Federal officers cleared Black Lives Matter demonstrators from Lafayette Park near the White House in June 2020 in order to install fencing, not to make way for a photo-op for President Trump, the Inspector General for the Department of the Interior said on Wednesday.
Trump critics have alleged that the former president ordered the clearing of the area in order to pose for a photograph outside the adjacent St. John’s Church. Black Lives Matter activists claim that Trump ordered the clearing of demonstrators in an ongoing lawsuit against the Justice Department.
However, Inspector General Mark Greenblatt found that the federal Park Police gave the order to clear Lafayette Park hours before anyone knew Trump would be visiting the church. The police consulted then-attorney general William Barr before the action, but even Barr did not know at the time that Trump would visit the church.
“The evidence we reviewed showed that the (Park Police) cleared the park to allow a contractor to safely install anti-scale fencing in response to destruction of Federal property and injury to officers that occurred on May 30 and May 31,” Greenblatt wrote in a report released Wednesday. “Moreover, the evidence established that relevant (Park Police) 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.”
Greenblatt noted that Barr visited the park hours prior to Trump’s arrival, and urged Park Police to speed up the process of clearing the area after Trump decided to go St. John’s Church. The commander on site told Barr that he had not known Trump would be coming, and told the former attorney general “are you freaking kidding me” when informed of the impending visit.
Prominent Democrats, and some Republicans, accused Trump of having caused the clash between protesters and the police by demanding the park be cleared to facilitate his photo-op at the time.
“Tear-gassing peaceful protestors without provocation just so that the President could pose for photos outside a church dishonors every value that faith teaches us,” House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) and then-Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said in a statement on June 1, 2020.
“Trump ordered Federal law enforcement to violently assault Americans who stood in his way of a disgusting, crass photo op,” Senator Tammy Duckworth (D., Il.) said on June 2, 2020.
Then-Senator Kamala Harris lashed out at Trump over the alleged publicity stunt in a June 2 press conference.
“Last night I watched as President Trump, having gassed peaceful protesters just so he could do this photo op, then he went on to teargas priests who were helping protesters in Lafayette Park,” she said.
“I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the Word of God as a political prop,” Senator Ben Sasse (R., Neb.) said in his own statement.
Former defense secretary James Mattis also condemned Trump following the incident.
“Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside,” Mattis said.
Numerous media outlets also reported that the park was cleared to make way for Trump.
“Peaceful Protesters Tear-Gassed To Clear Way For Trump Church Photo-Op,” read NPR’s headline.
In an article published the same week, USA Today asserted that the White House “forcibly clear[ed] protesters from a park in front of the White House, so Trump could walk across the street and pose with a Bible in front of a historic church.”
ABC’s George Stephanopoulos said on-air that “the administration asked police to clear peaceful protesters from the park across the White House so that the President could stage a photo op.”