Surprise! The media were wrong again. A recently published report from the Department of the Interior inspector general (IG) painted a different picture of a well-known event that took place in Lafayette Square last year. On June 1, 2020, amid protests and riots in the nation’s capital and across the country, then-President Donald Trump took what would soon become an iconic picture. Trump left the White House on that day and headed toward Lafayette Square to St John’s Church. The Episcopal “church of presidents” had been vandalized and burned just the night before. Making an emotional statement, the President stood in front of the building and held a bible for a photo op.
Outrage over his decision came after protesters were forcibly removed from the area. The news media claimed Trump instructed the police to aggressively disperse the crowd, on short notice, for his photo-op. It turns out, that was not true.
What Really Happened
In fact, the decision to clear the square of protesters was made days before June 1 so that a contractor could erect anti-scale fencing. The U.S. Park Police (USPP) was given explicit instructions on when they needed to move demonstrators out of the park. The fence installation was supposed to occur before 10 a.m. that day and Trump’s possible visit was scheduled to occur between 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
When 6 p.m. rolled around and the Park Police had still not carried out their orders, Attorney General William Barr asked the USPP commander if the protesters would be there when President Trump came out. As any professional law enforcement officer in charge would respond, he said: “Are you freaking kidding me?” The commander and his force were aware of their instructions and of the president’s plans but failed to act.
Instead of carrying out the disbursement slowly, calmly, and efficiently, they procrastinated an additional eight hours and then rushed to remove the protesters. Unfortunately, the situation turned controversial and chaotic – though the Park Police was not the only agency at fault, the IG report found.
The very large crowd of protesters was faced with tear gas and pepper balls. USPP was the only law enforcement agency with orders to respond to the situation. However, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) decided to show up, along with the Bureau of Prison Officers (BPO). Personnel from these agencies – and not the Park Police – fired off pepper balls and tear gas toward the demonstrators.
Contrary to media reports, then, the decision to clear the park was not made in order to provide Mr. Trump with a photo op. The investigation by the inspector general found that the police were acting well within their authority to break up the ongoing protest, even if they were late in doing so. Three warnings to disperse from the area had been given. Some protesters claim they did not hear these announcements, however. The inspector general’s bottom-line conclusion? The president’s visit to St John’s Church was unrelated to both the fence installation and the controversial clearance of protesters.
Upon hearing the news, the former president released a statement thanking the Department of the Interior for exonerating him. He also criticized the fake news media, specifically CNN, for spreading misinformation. At the time CNN had claimed that “peaceful protesters near the White House were gassed, shot with rubber bullets so Trump can have a photo-op.”
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