At separate congressional hearings on Tuesday, two Trump administration officials insisted that the violent police crackdown against protesters at Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., on June 1 was about erecting a fence rather than making way for President Donald Trump to pose for photos outside a nearby church.
Acting U.S. Park Police Chief Gregory Monahan told members of the House Natural Resources Committee that park police faced “unprecedented and sustained” violence from protesters in the days before June 1 and acted with “tremendous restraint” to de-escalate the situation. Officers did not act on the order of the White House or any administration official, and there was “zero correlation between our operation and the president’s visit to the church,” he said.
The timing suggests otherwise. Approximately 30 minutes after police began clearing the park using chemical irritants, pepper balls and batons, Trump and an entourage made their way through Lafayette Park to the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, where Trump awkwardly held up a Bible for photographers.
“We did not clear the park for a photo-op,” Monahan testified. “There was 100% ― zero ― no correlation between our operation and the president’s visit to the church.”
While previous witness accounts and a detailed video analysis by The Washington Post indicate that the June 1 protest was overwhelmingly peaceful, Monahan called the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Washington, D.C., “one of the most violent protests that I’ve been a part of in my 23 years with the United States Park Police.” In the days before June 1, more than 50 park police officers were injured, he said.
Attorney General William Barr, whom a Justice Department official told the Post ordered the police crackdown, told lawmakers during a separate hearing Tuesday that he learned “sometime in the afternoon that the president might come out of the White House,” but like Monahan claimed it had “nothing to do” with the plan to clear the park.
Speaking to the House Judiciary Committee, Barr said that there was a plan in place to move the perimeter further out, but that the plan was delayed because, much to his frustration, units were very slow in getting into place and the fencing hadn’t been delivered.
“This was something conceived of long before and didn’t turn on the nature of the crowd, although I would say the crowd was very unruly,” Barr said.
“To say that this had to do with the photo-op ... I don’t mean to analogize this to a military operation, but it’s akin to saying that we invaded the Philippines in World War II so that Douglas MacArthur could walk through the surf on the beach,” Barr said. “One follows the other, but we did not invade the Philippines so that Douglas MacArthur could walk to the beach.”
At the very least, Barr and Monahan’s testimony indicates that the June 1 government operation against protesters was poorly planned. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) questioned why park police didn’t wait approximately 40 minutes until a 7 p.m. curfew took effect in order to clear the park.
“It makes no sense,” he said. “If I had acted this way when I was in the Marine Corps, I probably would have been busted down a couple of [ranks].”
Monahan and Barr’s testimony was contradicted Tuesday by that of D.C. National Guard Maj. Adam DeMarco, a U.S. combat veteran and the liaison for the D.C. National Guard and the Park Police during the June 1 operation. DeMarco told the House Natural Resources Committee that the police action came shortly after Barr spoke with police leaders on site. At no point did he feel threatened by the protesters, he said.
“The events I witnessed at Lafayette Square on the evening of June 1 were deeply disturbing to me and fellow National Guardsmen,” DeMarco said. “From my observation, those demonstrators ― our fellow American citizens ― were engaged in the peaceful expression of their First Amendment rights. Yet they were subjected to an unprovoked escalation and excessive use of force.”
Barr, seeking to undermine DeMarco, pointed out during his House Judiciary Committee testimony that DeMarco ran for Congress in Maryland in 2018. “I don’t remember Captain DeMarco ― who was the same Captain DeMarco who ran as a Democratic candidate for Congress in Maryland ― even being close to the discussions as to what was going on,” Barr said. “The fact is that the movement was not geared to the behavior of that particular crowd, it was geared to the fact that we were moving the perimeter so we could put a fence on H Street.”
Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee painted Tuesday’s hearing as part of a Democratic attack on police forces around the country. Democrats argued that June 1 was a precursor of the Trump administration’s expanding authoritarian federal presence in other cities in recent weeks.
“Lafayette Square was a test run for an illegal and ongoing crackdown by the Trump administration that is being inflicted on cities across this country and attempts to escalate those confrontations,” Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said Tuesday. “Rather than deal with and admit what did occur on June 1 was wrong, the administration is doubling down on its response to unarmed civilians in cities like Portland, [Oregon].”