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 on June 1, 2020, so a contractor could get started installing new fencing.
The demonstrators were protesting the death of George Floyd days after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck and pinned him to the ground for about 9½ minutes. A half-hour after the Washington protesters were forced from the area of the White House with pepper pellets and flash-bangs, Trump walked across Lafayette Park 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.
Interior Department officials said they found no evidence that the Park Police cleared the square for the photo opportunity.
"If we had found that type of evidence," Greenblatt said, "we would not hesitate in presenting that, and saying that was influencing the Park Police's decision-making to clear the park. Just so you know, if we had found that, if we had seen that type of evidence, we would absolutely have reported that, without a doubt."
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 one 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 [U.S. Park Police] 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 at the scene failed to effectively communicate with one another 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 demonstrators 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 in 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, 2020, a contingent from the Bureau of Prisons arrived at the scene late, didn't receive a full briefing and used pepper pellets on protesters "contrary to the [U.S. Park Police] incident commander's instructions."
The conclusions deny any political influence on decisions and cite confusion for any missteps.
Lafayette Park, the Washington nexus of 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's decision-making and its complicated interactions with various law enforcement entities, including the Secret Service and the Metropolitan Police Department.
The report points out that "the [U.S. Park Police] and the Secret Service did not use a shared radio channel to communicate" and says 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 tear gas near the corner of 17th and H streets.
In the aftermath of that day, the Park Police repeatedly insisted that its officers never used tear gas, while the Police Department insisted that its officers were not involved in clearing protesters away from the church.
The Metropolitan Police Department acknowledged Tuesday that it did use tear gas as the protesters moved toward officers, though they were not involved in the initial push away from the park. Police spokeswoman Kristen Metzger issued a statement that said:
"On June 1, 2020, a number of individuals in the area of 17th and H Streets NW began throwing multiple objects at Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers. This included an incendiary device attack that seriously burned and scarred the limb of an MPD officer. In response to these assaultive actions, MPD deployed crowd control tools that included tear gas in an effort to stop the riotous behavior and protect both officers and others in the area. As was stated previously, MPD was not involved in the movement of the President from Lafayette Square to St. John's church on June 1, 2020."
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."
The report says that commanders at the scene "did not believe protesters would comply with the Mayor's June 1 curfew order or that waiting would necessarily reduce unrest."
Information for this article was contributed by Ashraf Khalil of The Associated Press and Tom Jackman of The Washington Post.