WASHINGTON — An internal government investigation has determined that the decision to forcibly clear racial justice protesters from an area in front of the White House last summer was not influenced by then-President Donald Trump's plan to stage a Bible-toting photo opportunity at that spot.
The report released Wednesday by the Interior Department's inspector general concludes that the protesters were cleared by U.S. Park Police last June 1 so that a contractor could get started installing new fencing.
The demonstrators were protesting the death of George Floyd, who died after a then-Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck and pinned him to the ground for about 9 1/2 minutes. A half-hour after the Washington protesters were forced from the area with pepper pellets and flash-bangs, Trump walked across Lafayette Park amid the lingering scent of pepper spray and delivered a short speech while holding a Bible in front of St. John's Church.
Park Police officials had already planned to clear the area and "had begun implementing the operational plan several hours before they knew of a potential Presidential visit to the park," Inspector General Mark Lee Greenblatt said in a statement accompanying the report.
The report documents Trump's attorney general, William Barr, encouraging commanders shortly before the push to clear the protesters because of Trump, but being dismissed.
In a remarkable exchange, the report recounts the testimony of an unnamed Park Police operations commander: "The Attorney General asked him, 'Are these people still going to be here when POTUS (President of the United States) comes out?' 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."
The report determined that the decision to clear the protesters was justified, but that law enforcement agencies on the scene failed to effectively communicate with each other and failed to communicate warnings to the protesters about the impending crackdown. Several different law enforcement agencies moved ahead of schedule and started engaging with protesters before the protesters had been sufficiently warned.
The confrontation and church photo-op capped several days of escalating tension and scattered violence. Nights of protests over Floyd's death had resulted in scattered vandalism through the downtown area. Trump declared that Washington's mayor, Muriel Bowser, was incapable of maintaining the peace and he called in his own security response.
The report details how on June 1, a contingent from the Bureau of Prisons arrived to the scene late, didn't receive a full briefing and used pepper pellets on protesters "contrary to the USPP incident commander's instructions."
The conclusions, which deny any political influence on decisions and cite fog-of-war confusion for any missteps, are likely to be dismissed as insufficient by critics of last summer's crackdown.
Lafayette Park, the Washington nexus of the last summer's national wave of racial justice protests, is under Park Police jurisdiction; that agency falls under the Interior Department.
The new report focuses on the Park Police decision-making and its complicated interactions with various law enforcement entities, including the Secret Service and the Metropolitan Police Department.
It points out that "the USPP and the Secret Service did not use a shared radio channel to communicate" and determines that "weaknesses in communication and coordination may have contributed to confusion during the operation."
The report tries to explain one of the main points of lingering contention: who used tear gas and when? It concludes that members of the city's police department, who were stationed down the block, used CS gas near the corner of 17th and H Street.
In the aftermath of that day, the Park Police repeatedly insisted that its officers never used tear gas, while the the police insisted that its officers were not involved in clearing protesters away from the church. Just last month, lawyers for the police department stated in federal court that its officers had used CS gas and other chemical irritants, claiming protesters had become violent and that one officer had his arm burned by a firework.
Much of the criticism of the clearing, and the accusations of political influence, stem from the decision to move in before the 7 p.m. curfew that Bowser had set. The push surprised protesters and was criticized as unnecessarily confrontational after two nights of clashes and property damage.
The report concludes that Park Police commanders viewed the curfew as irrelevant. It cites an incident commander as saying, "We were not enforcing the Mayor's curfew. We're a Federal entity. We don't work directly for the Mayor."
It continues that commanders on the scene "did not believe protesters would comply with the Mayor's June 1 curfew order or that waiting would necessarily reduce unrest."