OIG Report: Protests in Lafayette Park weren’t broken up for Trump photo op

In this Monday, June 1, 2020 file photo, President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits outside St. John’s Church across Lafayette Park from the White House in Washington. Part of the church was set on fire during protests the previous night. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

A federal investigation has found that last year’s decision to forcibly clear racial justice protesters from DC’s Lafayette Park, while blemished with several errors from Park Police, was not made so Trump could stage a photo op at St. John’s Church.

A report released Wednesday by the US Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General said law enforcement cleared protesters to allow contractors to safely install anti-scale fencing around the park.

The government watchdog also said US Park Police failed to give dispersal warnings loud enough for everyone to hear and didn’t properly communicate with assisting law enforcement including the Secret Service. Those missteps, the office said, created coordination lapses that led to confusion and the improper use of tactics.

The protests in question began on May 29, 2020, centered around the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer. They lasted for several days before law enforcement began clearing the park in the evening hours of June 1, 2020.

According to the report, as law enforcement waited for contractors and backup to show up so they could clear the park, former Attorney General William Barr approached a USPP official near the park around 6:10 p.m., asking “Are these people still going to be here when POTUS comes out?”

The official replied “Are you freaking kidding me?” and walked away.

The official told investigators that he didn’t know Trump was on his way to the church before he spoke with Barr, the plan to clear the park already being underway. Investigators said there was no evidence that Barr influenced Park Police’s plans on that day, and Barr has denied giving orders to disperse protesters.

“I’m not involved in giving tactical commands like that,” Barr told the Associated Press in an interview about the incident. “I was frustrated and I was also worried that as the crowd grew, it was going to be harder and harder to do. So my attitude was get it done, but I didn’t say, ‘Go do it.’”

Soon after Barr spoke with the USPP official, hundreds of law enforcement officers from nine different agencies charged protesters. The LEOs used rubber bullets, pepper balls, and batons to disperse the crowds — an act that was widely criticized and declared by some to be a brutal overreach of power from the federal government.

US Park Police said protesters threw bricks, frozen water bottles, and ‘caustic liquids’ at officers, however, a review of video footage by the Washington Post said the items were much less harmful household items such as candy and eggs.

After the park was cleared, the report says, Trump, Barr, and others “walked from the White House through Lafayette Park to St. John’s Church,” where the former president took several photographs holding a bible.

Less than an hour later, the office found, a contractor began working on the new high-security fencing and installed it within a few hours.

“The evidence we reviewed showed that the USPP cleared the park to allow a contractor to safely install antiscale fencing in response to destruction of Federal property and injury to officers that occurred on May 30 and May 31,” Inspector General Mark Lee Greenblatt said in a statement.

“Moreover, the evidence established that relevant USPP officials had made those decisions and had begun implementing the operational plan several hours before they knew of a potential Presidential visit to the park, which occurred later that day. As such, we determined that the evidence did not support a finding that the USPP cleared the park on June 1, 2020, so that then President Trump could enter the park.”

The report doesn’t address various allegations of excessive use of force stemming from the incident, however, does give two recommendations to USPP to develop “a more detailed policy defining the procedures for operations involving protests that may require use of force but do not involve high-volume arrests” and orders them to improve the agency’s “field communication procedures to better manage multiagency operations and to promote operational consistency among law enforcement organizations working jointly with the USPP.”

“We make two recommendations to the USPP to improve its handling of future engagements of this type, and the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) stated that it will implement changes in accordance with our recommendations,” Greenblatt said. “We believe that if the DOI implements the recommendations from our review of the events of June 1 in Lafayette Park to future activities, USPP efforts to protect these locations and those who visit them will improve for similar operations.”

Later on Wednesday, former President Trump released a statement using the OIG’s report to exonerate himself.

“Thank you to the Department of the Interior Inspector General for Completely and Totally exonerating me in the clearing of Lafayette Park!” he said.

“As we have said all along, and it was backed up in today’s highly detailed and professionally written report, our fine Park Police made the decision to clear the park to allow a contractor to safely install antiscale fencing to protect from Antifa rioters, radical BLM protestors, and other violent demonstrators who are causing chaos and death to our cities. In this instance, they tried burning down the church the day before the clearing. Fortunately, we were there to stop the fire from spreading beyond the basement — and it was our great honor and privilege to do so. Again, thank you to the Inspector General!”