operational procedures. “The officers give constant warnings and communicate clearly with the crowd. But here it seems like there is some time pressure; they were acting like a bomb is about to go off.”
Another veteran former Secret Service agent who reviewed video of the treatment of protesters said he feared that the order from Barr signaled a worrisome shift in who calls the shots about deploying use of force.
“We protect the president,” he said of the Secret Service. “We don’t report to the president. It feels like that line has now been blurred.”
The Secret Service, which has the legal power to clear any area for the president’s safety, did not respond to questions seeking an explanation of its decision-making.
“For operational security reasons, the U.S. Secret Service does not discuss our protective means and methods,” the agency said in a statement.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement that “the perimeter was expanded to help enforce the 7 p.m. curfew in the same area where rioters attempted to burn down one of our nation’s most historic churches the night before. Protesters were given three warnings by the U.S. Park Police.”
However, reporters who were on the scene and protesters said they could not make out any audible warnings.
Zach Slavin, 32, said he was leaning against the metal barricade separating authorities from protesters when he saw the line of officers starting to move up in coordinated bursts. He heard “mumbled announcements” over the loudspeaker but was not able to discern what was being said.
“There was absolutely nothing that was understandable,” said Slavin, adding that he had been following police guidance throughout the day.
At 6:30 p.m., Slavin said, officers passed instructions down the line, then suddenly burst forward past the barricade. A thick cloud descended over the crowd, he said, and armed officers on foot started firing rubber pellets at people.
“There was no warning,” Slavin said. With a bandanna around his face, Slavin began coughing and felt gas stinging his eyes, he said. As he tried to break free from the crowd, several canisters were dropped a few feet away from him and exploded. These explosives were dropped in the middle of the crowd, within several feet of at least a hundred people or more, he said. Officers continued firing rubber pellets at protesters who were already backing up.
The officers “were acting like terrorists,” said Slavin, an 11-year District resident. “I was being chased by police on the streets of my own city.”
Park Police spokesman Eduardo Delgado disputed that officers were not at risk. He said that officers were provoked by protesters throwing frozen water bottles and that there were other indicators of more serious potential harm the crowd could do. “We had intel that there were glass bottles they had stashed at the church to throw at us,” Delgado said. “They had caches of supplies, bricks.”
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The Washington Post’s Hannah Natanson, Tom Jackman, Missy Ryan, Peter Hermann, Fenit Nirappil, Patricia Sullivan and Nick Miroff contributed to this report.