More than 1,250 former attorneys for the U.S. Justice Department called Wednesday for the agency’s internal watchdog to investigate the role Attorney General William Barr played in the aggressive police clearance of largely peaceful protesters from a park near the White House last week.
Police mounted on horses and officers on the ground firing pepper balls at the protesters cleared Lafayette Square minutes before President Donald Trump walked through the park June 1 for a photo-op at a nearby church where he held a Bible aloft.
Barr, the top U.S. law enforcement official, has acknowledged telling police commanders stationed at the park that he wanted the fencing perimeter surrounding the park extended a block farther away from the White House after three days of occasionally violent protests in Washington May 29-31.
But he has disputed accounts that clearing the park was directly related to Trump’s short walk, which Barr joined, through the park to St. John’s Episcopal Church.
The demonstrations were part of nationwide protests in the United States since the May 25 death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after he was held down on a city street by a white police officer who pressed a knee against his neck even as Floyd repeatedly said he could not breathe.
In a letter, the former Justice Department attorneys told the agency’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, that they were “deeply concerned about the Department’s actions, and those of Attorney General William Barr himself, in response to the nationwide lawful gatherings to protest the systemic racism that has plagued this country throughout its history.”
The lawyers said, “In particular, we are disturbed by Attorney General Barr’s possible role in ordering law enforcement personnel to suppress a peaceful domestic protest in Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020, for the purpose of enabling President Trump to walk across the street from the White House and stage a photo op at St. John’s Church, a politically motivated event in which Attorney General Barr participated.”
Even though U.S. attorneys general are appointed by Republican and Democratic presidents and serve at their will, there is a general understanding that they are to enforce U.S. law in an apolitical manner.
The former Justice Department attorneys, many of them career prosecutors in both Republican and Democratic administrations in Washington, asked Horowitz to “immediately open and conduct an investigation of the full scope of the Attorney General’s and the DOJ’s role” in clearing the park and related other actions aimed at controlling the protests.
“The rule of law, the maintenance of the Department’s integrity, and the very safety of our citizens demand nothing less,” the group wrote.
The Justice Department and Horowitz’s office declined comment.
In an interview last Sunday on the CBS News network, Barr said the Lafayette Park protesters “were not peaceful protesters. And that's one of the big lies that the media is – seems to be perpetuating at this point.”
Barr said protesters were given three warnings to clear the park before police and authorities clad in riot gear advanced on them, firing pepper balls.
Barr denied the use of chemical irritants such as tear gas in clearing Lafayette Park, although the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines the pepper spray that was used as a type of “tear gas” or “riot control agent.”
Barr said the park was cleared because of violent clashes that had erupted there from Friday to Sunday, May 29-31, with police “under constant attack.”
“On Sunday, things reached a crescendo,” Barr said. “The officers were pummeled with bricks. Crowbars were used to pry up the pavers at the park and they were hurled at police. There were fires set in not only St. John's Church (that Trump stood in front of Monday night a week ago), but a historic building at Lafayette was burned down.”
After the May 31 clashes, Barr said, U.S. Park Police decided to expand the fenced-in perimeter around the White House, where Trump, first lady Melania Trump and their son Barron live.
“When I came in Monday, it was clear to me that we did have to increase the perimeter on that side of Lafayette Park and push it out one block,” Barr said. “That decision was made by me in the morning. It was communicated to all the police agencies.”
The attorney general said he saw projectiles being thrown at police, but added, “Here's what the media is missing. This was not an operation to respond to that particular crowd. It was an operation to move the perimeter one block.”
CBS’s Margaret Brennan told Barr that to Americans watching on television it appeared that the park was cleared of protesters so Trump, accompanied by heavy security and top aides, could walk to St. John’s for his brief photo opportunity.
“In an environment where the broader debate is about heavy-handed use of force in law enforcement, was that the right message for Americans to be receiving?” she asked.
“Well, the message is sometimes communicated by the media,” Barr said. “I didn't see any video being played on the media of what was happening Friday, Saturday and Sunday” of the authorities being attacked by projectiles.
“All I heard was comments about how peaceful protesters were,” Barr said. “I didn't hear about the fact that there were 150 law enforcement officers injured and many taken to the hospital with concussions. So, it wasn't a peaceful protest. We had to get control over Lafayette Park, and we had to do it as soon as we were able to do that.”