Jun 9, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Watchdog: Police did not clear Lafayette Park last year for Trump photo-op

Photo of Donald Trump holding up a black Bible next to a St. John's Church sign
Former President Trump holds up a Bible in front of St. John's Episcopal Church after walking across Lafayette Park from the White House on June 1, 2020. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. Park Police (USPP) and assisting law enforcement did not clear peaceful protesters from outside the White House last year so then-President Trump could pose for a photo in front of a nearby church, according to a government watchdog report released Wednesday.

Why it matters: The move was planned several hours before USPP knew of Trump's visit, but widespread failure to coordinate across seven law enforcement agencies contributed to "confusion" and the unauthorized use of chemical irritants on Black Lives Matter protesters, the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General found.

  • Evidence shows the USPP moved to clear the park last summer to allow a contractor to safely install antiscale fencing, per the report.
  • Lawmakers had accused police of clearing the crowd to enable Trump's photo-op. Protesters had been demonstrating against the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people.

What they're saying: "The evidence we obtained did not support a finding that the USPP cleared the park to allow the president to survey the damage and walk to St. John’s Church,” the report said.

  • "[W]e found that the USPP does not have a detailed dispersal warning policy applicable to operations like the one that occurred on June 1 and that this may have led to the ineffective warnings issued to the crowd that day," the report states.
  • The USPP's three dispersal warnings through a sound amplifying long-range acoustic device did not reach all protesters. Some officers began dispersing protesters before the USPP issued its final warning.
    • "Multiple officers told us they either did not hear the warnings or could not clearly hear the information conveyed in the warnings. One USPP officer told us that given the size and noise level of the crowd, he believed it was unlikely that all protesters could hear the warnings."
  • The USPP and Secret Service also did not use a shared radio to communicate, while the USPP primarily relied on oral communication to convey information to other law enforcement agencies.
    • "These weaknesses in communication and coordination may have contributed to confusion during the operation and the use of tactics that appeared inconsistent with the incident commander’s operational plan, which included oral instructions not to use CS gas" or tear gas.
  • "Video obtained by the USPP showed [Metropolitan Police Department] officers dispersing what appeared to be CS gas on" protesters, the report said. It added that USPP officers were "surprised" by the presence of CS gas since it was not authorized for use in the clearing of the park.
  • The report also confirmed that pepper balls were used on protesters.

Trump praised the findings through his office shortly after the report was released. "Thank you to the Department of the Interior Inspector General for Completely and Totally exonerating me in the clearing of Lafayette Park!" he said, per ABC News.

Worth noting: The report doesn't address allegations of use-of-force incidents, as those are the subject of separate inquiries and ongoing lawsuits.

The big picture: At the time, the USPP defended its actions, saying that the agency is committed to "peaceful expression" of First Amendment rights but "cannot tolerate violence to citizens or officers or damage to our nation’s resources that we are entrusted to protect."

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details from the inspector general's report.

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