During the nearly two weeks since authorities charged at peaceful protesters to push them from D.C. streets — about 30 minutes before President Trump walked through the area for a photo op — his aides, the attorney general and federal law enforcement officials have sought to shield the president from political fallout with a simple defense: One scene, they say, had nothing to do with the other.
The notion that the street-clearing offensive around Lafayette Square was already planned, and separate from Trump’s decision to visit a nearby church, has emerged as the administration’s central explanation for scenes of federal officers shoving protesters with shields and firing pepper balls, chemical grenades and smoke bombs at retreating crowds on June 1.
“This was not an operation to respond to that particular crowd. It was an operation to move the perimeter one block,” Attorney General William P. Barr told CBS News last week.
However, the accounts of more than a half-dozen officials from federal law enforcement, D.C. public safety agencies and the National Guard who were familiar with planning for protests outside the White House that day challenge that explanation. The officials told The Washington Post they had no warning that U.S. Park Police, the agency that commanded the operation, planned to move the perimeter — and protesters — before a 7 p.m. citywide curfew, or that force would be used.
Among them is D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham, who said that while there had been discussions about possibly pushing the perimeter farther outward from the White House, there was not a confirmed time to do so. He noted that authorities did not actually secure the area with fencing until hours after protesters were cleared.
“When they extended the perimeter, it was overnight,” he said.
Newsham said that his agency, which did not take part in the Lafayette Square operation, learned via police communications that force was going to be used to clear the protesters just moments after he and other officials were told that Trump would be walking to the church.
“We heard that there was going to be an unscheduled presidential movement,” Newsham said. “Just a few minutes later, our teams on the ground learned [chemical] munitions were going to be used. The munitions were deployed minutes later.”
Another D.C. public safety official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the operation, said it was as if the Park Police plan to move the perimeter had been “hurried up” around the time the president decided to walk to the church. The clearing of the area began just after 6:30 p.m., and Trump left the White House for the church about 7:02 p.m.