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It Was Barr Who Ordered Protesters Removed Before Trump's Walk to Church

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It Was Barr Who Ordered Protesters Removed Before Trump's Walk to Church

2020-06-03 17:32:37

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: William Barr (Image source: Public domain)

Attorney General William Barr is finding himself in yet more trouble. While it's been questioned whether he is really representing the president or representing the public, nothing ever seems to change, as he continues to act in ways beneficial to the president.

After Donald Trump's speech on Monday night, what followed was an embarrassing display at St. John's Episcopal Church, alongside a handful of aides and advisers. Before the speech, peaceful protesters were blasted with tear gas and plastic bullets. 

There's been an effort to point fingers on whose idea it was to clear the streets and whose idea it was to visit the church. It really shouldn't be a surprise that those fingers are landing once again on Barr in this effort to escalate Trump's image.

A Justice Department official said Barr ordered law enforcement officials to clear the streets before Trump's speech. Trump was trying to show how forceful he and his government could be after he was embarrassed by news stories that he'd been hiding in an underground bunker during the protests that have sometimes become violent. 

Washington, D.C. officials said on Tuesday that the White House wanted to take control of the city's police force to handle the protesters. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) says she rejected that request. Yet, even on Tuesday evening, National Guard vehicles were infiltrating the downtown area, and officers from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Park Police, were seen throughout.

Furious how the protests were making him look, Trump told senior advisers on Monday they had to show how they could control the area around the White House, according to two people familiar with his request. He said if they didn't do anything it would show the rest of the country that they were weak. 

Despite being slammed since Monday evening for this embarrassing show, Trump tweeted on Tuesday, "D.C. had no problems last night. Many arrests. Great job done by all. Overwhelming force. Domination." While he was tweeting this, presumptive Democratic nominee former Vice President Joe Biden was addressing the nation, wanting to heal the country.

Local leaders and congressional Democrats denounced the way Trump threw his powers around on Monday. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) compared his actions to that of a dictator. A collection of Democratic House committee chairman are demanding testimony and documents about the decision to hit the crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets. 

Not that all this effort did anything other than embarrass those involved. When curfew arrived Tuesday evening, there were once again several thousand people near Lafayette Square. They faced a line of law enforcement officials and chanted "Hands up! Don't shoot!"

In all, officers on Monday evening used smoke canisters, pepper balls, riot shields, batons, and officers on horseback to move the crowd. A group of protesters with their hands up was rushed by police. Some were struck by rubber bullets while the crowd ran, coughing from the smoke. 

Secret Sevice officers surrounded the area, creating a protective buffer for Trump as he delivered his speech, then walked to the church.

The administration has had conflicting stories of why a peaceful protest was met with such force. They reinforced the idea it was separate from Trump's church visit. 

The White House says the crowd was dispersed because of the curfew, but District police hadn't requested that help. The Park Police said officers were responding after protesters began throwing objects. Some administration officials said it was part of a previously-planned effort to extend the perimeter. Two federal law enforcement officials said authorities decided late Sunday/early Monday to broaden the perimeter further and that Barr was included in the discussions.

The Justice Department official said the plan was to be carried out the next afternoon. But when Barr looked at the area, he was surprised it hadn't been done yet and chatted with law enforcement officials. 

"He conferred with them to check on the status and basically said, 'This needs to be done. Get it done,' " according to the DOJ official. Police then enacted the plan.

City officials said they weren't involved with any decision to use force, with Browser calling it "shameful." The question is, does that shame land with Barr for being the ultimate individual to give the go-ahead? 

At a Tuesday news conference, she said, "I didn't see any provocation that would warrant the deployment of munitions, and especially for the purpose of moving the president across the street."

D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) said in a statement that the District was "now reckoning with an unhinged president responding to nonviolent demonstration with war-like tactics." 

Arlington County officials sent officers after responding to a request from the Park Police. They found themselves confronting protesters and hadn't expected to.

"We were being used. ... We had been asked to do something that turned out to be a political stunt," said County Manager Mark Schwartz. 

Defense officials claim the National Guard was not in on the decision to clear the crowd and didn't take part in firing rubber bullets or tear gas.

A DOJ spokeswoman said on Monday Trump had directed Barr to personally "lead" the response to the protest. Less than an hour before the police cleared the area, Barr was on camera with officials at the scene, including White House deputy chief of staff Tony Ornato. 

It was Ornato who discussed a possible visit to St. John's Church with Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner. Meadows said the idea was suggested by Kushner's wife, Ivanka Trump, according to two administration officials.

There was also talk about using the Insurrection Act, as has been widely reported, but Barr and others were against it. 

Ornato worked with the Secret Service to arrange for Trump to appear at the church, and they in turn alerted other law enforcement agencies that they would need help to clear the area for the president's safety.

Officers and agents from the Secret Service's civil disturbance unit stood by during the confrontation with protesters and helped secure the streets. Trump said later that the Secret Service was not "thrilled" about him visiting the church. 

It's not known when Barr found out about the church plans. When he ordered the crowd to be pushed back, according to the DOJ officials, the attorney general "assumed that any resistance from the protesters of being moved would be met with typical crowd-control measures." He had been told some protesters were passing rocks and that a bottle had been thrown.

The official defended Barr's decision, saying, "This plan was happening, regardless of any plans of the president." 

A senior administration official said Trump and other officials wanted the perimeter pushed back, but "we weren't saying to push it back just so he could go to the church," adding, "That was not the reason it was pushed back."  The goal was to spread protesters across the city instead of just in front of the White House.

"Usually officers hold a line and won't move forward unless there is provocation," said a former Secret Service agent. "The officers give constant warnings and communicate clearly with the crowd. But here it seems like there is some time pressure: they were acting like a bomb is about to go off." 

The question in many people's minds is, was it because of Barr that they had the impression they needed to react like a bomb was about to go off.

It's still unclear how much part he played in all this, but Barr was definitely involved, just like he seems to be every time Trump wants something done that involves law enforcement or a court of law.

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